Early-Season Report Card for Every New York Knicks Player

Sara Peters@3FromThe7Featured ColumnistDecember 15, 2017

Early-Season Report Card for Every New York Knicks Player

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    There shall be no A-pluses for the New York Knicks squad until its road record rises above .500. Nevertheless, the Knicks do deserve high marks for having a team identity for the first time in ages. They also make the grade for bringing the home-court advantage back to Madison Square Garden and for finally winning their second road game Thursday night (albeit just a subway trip away, against the Brooklyn Nets).

    Which players, however, deserve most of the credit and which are just hanging on coattails?

    Which might give the team more power if they weren't stuck riding the pine?

    Who can be a joy or a horror to watch, depending on the night? 

    Which ones are earning every penny of their contract and then some?

    Who steps up when the go-to guy goes down? 

    In other words, who is providing the most value to their team? Here are grades for every New York Knicks player, one quarter into the 2017-18 season.  

Grading Structure

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    Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

    The grading system is built to judge a player's value to the team right now, based on a combination of usage and performance. Each player begins with a base score: starters 84, bench rotation 79, reserve 74, barely active 69.

    After that, players earn or lose points, based on five factors:

    • offensive performance 
    • defensive performance (most players can earn or lose seven points for offense and seven for defense. However, for a defensive specialist, the balance is shifted to six points for offense, eight points for defense.
    • contract value: up to two points
    • games missed due to injury: one point subtracted for every five games missed
    • extra credit: up to one point for intangibles  

    A starter who has played every game and is doing a capable job (no more, no less) will earn a B; a bench rotation player a C-plus, etc. It's possible for a starter who's played every game to tumble to a D and possible for a reserve to eke out an A.

Reserves and Spare Change

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Willy Hernangomez

    Willy Hernangomez is a liability on defense. It's tempting to get excited by his elegant post maneuvers and effective rebounding. However, when he watches Victor Oladipo breeze to the hoop without making a move to help, that excitement evaporates—especially when he's already stood by and watched Lance Stephenson do the same while letting Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young muscle past him time and time again.

    The lack of development is disappointing, and that's why he's lost his presumed role to Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn.

    (Base score 74. Minus-6 for defense. Plus-1 for offense. Minus-1 for contract value.)

    Grade: D 

                 

    Joakim Noah

    The man with the team's largest chunk of guaranteed salary is also the one spending the most time in street clothes. After missing the first 12 games due to suspension, Joakim Noah has not been able to work his way into the lineup past the overperforming Kanter and O'Quinn.

    However, in the brief moments Noah has played, he helped shift the momentum of a game that was already out of control. When the Knicks were down by 28 to start the fourth quarter versus the Indiana Pacers, Noah put up three points, three assists, four rebounds and one steal in eight minutes.

    General manager Scott Perry told reporters (h/t Newsday's Laura Albanese) that Noah has been "a consummate pro ... coming before practice, staying after practice" and "setting a good tone for the young guys to follow." 

    He hit the court only once more (for less than three minutes), suffered the indignity of playing in a G League game and has hardly suited up. But considering Hernangomez's futility on defense, Noah's performance and Perry's statement, it's time to put Noah in a uniform.

    (Base score 69. Plus-1 for defense. Minus-2 for contract value. Plus-1 extra credit for class.)

    Grade: C-

                  

    Ramon Sessions

    Ramon Sessions is another veteran who's taken his reduced role with good grace, being downgraded from starting point guard to deep reserve. The Knicks push the pace more and move the ball better with Jarrett Jack at the helm, who also can finish at the rim with more efficiency than Sessions.

    Nevertheless, Sessions can still step up when his number is called—producing six assists and eight points in 24 minutes in the victory over the Miami Heat on Nov. 29—and can be spotted giving guidance to young guards on the sideline.

    (Base score 74. Minus-2 for offense.)

    Grade: C-

            

    Ron Baker

    Ron Baker had some injuries that set him off to a wobbly start and then spent extra time in street clothes while Damyean Dotson took his place.

