In a league where it often takes young players years to earn the trust of their coaches, second-year undrafted free agent Langston Galloway is defying expectations.
A 6' 2" guard out of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Galloway went undrafted in 2014. He was so unheralded that he doesn't even have a DraftExpress scouting report—this page just has physical information and statistics.
He played for the Knicks during the Las Vegas Summer League and scored himself a training camp invite as well. He didn't make the team out of camp but turned enough heads to secure a spot on the Westchester Knicks, the team's new D-League squad. Once the big club traded Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to Cleveland, Galloway got called up.
He then worked his way into coach Derek Fisher's good graces with his performance the rest of the way. Signed to a pair of 10-day contracts in January, Galloway played well enough to earn himself a two-year contract (with the second season partially guaranteed), as well as a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie Second Team.
In 32.4 minutes a night, Galloway averaged 11.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals while also knocking down just north of 35 percent of his three-point shots. He also turned the ball over very infrequently (his 10.1 turnover percentage is the seventh-lowest ever by a rookie that played at least 1,000 minutes and recorded at least 150 assists, per Basketball-Reference.com), a rare feat for a young guard.
But where Galloway really made his bones, and where he impressed Fisher most, was with his defense, something that has extended into this season as well. Fisher hasn't been at all hesitant to throw Galloway out there during crunch time.
"It's big. Coach definitely trusts me," Galloway said. "It's a good confidence-builder for myself knowing that he looks at young guys and can be confident in them at the end of games."
Galloway's consistently on the floor late, even though he's not a starter. As of Monday morning, he leads the team and ranks fourth in the NBA in fourth-quarter minutes played, per NBA.com, underscoring just how much faith Fisher has in the young guard.
"I think some of the things that they do on the defensive end are really key in fourth quarters and late games," Fisher said, referring to rookies Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant in addition to Galloway. "You definitely have to be able to score the basketball late in games, but these guys are important to what we do and who we are. We need them to get experience. The nights that they've been out there, I think they've earned the right to be out there.
"I think they're capable of handling it, to be honest, as well. It's not just about me trying to get them experience. They're ready for it right now. I do think all three of those guys have the mental capacity to play effectively in those situations."
Galloway feels that he and Grant have done a pretty good job so far this season on the defensive end, noting that New York has played against a string of top-flight guards (Jeff Teague, John Wall, Tony Parker, and Kyle Lowry have all been on the schedule already) this season.
"So far, we take that challenge every night because it's always one of the best guards in the league. Whoever we're playing against, we definitely look at that as a challenge every night, but I think we've been doing pretty good," Galloway said. "We've got to continue to get better at certain things, but we're still learning. We're both still early in our careers. At the same time, we're growing and getting better."
As for the areas he can still improve on that end of the floor, Galloway was very pointed and specific. "Getting over screens better. Challenging more shots. Just trying to stop transition. Point guards in this league get into transition as fast as anybody, so I've got to try to stop that."
Galloway knows of which he speaks. Judging by the Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, his pick-and-roll defense could use a little work right now. He's allowed 0.84 points per play to pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season, which places him in the 34.7th percentile among defenders that have guarded at least 25 such plays. Anecdotally, he seemed stronger on the ball against those plays last year, indicating he still has at least some improving to do in that area.
Additionally, Galloway's efforts at challenging shots have not been quite as strong this year. Though his opponents have shot 3.1 percent worse when defended by him than otherwise this season, according to NBA.com's SportVU tracking data, it's only true of his mid-range defense. They are shooting better both from three-point range and inside 10 feet when guarded by Galloway than overall.
Per the same numbers, Galloway had much more of an across-the-board effect last season. It's possible this is a random, small-sample blip (or that the data is just unreliable, given that it credits a "defender" simply as the player closest to the ball when a shot is released), but it's also possible that he's not doing quite as good a job contesting shots once his man gets closer to the basket.
He does seem to be having at least some effect on limiting those transition opportunities. Per NBA.com, opponents are scoring 11.02 points via fast break per 48 minutes with Galloway on the floor compared to 15.77 points when he's off.
