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Knicks season in review, part II: The young core

They’re good!

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In this second part of a series on the Knicks’ 2021-22 season, Bootum examines the Knicks’ young core. Check out part I here.

What RJ Barrett can be continues to confound me, in what he actually is and will be, considering he doesn’t have one thing he’s consistently good at besides getting to the rim — where he doesn’t finish, but it’s clear that he’s no bust at this point. In the spirit of repeated debates, I will say his and Julius Randle’s treatment does remind me a bit of Kristaps Porziņģis and Carmelo Anthony, in how the rising golden child can do no wrong as the veteran, former star can do no right, despite having similar strengths and weaknesses.

The way fans were disappointed in Porziņģis as as much or even more of a selfish chucker diva than Melo reminds me of what we may get if Randle is ever discarded and RJ given the keys. Randle and RJ were both essentially tied for worst TS% for players to take 17+ FGA/G this season at 51%, while RJ offered even less in the passing department with just 3 assists to 2.2 turnovers. It’s kind of a miracle the Knicks’ offense was as good as it was.

The difference between them and next best in Dejounte Murray (who’s also a triple double machine and great defender) at 53% is about the difference between him and the next five guys. But Barrett did get up to 20 points a game to end the season at just 21 years old, and there’s almost certainly a good player within, whether or not you’re falling into the “future franchise star” or “number three/four option” camp in debates that are probably way more toxic than they have any right to be.

The exciting thing is that he’s not alone in the young core anymore and there’s less pressure squared solely on him.

Mitchell Robinson, for now at least, has solidified himself as a genuinely good starting center despite having another shaky start to the season and still having no oft-promised jumper. If anyone on the team remembers he’s a pretty good lob threat or if he actually adds something viable to his offensive game, the sky is still probably the limit for him. Hopefully, that’s still in New York rather than in Charlotte.

Another sadly still much-debated topic: Is Immanuel Quickley a point guard? I set out to answer it before the season and thought I made a pretty good case leaning yes, but more importantly that he’s a good player. Unfortunately, Thibs not realizing as such led to this remaining a looming argument, though it really should be over by now. There’s not much else to even say about Quickley at this point.

Even in a down-shooting year, he rediscovered the ability to grift for free points, improved defensively, and bumped his assists per game to 3.5 in just 23 minutes while keeping his turnovers at just 1.3 per game, giving him the 14th best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league for those with 70+ games played. Not bad for “not a point guard.” For the second straight year, he was again at the helm of every single ridiculously productive lineup — even without Derrick Rose, his +7.9 plus-minus per 100 possessions led the team’s rotational players. Point guard, combo guard, or center, he’s a winning player. Same Ol’ Knicks still refused to start him, but Same Ol’ Knicks wouldn’t have a young and good point guard who can shoot to begin with.

The same themes apply for Obi Toppin, somehow the Knicks’ most efficient scorer despite his over 0.5 air-balled threes always being a good bet. His 19 points per 36 were third only to Randle and RJ with a true shooting percentage a good ten points above them at 61. I’m still surprised at how well he’s panned out as an older draft pick. Apparently so is Thibs, despite him having vouched for him to be selected.

But it’s time to move on from doubting him. just as long as he can keep up his high-scoring rate in extended minutes. There’s very little proof of such — he averaged 24.7 in his seven games 30+ minutes, winning those minutes by 54 points. There was Same Ol’ Knicks in their refusal to try to play him more often or in small ball especially, but none of the usual in that it looks like he’s actually going to pan out as a Knick unlike their other lottery selections at 8 or 9 in Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox (God bless ‘em). The amazing thing about how beautifully Quickley and Toppin play off each other is that beyond being a Bizarro Barrett/Randle, we never have to hear think-pieces about how one has to be moved because of their lack of chemistry like Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown or Bewn Simmons/Joel Embiid.

I’m not sure if there’s enough excitement surrounding Quentin Grimes, probably in part due to him not existing at the start or end of season due to a sore Thibs and knee, respectively. The fact at 21 he was not just a good rookie but a genuinely good 3-and-D player — a label used far more often than it actually applies — is amazing. Even if he does not improve from this point forward, the Knicks have themselves a solid player. Only 23 players played 40 games, played as many minutes and made more threes per minute this season than Grimes. Only three also had more steals per minute.

While there’s more to defense than steals (one with more steals and threes was Donvoan Mitchell), you won’t find any stat or eye test to tell you Grimes is not a good defender. There you have it! As a rookie, already one of the league’s finest and only true 3-and-D players in the game! If he becomes more than that as a product of his sneakily advanced playmaking chops and natural development, considering he just turned 22 May 8th that’s just a bonus!

