Last June, the New York Knicks made a draft-day trade that was widely praised. Tim Hardaway Jr. was sent to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for the rights to the 19th overall pick, Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant.
An athletic pick-and-roll maestro with good size—Grant stands 6'5" and weighs 195 pounds—and defensive instincts, Grant gave Knicks fans hope for the future at the point guard position for the first time in a very long while. A few solid performances during summer league and the preseason provided even more optimism.
But Grant's first 51 games of regular-season play have left something to be desired, casting his status as the Knicks' future point guard into doubt. When starter Jose Calderon's struggles left the door open for Grant to grab the reins at the position, he just was not able to do so.
Accordingly, rumors have popped up that the Knicks are in the market for a point guard. Multiple reports have linked the team to players like Detroit's Brandon Jennings and Atlanta's Jeff Teague, such as those from CBS Sports' Matt Moore and Fred Kerber of the New York Post, respectively.
It All Starts With (No) Shooting
Grant has a complete lack of shooting ability from all areas of the floor. He's in a virtual tie with Emmanuel Mudiay for last place in effective field-goal percentage (which weighs the extra value of three-pointers compared with twos) of any player who has attempted at least 200 shots this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Take a look at Grant's field-goal percentage (and league-wide rank among players with at least as many attempts), via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data:
|Rank||299th (of 304 with 30+ shots)||127th (of 128 with 80+ shots)||82nd (of 87 with 150+ drives)|
Every opponent knows this struggle, and more importantly, that he's extremely hesitant to even attempt an outside shot. That allows them to duck under every ball screen, cutting off all his driving lanes. That he's still able to get into the paint as often as he does is a credit to Grant's athleticism and willpower, but the effect that defensive strategy has on his drives is evident.
Not only does he shoot terribly on those drives, but even his passes don't produce much. For a player blessed with excellent court vision, it's concerning how little offense he has been able to generate for his teammates while on the move toward the basket.
According to the SportVU tracking data, Grant's 161 forays to the rim have created only 90 points this season (Grant's own scoring, plus points generated via assists, secondary assists and free-throw assists), an average of 0.56 per drive. That figure ranks 66th among the aforementioned 87 players with 150-plus drives this season.
“It’s just called ‘Welcome to the NBA,’” head coach Derek Fisher said earlier this season, via the Wall Street Journal. “Sustaining success in this league requires you to embrace your weaknesses and the things you don’t do so well. So for Jerian, he’s going to have to embrace the opportunity teams are presenting him. If they’re going under screens, he needs to make teams pay for their adjustment.”
The lack of driving effectiveness is especially damaging because he is essentially the only Knick to even get into the paint with any sort of consistency. The SportVU data indicates that Grant's 7.60 drives per 36 minutes are more than twice as many as any other teammate (the next-closest player is—and this is not a typo—Sasha Vujacic at 3.38).
If he can figure out the correct shoot-pass-drive balance, his driving ability should be a great boon to the offense in the future.
Grant has flashed the ability to do that on occasion by calling for a second screen immediately after the first, which allows him a clearer driving lane than simply attacking a defender who has fallen back to prevent the drive. That gives him space to find some passing angles with his size and superior court vision.
But too often, he either simply hesitates too long before attacking the paint or simply passes it off.
Grant has not shown the same defensive acumen that he did as a senior at Notre Dame. While his slighter frame was his greatest defensive weakness then, his frustrating tendency to die on screens and/or make the wrong decision (going over or under) has been far more damaging in the pros.
His Defensive Real Plus-Minus, as calculated by ESPN.com, ranks 46th among point guards, ever-so-slightly ahead of Knicks starter Jose Calderon. He does have the tools to be a good defender, though: good size, length and elite athleticism.
Rookies tend to struggle on that end of the floor, and Grant should get better as he gets older. But for now, he's a minus, and because of that, Grant hasn't been able to carve out a consistent spot in Fisher's rotation.
Grant has played with 16 different five-man groups that have shared the floor for at least 10 minutes this season, according to NBA.com; only five of them have a positive plus-minus.
More than any other Knick, he's seemingly always behind the eight ball, largely through no fault of his own.
He's played only 218 of his 773 minutes with Carmelo Anthony (about 28 percent), just 185 of 773 with Kristaps Porzingis (24 percent) and a paltry 89 of 773 with both of them (12 percent). Those are the two Knicks who draw the most defensive attention, bringing opposing defenders out of the paint—the attribute which would help Grant the most.
