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The 2021 Knicks draft, the 1996 Knicks draft & the importance of being minimally competent

Some mistakes are too tempting not to repeat. This is not one of them.

Walter McCarty Kentu

In seventysomething hours, the 2021 NBA Draft will begin. By the end of the night the Knicks may have made multiple 1st-round picks, including three of the top 32 selections. They could end up adding four rookies, or having traded up to make a higher pick than they currently hold. The team needs to hit on one of these picks: despite picking 4th in 2015, 8th in 2017, 9th in 2018, 3rd in 2019 and 8th a year ago, the only bona fide starter-level player the Knicks have to show for themselves after five lotteries has been RJ Barrett.

The return on investment from the Kristaps Porziņģis deal speeds from a trickle to a drip with the 21st pick Thursday. The Knicks have been linked with about ten different players with their two 1sts. History shows it may be less important for them to land on any one particular player than ensuring they do something positive with the picks, period. Everyone remembers Frank Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell or Frederic Weis over Ron Artest Metta World Peace Metta Sandiford Artest, but it’s not B over A that’s usually haunted the Knicks. It’s building something that’s working but missing out on the chance to keep the momentum going. That’s what happened in the middle of the 1990s and what put a cap on that era’s relative greatness.

In the 1996 draft the Knicks held three 1st-round picks: 18, 19 and 21. The 21st was their original pick; number 18 went from Detroit to San Antonio in the Dennis Rodman trade, then the Spurs shipped it to New York as part of the deal that sent Charles Smith to the Alamo. The 19th pick came courtesy of Miami as payment for poaching Pat Riley’s talents to South Beach. After winning 50+ games from 1992-1995, New York “stumbled” to a 47-35 record in ‘96. That year like this year, they entered the offseason with cap room and tons of draft capital. They used all three picks on three players who all played the same position: John Wallace, Walter McCarty and Dontae’ Jones. By training camp the next year those players were behind Charles Oakley and Larry Johnson on the depth chart. Smooth move, Ex-Lax.

Those three rookies would combine to play just 168 games with the Knicks and start only six times. Jones never played a minute in blue and orange; the draftee who did the most, Wallace, played fewer minutes in New York than Noah Vonleh, Allonzo Trier or Shane Larkin. I don’t know how many ways I can say it: the Knicks bombed the ‘96 draft. The failings weren’t just who they took, but who they didn’t. Could the Knicks have packaged their selections to move higher and take a stab at Kobe Bryant? Steve Nash? Predrag Stojaković? Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Jermaine O’Neal?

All those future stars went between 13th and 17th in the first round. Add any of them to the JVG Knicks and the late ‘90s become an entirely different NBA landscape. Case in point: in 1999 and 2000 the Knicks reached the NBA Finals and Eastern conference finals, respectively. The only player on either of those two rosters 25 or younger to play 1000+ minutes was Marcus Camby. The ‘96 draft could have resulted in the Knicks trading up for a future star or deepening their roster with cheap young talent to bridge the next period in franchise history. Remarkably, with three shots to do either they failed at both.

So here we stand in 2021. with the Knicks once again posting a winning season before an offseason that sees them flush with cap space and draft picks. A star would be great, but more than anything the Knicks need to come out of this draft with something that builds toward their future. They can’t come out with the next Dontae’ Jones and John Wallace, nor Kevin Knox or Frank Ntilikina 2.0.

Maybe that means drafting an older player with a higher floor, someone like Chris Duarte or Corey Kispert or Trey Murphy III. Maybe it means drafting the best talent regardless of fit; Usman Garuba, perhaps? Maybe it’s choosing a rim running shot blocker like Isaiah Jackson, knowing that frees you from Nerlens Noel and perhaps from a long-term commitment to Mitchell Robinson coming off a foot fracture. I dunno.

I just know when we look back on this draft in a couple years, how the Knicks did could point toward how the franchise’s trajectory looks the next few years, too. We still don’t know where this front office stands as far as its feelings on how close this team is to contending, on how much weight they place in Julius Randle’s playoff struggles, on what the timeline is for contending, etc. I suppose as long as they don’t draft three power forwards, that’s progress.