I keep forgetting that Cam Reddish exists, but in fairness, so did the head coach. I’m not his biggest fan, but there’s a reason it still took a first-round pick and the Great Kevin Knox to land him, and I think it was his genuine trade value rather than Same Ol’ KNicks. A lottery pick just three years ago, he’s undoubtedly still chock full of potential. The very fact that a guy like that is (at least in my eyes) still a lower-tier member of the core rather than the centerpiece of the core itself shows how formidable and deep this young group is. The flashes are there—if we get more of the player that scored 17 on just seven shots in a blowout win over the Clippers in his penultimate game of the season, we’re in for a treat.

It’s only natural that Rokas Jokubaitis brings up thoughts of Ognjen Jaramaz (if you’re that into the Knicks to even know who both are), but it’s a lazy comparison. Sadly, I’m about to get even lazier. Rokas averaged 7.2 points and 2.8 assists on a ridiculous 54% from the field and 51% from deep in the Euroleague and international play this season in just 17.2 minutes per game. You know who averaged 14.2 points and 4.5 assists on a less efficient 45/31 slash in more minutes (25)? Luka Dončić, in his last season before being drafted.

Am I saying that Roka coming off the bench and putting up decent numbers means that he will be as good as Luka, who won MVP in the Euroleague while a few years younger? I guess. The actual point though, is that at 21, Jokubaitis is playing very efficient, good basketball in the second-best league in the world, where Dončić himself has said it’s harder to score than the NBA.

I’m not going to claim to be some expert on what winning the Spanish Cup this year even means, but I know it’s not bad that any cursory look at what he did overseas this year showed him steadily improving and earning trust on a good team in a genuinely good league at such a young age. It’s easy to forget about him, but writing him off as a draft-and-stash would be a mistake. He’s not Luka Dončić, but he’s not Luca Vildoza, either. He has a genuine chance at being a key and good contributor to this young Knicks team.

Jericho Sims is someone I’m unsure about as a genuine long-term piece, and I think viewing him as a player who makes Mitchell Robinson expendable is a mistake. At the same time, I must admit it has been a nice change of pace to watch a springy center who is also capable of an occasional 2-foot jump hook or kick-out pass. The biggest takeaway for me is that the front office was able to nab a genuine serviceable player (his +7.9 on-court rating was tied with Quickley for team-best) with the 58th pick. It’s a great sign for the future.

The front office has been so good playing within the margins like that to the point they’ve made a mistake in not trusting themselves more. If you can essentially nail every pick, I’m not sure what you’re doing trading away the 19th for no reason. Similarly, I’m not sure why landing the likes of Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel on cheap flyer deals two summers ago made them think they were required to overpay for them a year later, rather than trying to repeat that success.

Finally, there is Miles “Deuce” McBride. I have quite a lot to say about much, in fact, that Joe cut my Deuce thoughts out of this piece and will publish it tomorrow as a part of the individual player “Year in Review” series. Let’s just say right now that I think he’s good, and should have played more this season.

I’m not interested much in comparing this young group to the rest of the league, but it’s certainly up there, and for the first time in a while — or ever — not just from undue fan hype. As much as I’ve defended Frank Ntilikina in my day, I knew him and Allonzo Trier headlining a young core was never a good sign. Ntilikina is again the example of the similarities and differences to this regime. This regime probably doesn’t make a tank push in 2017 to get a better pick than the 8th that was used to get him. But considering they have the guy partly responsible for the selection in Walt Perrin, they maybe end up with Donovan Mitchell anyway.

Having a deep and young group is probably the best path to sustainable winning in the league, especially while they’re on rookie-scale contracts. These aren’t the dynastic Steph-Klay-Dray Warriors, but they might be some version of the present-day Grizzlies, or the 2018-19 Nets that attracted superstars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, which has worked out beautifully for them. You don’t need a team full of homegrown all-stars; you just need a group that’s fun enough to attract other good players or be good enough on their own.

Despite the hysteria, this group isn’t that far away. A healthier Derrick Rose probably made this year’s team a play-in or playoff team, for better or worse. A little more development, another young player or two added this offseason whom we can seemingly trust to be a good choice despite having a late-lottery selection, and things should really turn around (again) fast, but hopefully, even probably, for real this time.

This front office may not be perfect. The fact that Randle, Burks, Rose, Noel, Taj Gibson, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker will combine to make $90 million next season is nothing short of insanity. Randle and Thibodeau, in particular, returning is as comical as it is incredibly probable. But if they all return, the young guys comprising the rest of the $40-50 million in Robinson, Barrett, Toppin, Quickley, Grimes, McBride, Jokubaitis, Sims and whoever is added to the mix may be a stroke of genius.