    Baker has only played in 10 games so far, but he's winning back his minutes lately with patented hustle plays like the chasedown of Marco Belinelli that earned him a jab in the neck, the 360-degree help defense and the back-to back steals in Brooklyn on Thursday that led to five points, mid-court celebrations with players off the bench and no doubt some scraped knees.

    In his 10 games, he's averaging 14.8 minutes per game, 50 percent from behind the arc and 2.4 assists.

    (Base score 74. Plus-1 for offense. Plus-2 for defense.)

    Grade: C+ 

                   

    Damyean Dotson

    Damyean Dotson didn't score until the fourth quarter when he started in Tim Hardaway Jr.'s place versus the Indiana Pacers, but he did show off his defensive skills, coming up with a steal off Darren Collison and drawing an offensive foul off Domantas Sabonis, ultimately ending with nine points, one block, two steals and seven boards.

    He hasn't made it into the past few games, though, partly because of Baker's resurgence, and partly because of his lack of consistency with his aggressiveness and focus. Overall, though, good showing from a rookie.

    (Base score 76. Plus-1 for starts as a rookie.)

    Grade: C+

Bench Rotation

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    Michael Beasley

    A D-minus? A B-plus? It's difficult to decide with Michael Beasley.

    Sometimes he casually trots back in transition and can't be bothered with defense. Then, versus the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday, he hustles for a loose ball with Julius Randle, drawing a foul in the process. Or he fouls out versus the Atlanta Hawks (in 10 minutes no less) while making a savvy steal.

    Sometimes his passes are lazy softballs easily picked off, and other times he ricochets a one-handed dime from Frank Ntilikina to McDermott on the run with stunning accuracy. Sometimes he takes boneheaded shots that haven't a prayer; other times he clowns Jeff Green with a swivel-right, swivel-left swooping layup that's so pretty that Enes Kanter pirouettes on the sideline in celebration.

    Beasley is infuriatingly inconsistent in accuracy and effort, but he's trending upward in both. On Thursday, Beasley stole the ball from the Nets' Caris Levert, ran it down the court alone, spun around three defenders, hit the and-1 layup, made everyone go wild and inspired announcer Mike Breen to say on MSG Network's broadcast of the game: "The roller coaster ride that is Michael Beasley can be maddening and exhilarating to watch."

    (Base score 79. Plus-4 for offense. Minus-2 for offense. Minus-3 for defense. Plus-1 for defense. Extra point for giving us a reason to watch.)

    Grade: B-

           

    Frank Ntilikina

    After six weeks of tentatively passing up open shots, rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina is finally finding his stride offensively. On Saturday versus the Chicago Bulls, he was draining triples with no hesitation; versus the Lakers on Monday, he sunk three of them. Ntilikina reads defenses well and adjusts quickly, which is why head coach Jeff Hornacek trusts him again and again in fourth-quarter situations.

    Ntilikina has a nose for the passing lanes, plucking off 1.2 steals per game in 20 minutes; unfortunately, he still can make it easy for opponents to return the favor because his passes can be a bit too soft. He turns the ball over 2.0 times for every 3.4 assists. Overall, though, Ntilikina's exceptionally quick development, competitive edge and refusal to let LeBron James intimidate him give Knicks fans plenty to cheer about.

    (Base score 79. Plus-3 for defense. Plus-1 for contract value. Plus-1 for rookie curve.)

    Grade: B

                    

    Kyle O'Quinn

    Kyle O'Quinn is known to Knicks fans for his hustle, growling rebounding, hard blocks and great beard, but it's O'Quinn's passing that has been perhaps most impressive this season.

    His 2.0 assists in 16 minutes per game belie the truly exceptional passes O'Quinn is dishing out—not just his accuracy and flair, but his reads. Like with an alley-oop to Porzingis here, a laser bounce pass to McDermott there. In clutch time versus the Nets on Thursday, Ntilikina passed to O'Quinn for a mid-range jumper, but O'Quinn, with eyes in the back of his head, instead found a wide-open Lance Thomas for three with one minute remaining.

