Why Pablo Prigioni Can Unseat Both Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2012

Pablo Prigioni has looked right at home in New York so far.
Pablo Prigioni has looked right at home in New York so far.Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

After a flurry of offseason acquisitions transformed the point guard position for the New York Knicks, it appeared that they were ready to employ a one-two punch of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd.

After a handful of preseason games, it increasingly looks like that one-two punch at point guard will instead be Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni.

Knicks fans hoping to get a preview of Prigioni during the Summer Olympics were disappointed when the Argentinian national missed several games due to kidney stones. He has played significant minutes in each preseason game thus far and has been very active on both sides of the ball.

Coach Mike Woodson appears eager to use Kidd often at shooting guard while leaving Felton and Prigioni to run the offense. The 39-year-old Kidd was announced as the backup PG anyway, but he will see time at other positions as well.

Even with newly acquired swingman Ronnie Brewer returning to action Monday against Philadelphia, Kidd saw plenty of time at the 2.

That may not change when J.R. Smith returns from nursing a sore Achilles. In fact, Kidd could be consistently in the mix at shooting guard until Iman Shumpert comes back from knee surgery, which is expected to be around January.

Kidd has the defensive ability to play the 2, and he could even start at the position. This would allow Woodson to keep J.R. Smith as a sixth man to provide an offensive spark off the bench and have the option of using Ronnie Brewer at the 3.

Kidd also has the defensive and rebounding ability to guard multiple positions. As he told the NY Post, "It’s basketball. Make him take a tough shot. I can guard the 1, 2, 3, 4."

This becomes an even more important luxury as Amar'e Stoudemire will miss the start of the season with a ruptured cyst in his knee (per Newsday's Al Iannazzone on Twitter). This prompts Carmelo Anthony to slide to the 4, increasing the need to use Kidd at positions other than point guard.

Prigioni, however, is a pure, pass-first point guard. At 35 years old, the Argentinian is the oldest rookie in the NBA in 40 years (per Elias, via the New York Times). But he certainly doesn't look old. While he plays with a veteran's savvy, he looks to be in the phenomenal physical form of a rookie just out of college.

Perhaps his love of antique cars has given him the ability to keep his own engine in top-notch shape. He looks energetic and lean, and doesn't show anything close to the wear and tear of a 35-year-old in the NBA.

One benefit is that European leagues play shorter games. They also do not practice as often or play as many games as NBA teams do.

But Prigioni clearly keeps to a tight regimen to preserve himself. He offers both the tremendous physical ability of a disciplined athlete and the sagacity of an experienced veteran.

Felton has looked good at times this preseason, but he has also been turnover-prone and seemed overly eager to shoot the ball.

After totaling 30 points, 26 assists and 11 turnovers through four preseason games, Felton went 5-of-7 from three-point range on his way to a four-assist, 23-point night in Monday's exhibition against the Sixers.

It was a nice taste of his capability on offense, but a point guard typically should not attempt 17 field goals in any game unless his name is Russell Westbrook. Felton played 33 minutes in the game and finished with fewer assists than Melo.

Woodson is certainly not known for encouraging his point guards to generate too much of their own offense (for his career, Felton has shot a pedestrian 41.2 percent from the field). As Howard Beck of the New York Times wrote in March, "[Woodson] holds a tight leash on his point guards."

Felton limited himself to one turnover versus Philadelphia, but he committed an unacceptable six turnovers against Kyle Lowry and the Raptors on October 19. It's that inconsistency in Felton's game that could find Prigioni stealing away the starting job.

Prigioni has averaged just over 21 minutes per game and totaled 31 points, 26 assists and only eight turnovers in the first five preseason games.  

Prigioni's defense has also been more much active, flying to passing lanes and netting two steals in each of the first five preseason games. Felton has just one steal in that time while playing more minutes. And Woodson takes a defense-first approach in his tactics.

Moreover, Prigioni, though an NBA rookie, has much more experience in big games than Felton does. After being drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats, Felton has played in just nine playoff games in his seven-year career.

Prigioni played professionally in his native Argentina for four years before taking his talents to Spain.

He played there for numerous teams beginning in 1999, winning three Spanish King's Cups (and being named the Copa del Rey de Baloncesto MVP in 2006), four Spanish Supercups (named the Supercopa de España de Baloncesto MVP in 2008) and one league championship (2008).

He was named to the All-Euroleague Second Team twice (2006 and 2007). He was also named the best point guard in Liga ACB three times (2006, 2007 and 2009).

In international play, he helped Argentina to the bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics. They narrowly missed out on another bronze in London, dropping a close third-place game to Russia. At that game's end, Prigioni showed his intensity and desire to win, kicking a clock off the scorer's table after a controversial non-call in the waning seconds of their 81-77 loss.

And Prigioni didn't just pop up on the Knicks' radar out of nowhere. As reported by the New York Times, GM Glen Grunwald has been making annual inquiries about Prigioni for several years: "Each summer, Grunwald made calls overseas wondering if Prigioni was ready for the N.B.A. 'Glen and I have talked for at least the past five years about Pablo,' said George Bass, one of Prigioni’s agents."

Prigioni looks like he's chomping at the bit to play point guard in the NBA, seizing the opportunity to play at the highest professional level by showing adept decision making and leadership. As ESPN New York's Jared Zwerling wrote about Prigioni after the Knicks' 109-98 loss to Boston on Saturday:

Even though it's the preseason, he has been treating every second of action like it's an elimination playoff game. He's playing hard, directing on defense (by pointing to approaching screens and communicating on the help side) and going up to guys during timeouts giving them pointers. He excels with his IQ, not giving up his dribble too soon and his deceivingly quick dribble getting by defenders. He's also extremely confident and has got some swagger, at one point getting in Jason Terry's face in the fourth quarter and saying some words.

It's the high IQ that will guarantee him considerable minutes from Mike Woodson and his veteran swagger that will endear him to NY fans.

Coach Woodson has already been singing Prigioni's praises, saying, "He’s a playmaker. If you’re open, he’s going to find you. And he gets up into you defensively" (per New York Times). And he told the NY Post: “[Pablo] is playing great. In Washington, I thought he was great defensively. [Saturday] he was putting heat on the ball. He played a fantastic game.’’

With defense being Mike Woodson's central philosophy, if Prigioni sustains his current play, it will have him seriously challenging Felton for the starting job. Simply generating steals, limiting turnovers and utilizing his pass-first instincts could make him Woodson's favorite point guard.

And Prigioni has already proved able to quickly adapt to his new surroundings. Keith Schlosser, Editor-in-Chief of KnicksJournal.com, tweeted this on the Knicks' media day:

Pablo Prigioni just stole my cab. Seriously. #Knicks

— Keith Schlosser (@KnicksJournal) October 1, 2012

The season hasn't even begun and Prigioni already sounds like a true New Yorker.

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