Ranking New York Knicks' Young Prospects Ahead of 2017-18 NBA Season
The New York Knicks never seem sure of what they have.
There's an NBA All-Star on the roster, but they've been trying to trade him for months. There's a future superstar rising through the ranks, but they've shopped him too. Their biggest free-agent signing was a player they traded away two years ago.
All of this speaks to organizational dysfunction, and one of the problems could stem from a lack of appreciation.
That's where we step in. With New York's roster mostly in shape ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, it's a good time to take stock of what's on hand.
Since the franchise has finally opted to take the inevitable rebuilding road, we have narrowed our focus to the prospects—defined here as players age 25 or younger with three seasons of NBA experience or less. Through statistical analysis and future projections, we have gained an appreciation of each budding baller's potential and ranked them accordingly.
6. Chasson Randle
There's a simple reason Chasson Randle sits on the bottom rung: He might not be a Knick for much longer. His $1.3 million salary won't be fully guaranteed until January, and there are two other guarantee dates before then that could put him on the chopping block.
So, why does he get a spot at all when New York's other non- or partially guaranteed guys—Nigel Hayes, Jamel Artis and Xavier Rathan-Mayes—don't? Because he wore blue and orange last season, and he impressed while doing so.
"Chasson has a good feel for the game," Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said, per Ryan Lazo of the New York Post. "He knows where shots come and where guys need to get the ball in the offense. He's more of a playmaker who can score."
From my view, Randle is more of a scoring guard who can pass. He left Stanford as the program's all-time leading scorer, and he averaged 20.5 points on 42.6 percent shooting (42.0 from three) in the G League last season. But his shot never made it to New York (38.9 overall, 31.3 outside), which hurt since that's the strongest aspect of his game.
Given the state of New York's point guard rotation, it wouldn't be shocking if Randle is kept around. But he'll be fighting for his roster spot throughout training camp.
5. Ron Baker
The Knicks are all the way in on Ron Baker. They ponied up $8.9 million to hopefully have the undrafted guard around the Big Apple for the next two seasons (player option in 2018-19).
That price tag is stiff. Baker was a 37.8 percent shooter as a rookie and only found the net on 26.7 percent of his triples. Even on a per-36-minute scale, his stats failed to impress: 9.0 points, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals.
That said, it isn't hard to tell why the 'Bockers are high on Baker.
"He's not a true point guard, but he moves the ball well, pushing the pace both in transition and in the half court," Bleacher Report's Sara Peters wrote. "His jumper wasn't stellar, but his driving layups were brave, fast and effective, and the long balls he did nail were timely. Baker's defense is exceedingly pesky and energetic."
Baker blends instincts and energy into a usable combination. He's never been the shooter his form says he could be (career 36.9 percent in college), but maybe those numbers will eventually align with the eye test. His limitations with lateral quickness and explosiveness, however, are likely permanent obstacles.
His floor already sits above Randle's, but the 24-year-old Baker can't match the upside of the four players ahead.
4. Damyean Dotson
New York's second of three pulls during the 2017 draft, Damyean Dotson (44th selection) arrives in the Empire State with perhaps the Association's most coveted strength: a lethal long-range shot.
The 6'5" sniper held top-10 national ranks last season in both three-point percentage (44.1) and perimeter makes (3.4). He flashed some get-up at the NBA Combine (38" max vertical), adding to an intriguing physical toolbox that also includes good length and speed.
If you're waiting for the catch—43 other players were taken ahead of him, after all—there are a couple.
"He's already 23 years old and isn't physically strong," Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News wrote. "He struggles to create his own shot, leaving Dotson with little value offensively if he's not hitting the jumper."
Even if Dotson is nothing more than a specialist, though, he'll be the kind who elevates everyone around him. His shooting threat has a gravitational pull on defenders, which opens passing windows and widens driving lanes for his teammates.
Plus, his weaknesses aren't as problematic as the ones we've discussed. Randle won't suddenly wake up as a natural playmaker. And Baker will be fighting uphill athletic battles throughout his NBA career.