It's unfortunate that he's not given the chance to play with Porzingis more often; when he does get those opportunities, it usually works out pretty well.
Breaking: The Jerian Grant/Kristaps Porzingis pick-and-roll works when the Knicks actually use it.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 3, 2016
According to NBA.com's tracking data, Porzingis has shot over 48 percent on passes from Grant, the best mark of any teammate for whom Grant has set up at least 10 shots.
The triangle also doesn't naturally yield pick-and-roll opportunities like a typical, modern NBA offense, which limits Grant's ability to affect the game. This neuters his best asset: court vision. Moving him off the ball—where triangle point guards spend far more of their time than most players at the position do these days—emphasizes his greatest weakness (shooting) at the same time.
The aforementioned trade targets are appealing to varying degrees, in theory, but it is difficult to imagine a deal for either player coming to fruition. First of all, there's the salary difference. Brandon Jennings is collecting approximately $8.3 million this season, according to Basketball Insiders' salary pages, while Jeff Teague has a salary of $8 million.
Both the Pistons and Hawks would likely ask for at least Grant in return as part of a trade, but since he makes only $1.6 million this season in the first year of his rookie deal, the Knicks would have to include another mid-range salary to make the money work. The problem is that none of the Knicks' players who fit that description would be considered attractive to either the Pistons or Hawks.
Arron Afflalo makes $8 million, but he's not nearly the same player he once was and has a player option for next year anyway. Derrick Williams is a bargain this year at $4.4 million, but he too has a player option that he is extremely likely to exercise, given his solid play off the bench.
Kyle O'Quinn is on an affordable, longer-term deal, but his play hasn't done much to boost his trade value. Jose Calderon and his $7.4 million deal have negative trade value, since that's attached to a $7.7 million payment next season.
That means the Knicks would likely have to include a first-round pick in any deal, but the Knicks don't own a selection this season. They sent swap rights to the Denver Nuggets for the Carmelo Anthony trade back in 2011, then sent the rights to the lower of the two picks to the Toronto Raptors in the Andrea Bargnani deal in 2013.
Because NBA rules prevent teams from trading consecutive first-round picks, the earliest the Knicks can deal is 2018.
Even if they were to package all those assets together, giving up a first-round pick (plus Grant) for a player (Jennings) who is coming off a ruptured Achilles, will be a free agent in five months and is shooting 36 percent from the field and 32 percent from three would be extremely unwise, at best.
Offering that for Jeff Teague also seems like a bit of a waste.
At 27 years old, Teague will likely never be any better than he is right now, which is something like the 15th-best point guard in the NBA (he's 37th in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus this year but was 16th last year, and two of the players ahead of him played less than half the season).
Would acquiring him even guarantee the Knicks a playoff spot? They're 3.5 games back of the No. 8 seed with 31 games left in their season. Not only that, but Teague's contract is also up at the end of 2016-17, at which point he'd be a 28-year-old free agent with eight years of experience heading into a market where the cap has just ballooned to $108 million (if the most recent ESPN.com projections come to fruition).
Teague might feel justified searching for a maximum contract (equivalent to 30 percent of the cap). Such a deal would start at $32.4 million a year. If they met it, the Knicks would then be paying well in excess of two-thirds of their cap to Teague, Robin Lopez and a 33-year-old Anthony, with a probable max extension for Porzingis around the corner. It would be an extraordinarily inefficient use of resources.
With so many paying suitors out there, Teague might just leave for a bigger offer elsewhere if the Knicks offer a sub-max deal. Then they'd have no point guard and would also be out of Grant and a future pick.
They could just elect to chase someone else (the point guard free-agent crop that summer includes Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, among others), but that would make trading for Teague (or a similar player) today a pretty big waste of resources.
Thus, it would be in the Knicks' best interest to forego a point guard trade unless a better one than Jennings or Teague becomes available (which is possible) and/or the price is less than what was assumed above (which is unlikely, but still possible).
Unless the Knicks are going to go back to their old way of doing things (i.e. making trades that give away multiple future assets for the slight possibility of winning a few games this season), they're going to need Grant to play significantly better not only for the rest of this year but for the next few as well.
He has the skills to be successful; he just has to put them together.