The following article is from new P&T contributor Lee Escobedo.
It’s time to bust out your gaudiest orange-and-blue gear, set up your shrine and thank the basketball gods the Knicks are back. Not only does the 2021 preseason commence Tuesday, but the Knicks are out of the hypothetical hell they have wasted away in for nearly the last 20 years.
Summer League was a preview of things to come, showcasing New York’s depth at nearly every position with young, two-way talent. As preseason approaches, I have highlighted five players to keep an eye on over the next four exhibition games. Coach Tom Thibodeau is sure to lean on the vets who pulled the cart last year, but he will also want to know what he has in reserve. These games will be fertile ground for lineup experimentation and Gladiator-style positional battles to shore up the rotation Thibs will implement come regular season.
Excluding the players expected to make the starting five and the new veteran additions, the players we highlighted represent, on different levels, make-or-break scenarios. Not all are dire, but some — like Kevin Knox’s situation — should be. The hope for anyone donning a Knicks jersey is blue and orange skies. But any Knick fan who has given their blood, sweat and tears over the years can reference all too well the boom-and-bust mythologies behind Michael Sweetney, Jordan Hill and Landry Fields.
Anyway, these are the 2021-2022 Knicks to watch out for starting this week.
Kevin Knox: Enough is enough. Fourth-year player Kevin Knox has failed to live up to the status as a lottery selection under three head coaches. The 12.8 PPG he averaged his rookie year is impressive as an isolated statistic, but when parlayed within a 37.0 FG% and 34.3 3P%, you see Knox was filling a vacuum during a season where Kristaps Porzingis was out due with an ACL injury and eventually traded. For a 6’7” wing with a good build and above-average athleticism, a career 3.2 RPG average might be the most indicative stat concerning the evidence around Knox as a low-motor player.
Since Thibs has taken over, he has placed a premium on character and effort. With Knox’s qualifying offer on the table next summer, this season will be the final audition for an extended stay with the team. He needs to keep up his increased three point percentage around the 39.3% he shot last year, and increase the volume when he’s on the court. By doing so, he can provide spacing around the bench players he is sure to be playing alongside: Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, both non-shooting bigs who could benefit from Knox’s ability to space the floor. As it was last year, Thibs will have Knox on a short leash, and will give no quarter if the motor, rebounding, or defensive awareness slips in the limited playing time given to him.
Jericho Sims: With starter Mitchell Robsinon out for at least the start of preseason, rookie Jericho Sims should see action backing up Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson. This will allow the coaching staff to get a look at Sims’ ability to contribute against NBA vets, a tougher crew than the rookies and second-year players he faced in Summer League. Sims imposed his athletic ability and bully ball instincts in Summer League action, rattling rims with lob catches for a 81 FG% in five games played. Sims was better than expected at mitigating fouls, averaging around 3.4 a game, while providing a block a game in 28 minutes per. Like most bigs coming into the league his free-throw percentage is a concern at 58 %. The Knicks coaching staff has had success improving poor free-throw shooters like RJ Barrett, so the concern is tempered, but it seems difficult to imagine Sims having trouble smashing defenders under the rim when he goes up for dunks. Sims going to the line for one free throw instead of two after an and-one seems very likely.
Obi Toppin: Before the season, Obi Toppin seemed like a lock for at least a top-three placing for the Rookie of the Year award. The fact that he finished the season with a 4.1 PPG average would have been hard to swallow...if the rest of the Knicks’ season hadn’t been such a delight, that is. Toppin’s face-up game and confidence were challenged on the big stage. Highlights of Toppin at Dayton showed a player impossible to guard when moving downhill, allowing for his elite athleticism and vertical explosiveness to outpace defenders trying to back-peddle into positioning. But acute observers were more concerned with Toppin’s ability to score in isolation and improve his handle enough to get by traditional, slow=footed NBA fours and fives. This proved to be Toppin’s foil, where a subsidized role kept him limited in his ability to gain rhythm. He also repeatedly got locked up by older veterans coming off the bench who entered in alongside him in substitutions.
In Summer League, however, Toppin came to ball. He showed an increased fortitude to break down double-teams as well as a much improved handle, allowing him to dribble through traps and get past his man for lay-ups and pull-up jumpers. The three-point shot is still suspect, though he did improve his rookie-year three-point average of 30.6% to 34.3% in Vegas. The more dexterity Toppin can show positionally, the more allowance Thibs will have for minutes and usage in his playing time. It’s not hard to look at the growth Toppin showed in a small sample size in Vegas and see the promise of his high draft standing. But he must continue to commit to defense and lean on his vets for encouragement. Guys like Gibson and Noel can lecture for days on the nuances of the game.
Immanuel Quickley - While Thibs is known to have an aversion to load management, it would be healthy for him to exercise restraint on playing Derrick Rose during pre-season. Kemba Walker could use some minutes to develop a rapport with his new teammates, but Rose did most of the heavy lifting during last year’s disappointing elimination to the Hawks. Enter Immanuel Quickley. We could see Thibs employ Quickley at the point again, as the Knicks did in Summer League, getting the young guard reps at running the team. Quickley is an adept passer, but needs to gain experience in the pick-and-roll, especially alongside bigs he will see playing time with, like Toppin, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.
We know IQ can shoot (38.9% from three last season), and he has a well-developed floater game he fearlessly displayed last season. But this year more attempts at the rim and more mid-range jumpers. Once defenders run him off the three-point line, he has to show he has the ability to get to the rim and finish with a higher consistency than he did last year. So many of his floaters last year were so far out from the basket they could have been pull-up jumpers, creating a higher-percentage shot. In the four upcoming pre-season games, expect to see more of IQ at the point, an opportunity he must take advantage of if the Knicks want to manage the minutes of Rose and Walker, allowing for a more up-tempo group, consisting mostly of the young core, to take center stage with the second unit.
Miles McBride - It has been a long, long time since the Knicks had this much hope at the point guard position. McBride will be learning from two of the greatest modern PGs in Walker and Rose. And will have a guard guru in Johnnie Bryant whispering in his ear. But it will be up to the young bulldog to take his two-way game to the next level and give fans what we have been missing for up to 30 years: a home-grown stud at the point. Now, at this stage of McBride’s career, hopes like this drip with hyperbole. But the Knicks have never had a guard with Bob Huggins pedigree and gifted defensive chops. Where McBride needs work is more efficiency finishing around the basketball and awareness as a playmaker. But what is there already makes him special. The kid can flat out score on all three levels and appears to be extremely coachable. These are the same qualities that made Quickley a Thibs favorite his rookie year, plus Deuce is a much better defender. The kid can also flat-out shoot — as we saw in Vegas — not just off the catch, but pulling up in transition as well. He appears buried behind Walker and Rose at the moment, but neither of those guys is expected to play a full 82 games. If McBride can keep up the momentum from Summer League, he could end up being the best pick the Knicks made in the 2021 draft, and perhaps the best prospect at point guard the Knicks have had in decades.