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NYK101 with The Professor: Midterms — Grading the bench

They don’t start, but they often get things rolling.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week I posted the Knick starters’ midterm grades. Today let’s look at the Knicks’ bench. A note on the grading criteria: I’m mostly grading players according to their performance versus their preseason expectations. People’s personal lives are often just that — personal — so I’m not penalizing someone for an injury they couldn’t avoid; that’s why Mitchell Robinson earned an A- despite missing more than a quarter of the season with a fractured hand. Feel free to appeal any marks in the comments below (all stats from before Thursday’s game in Milwaukee).

Immanuel Quickley = A

The night of the 2020 draft, I wrote my annual real-time draft diary, this time at The Strickland. At 10:35 p.m. the Knicks selected Quickley. My instant reaction:

“At 25, the Knicks pick Immanuel Quickley, who is (checks notes) not a point guard. I hear he can shoot, and defend, but he’s like 6-foot-3, so… yay?”

I was blind, but now I see.

I’d argue IQ is the most pleasantly surprising Knicks’ rookie I’ve ever seen. Kristaps Porziņģis was the fourth overall pick in 2015; he may have bloomed earlier than many thought, but it’s not like he wasn’t highly regarded. Channing Frye scored 20+ seven times his first month in the league and only three times the rest of the season. Quickley’s quality queued early in the preseason and never quit; after a hip pointer in the opener at Indiana cost him four games, he’s been a force for good ever since.

Quickley leads the team in points, 3-point attempts and free throw attempts per 36, shooting 38% from deep and 94% at the line. Though he only averages about 19 minutes a game, IQ’s third on the Knicks in games of 20+ points (Randle 27, RJ Barrett 15, Quickley 7, Elfrid Payton 6, Alec Burks 3, Austin Rivers 2, Reggie Bullock 1).

Positionless basketball’s a strange fruit salad. Centers who can’t post but will take a half-dozen 3s. Two-guards playing power forward. Half the league has a unicorn on their roster. Is Quickley an off-guard? A point guard? A Sixth Man? A starter? A fad? A god? Dunno. At his best he reminds of Barrett at his best — he’s a basketball player. A good one. Early days, but Quickley is on pace for All-Rookie First Team and the best season by a Knicks’ rookie guard since Rod Strickland.

Nerlens Noel = A

A month ago, the Knicks visited Washington having lost seven of 10 games. When Mitchell Robinson fractured his hand that night, I wondered if the season was about to go awry. Noel had been a nice-looking bench big, but Robinson is one of the league’s most exquisite and exciting defenders. How would the player and the team respond? Get thee behind me, doubts.

With Noel playing over 32 minutes a game, the Knicks have won seven of 10. He’s averaged 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals in that stretch, shooting 71% from the field; he’s even made 77% of his free throws. Noel brings some dimensions Mitch doesn’t.

Thankfully, he’s a fair approximation of some of Robinson’s most popular dimensions.

The best defense is a good defense.

Noel’s $5M salary this year is the highest of his career. He’ll be a free agent this summer and may well earn himself another raise. Remember the Kurt Thomas Game? We’re witnessing the Nerlens Noel Month. If the Knicks make the playoffs, it likely won’t be by more than a game or two. Noel hasn’t just kept the team from hemorrhaging in Mitch’s absence — the patient’s looking pretty spry.

Derrick Rose = A-

In Rose’s 10 games after returning to New York, the Knicks are 7-3. Rose has already been assigned two different roles and performed each admirably. Initially a scoring spark off the bench, Rose averaged 11 points and four assists in 21 minutes a game. Outside of back-to-back stinkers against Orlando and Minnesota, he shot 47% from the field and scored 13.6. That’s now a pretty small (five-game) sample size. Pssst. I got a smaller one. Wanna see?

In three games starting in place of Payton and The Case of the Hamstrung Hamstring, Rose averaged 33 minutes, 16.3 points and 7.3 assists, shooting 53% from the field. After going 5-of-14 from deep as a reserve, he’s 5-of-8 as a starter. Most praise concerning the Knicks is directed at Julius Randle, Barrett, and Quickley. Don’t overlook the contributions of Noel and Rose.

Alec Burks = B-

Burks has made at least three 3-pointers in a third of his games this year and at least two 3s in half of them; he’s tied with Randle for the most 3s per game. They’re the only Knicks shooting better than 40% from distance who’ve played more than 10 games for New York this season. Burks has dished 3+ assists eight times but only committed that many turnovers twice. He’s okay, you know?

Imagine you’re in a bar and someone bumps into you pretty rudely. They don’t apologize. Don’t acknowledge your existence. They just keep walking. You’ve had a lousy day and this is your breaking point: you yell out something you know will start a fight. They turn around and only then do you realize it’s Mike Tyson. Now imagine the same thing happening, only when Tyson turns he’s accompanied by two more Mike Tysons — one from 1996, the other 1986. Now imagine a year from now Burks is still a Knick, but so are Bradley Beal and Evan Fournier. If Burks were a three-point luxury rather than a lifeline, the Knicks would be a bad man. As of now, they and he are getting by good enough.

Obi Toppin = C+

This grade is more reflective of the role the Knicks have given Toppin than a critique of the player himself. The eighth pick in the draft is currently 25th among all rookies in minutes per game; Toppin’s played only half as many as Oklahoma City’s second-rounder Théo Maledon. After notching 24 minutes on opening night, Toppin has played 20+ only once since. The draft’s purported “most NBA-ready” player has not looked it. Not that he’s had much of a chance to explore the room. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily.