His propensity to pressure point guards in the backcourt likely has something to do with that.
It's clear his work on the defensive end is better than that of starter Jose Calderon and fill-in starter Sasha Vujacic, and it's probably better than that of returning starter Arron Afflalo, as well. It certainly is in Afflalo's current, working-his-way-back-from-injury shape.
And that's largely why Galloway finds himself on the floor late in close games, at times even trusted to switch onto threats like LeBron James and Kevin Love (which happened on four fourth-quarter possessions in New York's loss to Cleveland last week; Galloway yielded only three points on those plays), or Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis (which happened three total times in the Knicks' win over the Pelicans on Sunday).
While his defense is what gives Fisher confidence, it's Galloway's offensive improvement that bodes well for his future as a rotation regular in the NBA. He is, by far, New York's most-improved returning player, having clearly put in a lot of work over the summer to better his game.
"Just being a better player, that was the main aspect going into the summer," Galloway said. "Just trying to feel out the coaches, see what they had for me. [The] main thing [they told me] was just, 'Just continue to get better. Work on your game over all aspects. We'll see as the season progresses, we'll work on specific things to get better with.'"
Galloway has further cut his turnovers to 5.8 percent and gotten to the free-throw line more often (his rate has risen from 0.153 to 0.341, per Basketball-Reference.com). His finishing percentage is up 2.6 percent inside three feet and 27.2 percent on shots between three and 10 feet away. And he is also among the league leaders in three-point percentage this year, nailing 55.6 percent of his triples during the first 11 games.
"I've been working hard," Galloway said. "I get a lot of shots up in the gym, and my confidence has been building up. Other than that, I mean, I give it all to my teammates. They've been finding me in good spots to give me good looks."
Galloway has been "open" or "wide open" on 24 of his 31 three-point shots this year, per NBA.com, knocking down 14 of those attempts. Simply connecting on a greater percentage of "open" looks (defender 4-6 feet away) has driven his conversion rate skyward.
Some of this may have to do with Galloway playing off the ball more often this year than he did last season. Per SportVU, he has had the ball in his hands for 25 of the 297 minutes he's played so far. That works out to approximately 8.4 percent. Last year, he had the ball for 178 of 1,429 minutes, or 12.5 percent of the time.
That's likely due to Galloway sharing his minutes with Grant, who has worked on the ball more often. Both players can best be described as combo guards, but there has so far been a fairly clear division of labor.
"It's just the way it's worked out in the early part of the season," Galloway said. But that's probably the way it should stay, considering Grant is the more gifted passer and Galloway the far better shooter.
Switching up those roles for a few possessions allows Grant some rest and lets Galloway stretch his playmaking capabilities. But reversing them on the regular could prove counterproductive for both. Defenders would sink off Grant and into the lane more often than they already do, affecting not only Grant and Galloway, but the rest of the offense, as well.
The 7'3", 20-year old Porzingis is understandably getting more hype, but Galloway has arguably been the more effective player so far this season (advanced measures like PER, Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus and Value Over Replacement Player all agree).
His performance has been especially key for New York because of the relative weakness of the other guards on the team. Calderon has come around a bit offensively after a slow start, but he still struggles to stay with point guards off the dribble. Grant has had his ups and downs, Vujacic was an outright disaster and Afflalo only recently got back on the court.
Galloway has been consistent, reliable and consistently reliable early in games and late. He's earned the trust of the staff and the trust of his teammates, too, as exemplified by a late-game play in Washington where he and Carmelo Anthony freelanced their way into a pick-and-roll when Anthony was fronted in the post. Galloway calmly navigated his way around the screen and knocked down a pull-up three.
The Knicks won that game by seven points, but they were actually outscored in the 20 minutes Galloway was not on the floor. That's been a theme all season as New York has been 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with the youngster in the game, per Basketball-Reference.com.
There is still work to be done, of course, but Galloway is well past having to prove he belongs in the league. He does. The question now is how good he can be.
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted. All statistics obtained from NBA.com unless otherwise noted and current as of Monday, November 16, 2015.