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The incremental improvement of Kevin Knox

The former 9th overall pick looks better than last year. It’s a start.

2020-21 New York Knicks Content Day
This season has featured 100% more smiles from Kevin Knox. Take that for data.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Last year’s sophomore slump was so significant that many lost faith in Kevin Knox, but he’s carved out a role this season thanks to some three-point sharpshooting, which, combined with other incremental improvements, suggest a solid rotation piece who still has untapped potential.

The 21-year-old, now 15 games into his third NBA season, isn’t putting up eye-popping stats (7.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 20.5 minutes per contest), but he’s the perfect candidate for an advanced analysis. This year, Knox is playing for a head coach who seems to have an actual plan in place to help the former Kentucky Wildcat progress. That’s a stark difference to what Knox experienced in his first two seasons in the league.

In year one, David Fizdale basically gave the then-19-year-old free reign, starting Knox 57 times in 75 total games and enabling him to launch more than 12 shots each night (double the amount of field goals he’s attempting per game this season). Unsurprisingly, being tossed to the wolves resulted in Knox looking like a promising player with serious faults who needed to improve across the board. As a rookie, Knox averaged almost 13 points on 37% from the field and 34% from three, plus 4.5 rebounds, in nearly 29 minutes per game.

In year two, free agent Marcus Morris was gifted the starting small forward job, with Fizdale tossing Knox on the bench and, seemingly, forgetting about him. Even after Fizdale was fired and Morris was traded, Mike Miller continued to give Knox meager playing time, opting instead to give Reggie Bullock and Maurice Harkless a mighty amount of minutes at the three. Ultimately, Knox played in 65 total games as a sophomore, starting only four times and regressing significantly. Last season, he posted 6.4 points on 36% shooting and 33% from deep, plus 2.8 rebounds, in 18 minutes a game.

In year three, under Tom Thibodeau and familiar faces like former Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne, Knox finally has people focused on putting him in the best possible position.

For now, that position is mostly the corner. As of Tuesday morning, Knox was second in the NBA in corner threes among players who have taken at least 20 such shots (15-26, 57.7%), behind only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers (13-21, 61.9%). Last season, Knox finished 13-51 on corner threes (25.5%). As a rookie, he was 30-80 from the corner (37.5%). Thus, he’s on pace to shoot more corner threes while hitting a higher percentage than ever before.

His overall three-point percentage (41.8%) is third best on the team, and best if you only count guys who have taken more than 15 treys (Alec Burks and Frank Ntilikina are each ahead of him, but they’ve taken 15 and 9 total threes, respectively). In terms of the NBA at large, Knox is shooting better from deep than guys like Doug McDermott, Gordon Hayward and Tim Hardaway Jr., to name a few.

Importantly, Knox appears to be recognizing that it’s in his best interest to play within the game plan. He still tries to get buckets on fast breaks, and if the shot clock is winding down he’s liable to launch an ill-advised midrange jumper, but Knox mostly tries to seize on opportunities that are within his defined wheelhouse.

In addition to taking more of the right shots, Knox is taking less of the wrong shots. As a rookie, Knox attempted at least 10 shots in 52 of 75 total games played, or 69% of the time. As a sophomore, he played far less minutes, and therefore didn’t have the chance to take as many shots. Still, he took at least 9 shot attempts in 13 of the 65 games he played in, or 20% of the time. And some of those performances were stinkers. Included within those 13 games are nights where Knox shot 2-10, 1-9 and 3-10, to name a few.

This season, he has taken 10 or more shots only twice in 15 games (13% of the time). Both were blowout losses, meaning the reason he put up so many shots was because the Knicks were trying desperately to shoot themselves back into the game.

Meanwhile, Knox is shooting a career best 80% from the free throw line, after rookie and sophomore seasons in which he shot 71% and 65% from the stripe, respectively. He’s taking less free throws per game than prior seasons, which is another indicator that, instead of driving wildly to the lane, Knox is patiently waiting for the team’s distributors to get him the ball in his spots.

Not only is Knox playing a more efficient style of offense, he’s hustling. Proof of that can be seen on the margins. For instance, he’s tied for first on the Knicks with 6 defensive loose balls recovered this year, and tied for fourth on the team in overall loose balls recovered. Last year, Knox recovered 6 defensive loose balls and 23 total loose balls for the year, good for 12th and tied for 9th on the team, respectively.

Not that he’s some crazy defensive menace, but, much like the rest of the team, Knox has displayed clear improvement on that side of the ball. His defensive rating (108 exactly) is the best of his young career, and while it’s only slightly better than last year (108.6), it’s significantly better than his rookie season (115). The defensive rating stat estimates the points a player allows per 100 possessions, so lower numbers are better. He has contributed to an improved team defense: the Knicks at large are ranked fifth in the NBA in defensive rating. They finished last season 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating.

Knox isn’t about to make the All-Star team, nor does he warrant consideration for Most Improved Player. But he’s doing more with less playing time and shot attempts. And even though it feels like he’s been here awhile, Knox won’t turn 22 until August. He’s actually the third-youngest player on the team (only Barrett and Quickley are younger).

It’s okay that he’s taking some time to develop. If Knox can continue to incrementally improve his game, he has the chance to be a solid rotation piece for years to come. And who knows, maybe one day he’ll be more than merely an above-average floor spacer.