    His defense continues to be solid, although it's true that he had no answer for the Memphis Grizzlies' Marc Gasol (other than to foul him, which can be his answer sometimes against athletic centers). O'Quinn also dropped 20 points on the Houston Rockets and is making it very difficult for Hernangomez or Noah to make it onto the court.

    (Base score 79. Plus-3 for offense. Plus-3 for defense.)

    Grade: B 

                     

    Lance Thomas

    Lance Thomas' value is invisible to stat lines, but his value to the team is so obvious the players voted him team captain.

    His help defense versus the Charlotte Hornets was so transcendent it became difficult to watch anything else. He's always ready to team up for a trap, shut down a passing lane or box out under the hoop. He can be so befuddling that when he simply plucked the ball from Ersan Ilyasova's hands, it almost appeared that was the Atlanta Hawk's plan all along.

    Thomas can also turn around and drill a clutch three, like in the final moments Thursday night when Porzingis left the battle versus the Brooklyn Nets with an injury. Thomas is playing with fingers wrapped in tape to handle a minor injury, stepping into the starting lineup for whomever goes down. Although he isn't always flashy, he's essential.

    (Base score 79. Plus-5 for defense. Plus-2 for being team captain.)

    Grade: B

                      

    Doug McDermott

    Some call him Dougie McBuckets, but I call him A.B.C. for "Always Be Cutting."

    Scan down the list of league leaders in scoring off cuts, and you'll see that Doug McDermott is tied with the Cavaliers' Jeff Green for No. 1 among bench players. The slippery cutting reverse slam in the face of Josh Jackson off the feed from Hardaway on Nov. 3 was sweet, but McDermott turns those cuts into layups, dunks, passes, trailing tip-ins or just confusion for the defense. He simply doesn't stop moving.

    He's also much better than originally billed on the other end of the court. A hustler and a help defender, McDermott is bringing value that Knicks fans did not expect to get back in the trade for Carmelo Anthony.

    (Base score 79. Plus-2 for offense. Plus-2 for contract value. One extra point for just so many cuts.)

    Grade: B

Jarrett Jack

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    The Knicks' season entirely turned around as soon as Jarrett Jack replaced Ramon Sessions in the starting lineup. Considering he began the season on a teeny-tiny, non-guaranteed contract, Jack is delivering more value than his paycheck would indicate.

    Jack encourages smooth ball movement and pushes the pace so that the Knicks are running plays before the defense can get set. He doesn't look for his shot too often, but when necessary, he can rely on a solid scoop layup and mid-range jumper, putting up 19 points versus the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 10.

    He can also be counted on for some tricky passes: fooling the Hawks defenders with a zipping cut to the hoop and an over-the-shoulder pass to Porzingis for the slam. Or getting the Memphis Grizzlies to chase him on a full-speed drive to the bucket in transition, only to sling a circus pass to Courtney Lee in the corner for three.

    The 6'3" Jack also gets extra points for squaring up and taking a charge from a full-speed 6'9", 220-pound Aaron Gordon galloping in transition versus the Orlando Magic.

    (Base score 84. Plus-2 for offense. Plus-2 for value. Plus-1 extra.)

    Grade: B+ 

Enes Kanter

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    Enes Kanter is just such a New Yorker.

    He isn't easily intimidated. (Not by LeBron James and not by the president of Turkey.) He stands up for his teammates on the court and on Instagram and anywhere else that they might need help. He's gritty, energetic, works extremely hard and makes lots of questionable decisions for the right reasons, like starting in an NBA game after showing up on crutches—because, what, are you going to try to stop him? Who are you anyway? Get outta here. 

    With the ball in his hands on the block, Kanter can be unstoppable.

    On Dec. 3 versus the Orlando Magic, he nabbed 16 rebounds and put up 18 points off jumpers, powerful post-up maneuvers and his patented putback bank shot. He tricked Nikola Vucevic with a swirl from the block to the hoop, two pump fakes and a one-handed scoop layup that made Vucevic slam the ball with frustration. (It wasn't all gravy, though; Vucevic returned with 34 points and a five-point victory.)