People learn differently. Certainly optimal learning differs. My favorite subject was music theory. Those classes are often taught using piano, which meant the lessons were in my mother tongue; if the teacher had used a clarinet or a cello, the most minor of translation issues could slow down the learning process. Toppin didn’t have a summer league or much of a training camp, and after his first regular-season game was out injured for two weeks. Nobody did, but that doesn’t mean everybody was impacted the same way. Remember: Obi has always been more the under-the-radar late-bloomer type, in high school (he was 6-foot-2 as a junior and didn’t play varsity till his senior year) and college (he was an academic redshirt his first year at Dayton after receiving zero Division I scholarship offers and playing a year at a prep school).

That’s why his disappointing numbers aren’t really a disappointment, like only scoring double-figures three times or having yet to corral six rebounds in a game; for all the glimpses of passing acumen, Toppin’s topped two assists but once. You wanna gripe about opportunity? That’s cool. Look at his minutes in the Knicks’ biggest blowouts this year:

  • On January 17th the Knicks beat the Celtics by 30. Toppin played 17 minutes.
  • On January 29th the Knicks beat the Cavaliers by 21. Toppin played 13 minutes.
  • On February 12th the Knicks beat the Wizards by 18. Toppin played 16 minutes.
  • The next day the Knicks beat the Rockets by 22. Toppin played 15 minutes.
  • On February 17th the Knicks lost by 18 in Orlando. Toppin played 12 minutes.
  • On February 25th the Knicks beat the Kings by 19. Toppin played 17 minutes.
  • On February 28th the Knicks beat the Pistons by 19. Toppin played 19 minutes.
  • On March 2nd the Knicks lost to the Spurs by 26. Toppin played 26 minutes.

That doesn’t look right, does it? But you don’t hire Tom Thibodeau because he magnetically attracts ping-pong balls. Thibs’ m.o. is to wring as many wins as possible from the dish sponge of the season and he is maniacal about that — even late in blowouts the starters are often still out there. Toppin’s opportunities are naturally limited because he plays the same position as the Knicks’ best player, an All-Star who happens to be having one of the great seasons in franchise history. The Knicks are just a game over .500 with Randle reaching a new level and leading the league in minutes played. Nobody saw that coming in November when the team drafted Obi.

As his path to the pros has shown, Toppin is obviously a proud competitor and a quick study. Spending time seeing Randle’s success from the sidelines can be beneficial for a rookie who had relatively no time to prepare for and adjust to the speed and strength of the league. I don’t think Toppin’s path to NBA success will involve floating around the three-point line. That’s not the role you draft him for, but he’s getting (light) reps on a competitive team that’s balancing educating him with experimenting with him. I think there’s more to come with Toppin. I don’t think this is the season we’ll see it.

Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Taj Gibson = INC.

Knox has played fewer minutes than Austin Rivers. Ntilikina and Gibson combined have played less than Knox. I don’t think it’s fair to assess players who’ve played so little. So far there are encouraging signs from all three. Will any of them get the chance for more run? That’s hard to say.

Gibson was deputized after Robinson’s hand injury and has provided stable if unspectacular play as the backup 5. His role is fairly limited and he’s well-acquainted with most of his co-workers, ironically most familiar with the two who weren’t Knicks last year when he was: Thibodeau and Rose. There’s still no ETA for Mitch’s return, so Taj will remain in the rotation for the foreseeable future. Whether the Knicks retain him long-term may depend on the availability of a roster spot, which may come down to the other two incompletes.

Nobody knew what Knox would blossom into when the Knicks drafted him nearly three years ago. He’s still young, just 21, but so far he looks most comfortable as a stretch-four corner-three specialist. Look at his progression over the years:

From 2018-19 through 26 games this year, the percentage of Knox’s shots that were 3-point attempts climbed from 40% to 50% to 60%. His true shooting percentage was 47% his first two years, then rose to 53% this season due entirely to his improvement from behind the arc, where he’s hit a career-high 39%.

And yet he hasn’t played in 11 of New York’s last 18 games, and he hasn’t seen 20+ minutes of action in almost two months. Given Randle’s preeminence, it would seem there’s only room for one backup at the 4 spot. It’s tempting to imagine that coming down to Knox, the ninth pick in 2018, versus Toppin, the eighth pick in 2020. The truth is Thibodeau doesn’t seem enamored with either.

Ntilikina is like a beautiful rash that won’t go away and you’re not even sure anymore why you’d live without it. After missing nearly two months between COVID protocol and injury, Frank’s played in the Knicks’ last five games, during which time they’re 4-1. He’s playing his usual terrific defense and unselfish offense, with a couple notable twists: he’s taking more shots when he’s open than he used to, and he’s had much more success with the three-point shot. In 78 games Ntilikina’s rookie season, he made three or more 3s only once. His second and third seasons (43 and 57 games) he did so three times. This year in just nine games he’s already done it three times.

We keep dreaming of Frank landing a stable spot in the Knick rotation. Thibodeau has said he doesn’t like playing more than 10 players, so I don’t know what the returns of Mitch, Rose and Elfrid Payton will mean for our favorite and longest-tenured Knick. I think he deserves a place here. I hope the Knicks feel the same, and that that place is on the court rather than off.

Austin Rivers = W (withdrawn from the class)

We’ll always have the speech.