Imagine a Knick player with the rebounding percentage of Frank Ntilikina; the assist percentage of Mitchell Robinson; a block percentage below 1%, which is Reggie Bullock territory; a steal percentage that’s also sub-1%; win shares in the range of what Taj Gibson put up last year; and a defensive win share total between what Obi Toppin and Kevin Knox produced. Also imagine this Knick’s career playoff averages were one 3-point attempt per game, 0.3 2-pointers and zero free throws. Not exactly how you’d draw up a hero. And yet, this player not only existed, he was and remains a beloved former Knick.
To Steve Novak’s credit, the only Knick to play 1000+ minutes last year and finish with a higher on/off split than Novak’s New York average was Immanuel Quickley. Believe it or not, I did not open a Corey Kispert profile with a paragraph on Novak because I think all tallish white dudes are the same. Novak was an entirely one-dimensional player. Even his one dimension was one-dimensional, as almost any interruption of his standard process of catching and shooting would throw the whole process awry; we saw something similar happen with Reggie Bullock, especially when Atlanta defended him the way they did in the playoffs. If you remember Miami defending Novak in the 2012 playoffs, the Heat may as well have been on a power play: Novak could barely get a shot off and was a minus on the defensive end. Tom Thibodeau has said the Knicks are “looking for wings and guys who can shoot.” Can Kispert be a more well-rounded option at sniper?
There are reasons to think so. At 6’7”, 220 pounds, he has respectable size, enough to at least be a recognizable bipedal organism when teams try to punish him on switches. While comparison to two-way star Klay Thompson are ridiculous — there’s low-hanging fruit and then there’s fruit that fell to the ground, rotten and full of itself, and that’s what the Klay comps are — there are reasons the Gonzaga marksman is projected to go from the late lottery to the mid-1st round. Kispert’s size and college production are both similar to Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, who went 33rd overall in the 2015 draft. Harris is one of the best shooters in the league. Kispert’s films suggest he may be, too. This is a minute of shots that barely get net.
Incredible 32-point performance for Gonzaga sharpshooter Corey Kispert in a win over UVA. After knocking down 9-of-13 triples., Kispert is now shooting 52% from 3 and 79% from 2 on the season. Already knows how to play out of NBA-style actions. Shooting, size, feel. Plug & play. pic.twitter.com/qsI7jRqcuJ— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 27, 2020
But Kispert is not a one-dimensional scorer, much less a one-dimensional player. In Novak’s time in New York, 83% of his looks came from downtown. Last year Bullock took 71% of his shots from deep. Barely half of Kispert’s attempts were 3s, and a third of his field goal attempts came at the rim, a higher percentage than Marcus McBride, a combo guard, or Chris Duarte, a fellow wing. Kispert converted 75% of his looks at the rim, an elite number that speaks more to his wisdom in knowing when to attack rather than his athleticism. In that sense he’s closer to a Doug McDermott-type, a knockdown shooter who knows how to leverage that threat into timely cuts and easy two-pointers.
Corey Kispert is a smart, decisive off-ball player who shot 58.5% on 2s in 4 collegiate seasons and finished in the 73rd percentile or better around the rim in 3 of 4 years. pic.twitter.com/fXoTAhON8D— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) July 25, 2021
Rob Mahoney at The Ringer wrote a piece earlier this month about Khris Middleton and the value of a player who can score in the midrange. This excerpt, especially what Middleton has to say, helps explains why wings like Novak and Bullock, meaningful regular-season rotation players, can struggle in the postseason, and perhaps why Kispert would fare better:
Any conversation about midrange shooting is framed by the fact that the NBA’s 3-point revolution is already over, and the long ball won. The team that proportionally took the fewest 3s this season (the Washington Wizards) would have led the entire league in 3-point-shooting frequency as recently as 2014. Yet the more that the NBA style is saturated with 3-pointers and layups, the more valuable best-in-class creators in the midrange game become.
“If you can shoot a 3, guys these days really aren’t gonna let you get a 3 off,” says Middleton, a 41 percent shooter from deep this season. “They’re gonna try to force you downhill. And now, with the way that you see a lot of schemes and coaches and the way they play, they want 3s or layups. So the defender’s thinking mostly that you’re going to the rim. So you sell your drive as hard as you can, and if you can stop on balance, it’s basically a wide-open shot because the defender thinks you’re going to the rim the whole time.”
The midrange jumper isn’t a correction, then, but a counter; teams need to rely on the most efficient shots until they can’t—until systemic ideals crash into playoff realities. When that happens, a scorer as versatile as Middleton gives his team hope of a way through. It’s a quality that the Bucks, in their original designs for how they wanted to play, almost took for granted.
Like Duarte, Kispert is an older prospect — 22. On the plus side, what you may lose in upside you may make up in immediacy. He figures to be more plug-and-play than project, a welcome proposition after years watching Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox not pan out. With Bullock and Alec Burks both unrestricted free agents whose prices will be up from last season, drafting a fairly ready-made guard makes a lot of sense for a team that needs spacing for Julius Randle and RJ Barrett plus cap flexibility as they await the next marquee player with suitcases packed and stars in their eyes.
A little over a third of Kispert’s assists found teammates in transition. Slightly more than half his dimes last year were at the rim; nearly a third led to three-pointers. Kispert isn’t just a shooter. He can move without the ball, score inside the arc, find open teammates and hold his own defensively. He isn’t going to guard the opponent’s best perimeter scorer every night like Bullock did. But what he lacks on the defensive end he may make up for with his offensive versatility, and while he’s no stopper, he’s no joke, either. Last season for the Zags Kispert gave up just “0.52 points per isolation possession [81st percentile] and 0.69 points per post up possession [75th percentile].”
If draft rumors are to be believed, the Knicks tried to move up to Golden State’s spot at 14, perhaps to take Kispert, who is mocked right in that range. Maybe Oklahoma City would move 16 for 19 and 21. and the Knicks could feel better about landing their guy. Maybe the Warriors, as has been rumored, pick Duarte, and Kispert slips down to New York’s reach.
Over his first 27 career Major League playoff games, before his head, arms, chest and legs all exploded from PEDs, Barry Bonds had a career postseason average of .213. A player as good as any in his generation went 19 for his first 89. Why did that happen? Because the playoffs are hard. They’re a different competition altogether. When you’re left with the best of the best, some of what you take for granted in the regular season is no longer an option. Teams commit to taking away their opponents’ strengths. Kispert would never be the Knicks’ clean-up hitter — I don’t think there is one on the roster yet — but he knows his strengths and has a bit more size and athleticism than people usually associate with someone who looks like the NBA’s first shooter/surfer hybrid since Tom Tolbert.
Kispert is a solid .285 hitter. Some skills translate no matter the competition. If you have a good eye in baseball, that carries over to October. If you can shoot in the NBA, that translates from training camp to the Finals. You don’t have to land an All-Star to have a successful draft night. At this point the Knicks need depth — ideally inexpensive depth that will improve over time and/or appeal to other teams in future trades. Kispert may check all three boxes. If he pans out as a long-term piece, landing him in the mid- to late-1st round would be a big win for a team whose recent draft history is mixed at best.