It's possible for Dotson to get stronger. And if New York's passers find him when he's open, he won't need to manufacture his own looks.
3. Willy Hernangomez
The first three players listed are either placeholders or complementary pieces; Willy Hernangomez and the two youngsters ahead are building blocks. That should come off as wildly optimistic since Hernangomez was a second-round selection just two years back—taken 35th by the Philadelphia 76ers, traded for two future seconds, stashed in 2015-16—but the big man's play warrants the distinction.
Hernangomez's playing time fluctuated early, and he didn't make his first start until Jan. 31. But by season's end he was an All-Rookie first-team selection, sporting a stout 52.9 field-goal percentage and per-36-minute averages of 16.0 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
His ground-bound game doesn't feature many modern enhancements, but his skill set is classically deep. His footwork is phenomenal, his rebounding is relentless and his interior scoring arsenal is potent. He sets great screens, perpetually flies around the floor and thinks the game at an advanced level.
Scott Roth, who coaches the G League Iowa Wolves, coached both Hernangomez and Kristaps Porzingis in Spain. That adds an extra layer of authority to his glowing review of the former.
"I've always said Willy was an overall better basketball player at the age Kristaps was as far as feel for the game and how he moves and passes," Roth said, per Berman. "He's validated it with his passing, his pick-and-roll play and rebounding."
By intelligence and ability, Hernangomez would command the No. 2 spot. But his weaknesses in defensive awareness and explosiveness prevent him from climbing any higher.
2. Frank Ntilikina
Would Frank Ntilikina be a Knick if Phil Jackson weren't calling the shots on draft night? It's no secret the Zen Master was a big fan of the lanky French floor general, who projected to be a snug fit in the former executive's preferred triangle offense.
Presented with a hypothetical do-over, New York's new decision-makers say they wouldn't change a thing.
"I would have selected Frank at that point in the draft myself," Knicks president Steve Mills said, per Berman. "He's a guy that fits in everything that we're talking about right now. He's a smart basketball player. He focuses defensively, and his approach to the game, his work ethic, fit exactly in the direction that we want to take this team."
Whether Mills was being 100 percent honest doesn't matter. Just like wondering if Ntilikina was the right selection over Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk and Donovan Mitchell is a fruitless exercise.
Ntilikina is a Knick regardless—and their second-most promising prospect at that.
The 19-year-old pairs impressive size (6'5") with impossible length (7'1" wingspan) to hold a physical edge over almost every NBA point guard, even before the bulking-up process his rail-thin frame needs. His improving jumper should make him a viable spot-up option, and his aggressive defense should work against multiple positions.
There are a lot of unknowns with Ntilikina, even for a rookie. He played mostly off the ball overseas and missed summer league to injury, so his "true point guard" skills likely require seasoning. But developmental minutes will come early and often, so New York should soon discover what to make of its newest prized prospect.
1. Kristaps Porzingis
Other than the Knicks being the Knicks, there's no logical reason why Porzingis' name ever reached the trade rumor mill. He's the kind of jackpot prize you hope to find in the lottery, a 7'3" talent teams would tank a whole season to get.
"Porzingis is a 7-footer who can shoot, handle the ball, throw alley-oops to himself and protect the rim," Sports Illustrated's Rohan Nadkarni wrote. "He was basically created in a lab to be the modern NBA player."
This is a good place to mention Porzingis is 22 years old and has only spent two seasons in the league. He was a drool-worthy prospect almost immediately—remember the monster putbacks that announced his arrival?—and he stepped forward in virtually every aspect as a sophomore.
Last season, he surrendered the fourth-lowest field-goal percentage at the rim (44.2) and splashed the third-most threes among 7-footers (112). He and Kevin Durant also became the first two players to ever average at least 18 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 threes.
In other words, he's a transcendent, franchise cornerstone who has never been treated as such. But with Jackson out and the organization embracing its youth, that all changes in 2017-18—known from this point forward as the Year of the Unicorn.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.