    Offensive boards are a part of the game that many teams have disbanded, but Kanter's relentless offensive boards and putbacks are often difference-makers for the Knicks. New York is second in the league in second-chance points (15.2), and first (17.5) when they win. That's largely due to Kanter, who's responsible for 4.2 second-chance points and 3.6 offensive rebounds per game. 

    (Base score 84. Plus-3 for offense. Plus-2 for contract value. Plus-1 extra.)

    Grade: A-

Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    Tim Hardaway Jr. struggled with shooting to start the season, and his behavior was churlish as well—pouting, failing at defense, pointing fingers at teammates. However, he turned both his performance and his attitude around within a few weeks.

    It was Hardaway who led the Knicks to their historic comeback victory over the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 22, with 38 points, seven assists, one steal and one block. He is their passionate fast-break machine on offense, and their fast-break points have dropped a bit since he went down with a stress injury in his left leg, missing the entire month of December thus far.  

    He was providing more than just a sweet shooting stroke, though. One of his best heads-up hustle plays all year came versus the Blazers on Nov. 27, when he turned what would have been an easy three-on-one fast-break dunk for the Blazers into a charge on Jusuf Nurkic and possession for the Knicks.

    The team has struggled to fill his shoes, which reflects well on him.

    (Base score 84. Plus-5 for offense. Plus-2 for defense. Plus-1 extra point for a triumphant return to New York. Minus-1 for missed games.)

    Grade: A- 

Courtney Lee

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    Unlike the rest of the Knicks, most of Courtney Lee's stats are actually better on the road. When everyone else decides to wither into shrinking violets and crumble into dust, Lee picks up the slack. 

    He has stepped up to fill in the scoring vacuum Hardaway left multiple times, scoring 24 in the win over Memphis and 27 over the Nets. A dagger three-pointer from the corner here, a steal to a dunk there, a cut from the three-point line to the baseline to grab an inbound pass from Lance Thomas and whip it up for a lightning-fast hoop before anyone knows what happened. 

    Lee is relentless on defense, holds the rest of the team accountable and never stops hustling.

    During overtime versus the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday, he flew into the stands to make an exceptional save and swung it to McDermott open under the bucket for two points. They're the kinds of plays he makes every night—and I do mean every night, because he has played all 28 games as a starter this season, averaging 13.4 points on 48.1 percent shooting, 44.4 percent from three-point range, 2.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals.

    He is the reliable iron man, the anti-Beasley.

    (Base score 84. Plus-3 for offense. Plus-5 for defense. Plus-1 extra.)

    Grade: A

Kristaps Porzingis

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    There are plenty of nominees for best Kristaps Porzingis block of the season already.

    The time he blocked the Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller three times on the same play. The big swat away from the Phoenix Suns followed by an even bigger slam on the other end. Or any one of the six blocks on the Indiana Pacers in one night. Or maybe just take the giant denial of the Lakers' Brandon Ingram on Tuesday followed by a three on the other end.

    Beyond the highlight plays, Porzingis is simply doing an effective job of locking down the paint, without getting into the foul trouble that plagued him throughout the 2016-17 season.

    Porzingis also already has 10 games where he's scored 30 points or more. He is far stronger in the post this season and better able to fend off defenders and create his own shots. Plus the strength hasn't negatively impacted his dexterity; he's still drilling those sweet jumpers, making fast cuts for alley-oops and putbacks, and using the fancy footwork that is almost unseemly in a man his height. 

    KP's performance is, however, significantly lower on the road. Even then, though, it's hard to grumble about a stat line of 21.7 points per game on 40.9 percent shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks on the road; that's compared to 27.0 points per game on 48.7 percent from the field, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks at home.

    Despite missing a couple of buzzer-beating game-winners, KP has stepped into the go-to-guy role since Carmelo Anthony left and showed confidence, grace and, occasionally, a plastic unicorn head. Extra points for that.

    (Base score 84, Plus-7 for offense, Plus-4 for defense, Plus-1 extra.)

    Grade: A