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Carmelo Anthony's Absence Offers Huge Opportunity for Young New York Knicks

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2015

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The curtain is finally closing on Carmelo Anthony's campaign, which means the spotlight is ready to shine on the young New York Knicks.

Time only knows whether these budding ballers are equipped for the big stage, but the elusive knock of opportunity is rapping on their door at last.

No More Melo

Anthony's 30-minute appearance during Sunday's All-Star Game will reportedly serve as his send-off for this season.

As ESPN.com's Marc Stein first reported, the forward's nagging knee injury has forced him off the floor and will send him under the knife sooner rather than later:

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

ESPN sources say that Knicks will officially rule Carmelo Anthony out for rest of the season later Wednesday

"The New York Knickerbockers announced today that Carmelo Anthony will have season-ending left knee surgery," the team wrote in an official statement. "The procedure, which will be performed by Team Orthopedist Dr. Answorth Allen, includes a left knee patella tendon debridement and repair."

This comes as no surprise. Anthony has battled discomfort throughout the year. He previously admitted he was "pretty sure at some point" his knee pain would require surgical attention, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley.

The only question was when the injury would cause Anthony to shut it down.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The Knicks have that answer now, and with it the chance to find some value down the stretch of a lost season.

"New York is headed to the lottery this year with or without him, and now the main priority is securing as a high a draft pick as possible," wrote ProBasketballTalk's Dan Feldman. "The Knicks can also use the rest of this season to develop their young players, which will be easier without Melo playing such a large—or any—role."

With an abysmal 10-43 record, the Knicks are past the point of saving today. For New York, planning for a better tomorrow is the only priority now, and that process couldn't progress as long as Anthony was around.

The former scoring champ dominated most of New York's statistical categories, typically leaving a sizable gap between him and the next-most productive player:

As long as the end goal remained winning games this season, the Knicks had reasons to lean heavily on Anthony. His floor presence alone meant the difference of 10.1 points per 100 possessions.

But now that New York's focus has shifted to a much wider lens, developing talent for the future carries a higher value than present production.

With Anthony out of the picture, the Knicks can see what they have on the rest of their rosterpaying particularly close attention to the play of potential second-round steal Cleanthony Early.

A Long Look at the Rook

A consensus second-team All-American last season, Early looked ready to be a key contributor out of the gates. During his sophomore year at Wichita State, he averaged 16.4 points on 48.4 percent shooting and 5.9 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game.

Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson cited Early's maturity as a reason the versatile forward appeared on New York's radar.

"We said we want a mature player," Jackson explained in July, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "Get a guy that maybe ... can step in the lineup and start playing. A lot of kids, they are still developing physically. He is a developed player physically."

However, the 6'8", 220-pound Early's physical development hasn't been enough to secure a permanent role in head coach Derek Fisher's rotation. Early has only seen action in 18 games for the Knicks, averaging 3.9 points and 1.7 rebounds in his 13.1 minutes a night.

"I feel like what Cleanthony earns that's what I have to do. ... You can't force his development. It's what he shows that will determine how much he's out there," Fisher said of his rookie's playing time, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 22:  Cleanthony Early #17 of the New York Knicks during a game against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 22, 2014.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
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With such a superior option like Anthony around, the temptation to ease Early into the action had to be strong. But now that Anthony's gone, it's time for those kid gloves to come off.

"Early has potential as a two-way player," wrote Posting & Toasting's Joe Flynn. "He is explosive at the rim, has legit three-point range, and is active off the ball. Defensively, he has quick feet and rarely lacks for effort. What he needs is to add some muscle and get more playing experience."

That doesn't mean Fisher should hand Early major minutes. The rookie still needs to prove his worth at this level.

What it does mean, however, is that Early deserves a longer leash. The Knicks have to be more accepting of his growing pains, more willing to let him learn from his mistakes.

When he's had that freedom on assignment with the NBA D-League's Westchester Knicks, he's been able to showcase his well-rounded skill set, soft shooting touch and explosive athleticism.

In three games for the minor league outfit, he averaged 21.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.3 steals. That production isn't guaranteed to translate to the NBA game, but he's clearly a talented player. The Knicks have to figure out just how talented he is.

New York only has five players holding fully guaranteed contracts for 2015-16. Early is one of them.

So too is point guard Jose Calderon, who is firmly on the trade block, per Iannazzone.

Next season's Knicks could barely resemble this year's group, with Amar'e Stoudemire already having been bought out, Andrea Bargnani perhaps following in his footsteps and Pablo Prigioni's name being bandied about in trade talks, per Iannazzone.

The Knicks will have a mountain of money to throw at free agents this summer, but they could increase their buying power by improving their roster now.

The main draws will still be Anthony, Jackson (and his 13 championship rings), whatever player they pluck from the draft lottery and the Big Apple's gravitational pull. But it wouldn't hurt to have a few more bargaining chips at their disposal.

Omar Vega/Associated Press

"The only thing that matters at this point is about where we’re headed as a team, as an organization for the future," Anthony said, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "That’s the only thing we can start preparing for, and we have to start preparing for that right now."

Early is a pivotal component of that preparation. Outside of sophomore sniper Tim Hardaway Jr., Early is the highest-profile prospect on this roster.

If everything goes according to plan, the Knicks will put more notable names around him. But if Early can prove himself capable of shouldering a reserve role—especially behind an aging star like Anthony—the Knicks will have answered one of the many questions facing them.

This isn't only about Early, though.

More Minutes All Around

The Knicks have a slew of young players they need to evaluate: 22-year-old point guard Shane Larkin (they declined his 2015-16 option), 23-year-old combo guard Langston Galloway, 24-year-old forwards Travis Wear and Quincy Acy.

If we're being generous, add 26-year-old bigs Lance Thomas and Cole Aldrich to the list. Even the 22-year-old Hardaway could stand to see more than the 23.2 minutes he's been getting.

And that group doesn't even include explosive rookie Thanasis Antetokounmpo, 22, older brother of Milwaukee Bucks phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo, 20.

NEW YORK - JUNE 26: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks sits with his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo addresses the media after being selected 51st overall by the New York Knicks during the 2014 NBA Draft on June 26, 2014 at the Barclays Center in
Jeyhoun Allebaugh/Getty Images

The elder Antetokounmpo has spent this season in Westchester and could stay there for the remainder of the year. The Knicks would like for his NBA debut to wait until 2015-16, league sources told RealGM's Shams Charania, but Jackson said they have considered promoting him this season:

NEW YORK KNICKS @nyknicks

.@PhilJackson11 likes what he sees from @Adeto_kouboS & they have “contemplated” a call-up at some point this season.

The rookie is eager to make his move.

"Of course, that’s my dream, to play in the NBA," Antetokounmpo told Berman. "If I was to get that chance to go to the next level, I’ll put all my heart into it and give everything into it."

If the Knicks find they have enough without him, they may want to hold off on adding the Greek forward. That would keep him from collecting a second-year player's salary next season.

But if these prospects don't pounce on this opportunity, the Knicks may have no other choice. They have to put a productive player behind the 30-year-old Anthony. And they'd like to do it without sacrificing any of their financial flexibility.

In the NBA, few things are as valuable as young talent. The more rookie-scale contracts the Knicks can keep on their payroll, the more money they'll have to throw at the bigger fish.

Anthony's age makes it imperative for the franchise to have a rapid rebuild.

The opportunity created by Anthony's absence could be beneficial both to these young players and the team as a whole. If they can pass this do-or-die test, they could breathe new life into a team that needs it as badly as any in the league.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Contract information courtesy of HoopsHype.