NBA Draft 2017: Predicting Every New York Knicks Pick
Predicting the maneuvers of New York Knicks president Phil Jackson is like predicting the wardrobe choices of Knicks legend Walt "Clyde" Frazier; it requires cognitive leaps far beyond the realms of mere mortal imagination.
Nevertheless, New York basketball fans are stretching their minds into oblivion, guessing at what the Jackson front office will do at the NBA draft on Thursday.
The Knicks head into a guard-heavy draft with the No. 8 pick, two second-rounders and two potential vacancies in the backcourt. Starting point guard Derrick Rose and backup 2 guard Justin Holiday are both unrestricted free agents. The team also had intense defensive struggles—though they may have been as much a coaching problem as a player talent deficit.
The question twisting fans in knots is, will the Knicks snatch up the hottest talents from the NCAA, or will Jackson suddenly unveil a 7'6" center he discovered on a mountaintop hermitage in Liechtenstein?
Needs and Wants
Jackson's eye for draft talent is proven, yet his choices have not always fit the roster. Marshall Plumlee spent most of his season with the Westchester Knicks because of a surplus of 7-footers, Jerian Grant was traded and Louis Labeyrie was Euro-stashed and has yet to arrive.
What does he look for? We know Jackson wants earnest, malleable, team-first players to suit the elusive "culture." He likes tall point guards who drive (Rose, Grant, Brandon Jennings and, ahem, Alexey Shved) but would prefer one who is a share-first lead guard who buys into the triangle offense.
While rumors perpetually tie the Knicks to high-profile point guards, Jackson generally falls in love with big men and loads the roster with forwards and centers. He frequently goes bargain shopping for guards (Shved, Ricky Ledo, etc.) and gives them brief contracts.
He loves skilled international players like Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Sasha Vujacic.
The Knicks should be prioritizing defensive IQ and defensive rebounding. They should be prioritizing a playmaking point guard. They should be prioritizing strong wing players who can step in for the absences and insufficiencies of the slender Kuzminskas, injury-prone Lance Thomas, besieged Carmelo Anthony and free agent Holiday.
That doesn't mean they will. The selections ahead mostly achieve some of Column A and Column B (Jackson's whims and the team's best interests).
How Did We Get Here?
The debate about the merits of tanking and late-season wins will not be belabored here.
Suffice it to say, even by sprinkling championship stardust on the Lottery Night proceedings by having Hall of Famer Frazier represent the team, the ping-pong balls did not rule in the Knicks' favor. Therefore, New York, which finished the season 12th in the Eastern Conference, collected the No. 8 pick.
The Knicks obtained the No. 44 selection from the Chicago Bulls last year in the trade for Rose and Holiday that sent Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez to Chicago.
No. 8: Frank Ntilikina
2017 has gifted the Knicks with a guard-heavy draft. The main contenders for No. 8 are high-scoring Kentucky freshman shooting guard Malik Monk, thrilling but unpredictable N.C. State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr., lanky, defense-first Frenchman Frank Ntilikina and possibly Louisville sophomore shooting guard Donovan Mitchell.
Also, don't count out UNC small forward Justin Jackson. Although Jackson is projected to go a bit lower in the first round, the Knicks could plan to trade for another first-round selection (possibly with the Portland Trail Blazers). And even without a draft-day swap, it wouldn't be stunning for them to take Jackson high and lowball the backcourt needs once again to obtain a desirable forward.
Nevertheless, Ntilikina is the likely choice, both because he meets a need the Knicks have and also suits the Jackson style more than, say, a one-and-done John Calipari product like Monk.
Ntilikina's major assets are demonstrated defensive skills—on-ball, off-ball, on-man, help—plus rare physical tools to support those defensive instincts—a 6'5" frame with a 7'0" Giannis Antetokounmpo-esque wingspan. He closes off driving and passing lanes, anticipates passes, fights over screens and times his blocks well.
He's unselfish, demonstrates good court vision (good traits for a lead guard in a triangle offense) and is developing championship experience. Ntilikina is forced to miss out on the pre-draft workouts circuit because he's trying to help his team, Strasbourg IG, win the French Pro A title. Thursday, Ntilikina went 6-of-11 and logged four rebounds, three assists and one steal in Strasbourg's win over Elan Chalon.
No. 44: Sindarius Thornwell
At No. 44, Jackson might be tempted by another international player from the French Pro A: Mathias Lessort of Martinique, who plays for Nanterre 92. An unbound, husky, energy player, the 6'9", 250-pound big man bears a resemblance to Kyle O'Quinn.
However, there are two wing players at play in this range who might be more appealing: SMU's Sterling Brown (brother of Shannon) and South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell. Both are graduating seniors with powerful builds for their positions, competitive edges, efficient scoring ability, defensive tenacity and excellent rebounding instincts. It's a tough call, but Thornwell (6'5", 214 lbs. and 22), who worked out for the Knicks, may have the edge.
The SEC Player of the Year, Thornwell was the key scorer on a defense-first team that surpassed all expectations by reaching the Final Four this season. Throughout the tournament's tensest moments, the senior's consistent play and unflappable demeanor were inspiring and intimidating.
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress speaks of "Thornwell's huge frame, outstanding feel for the game, much-improved perimeter jumper and tremendous hustle on both ends of the floor."
Thornwell spoke volumes for himself in a DraftExpress interview during a pre-draft workout in Chicago by saying: "I think the best thing about me is I can defend. I can defend multiple positions." That, despite the fact he averages 21.4 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting and 39.2 percent from three. He also logs 7.1 boards, 2.1 steals and 1.0 blocks.
Both his character (well-documented here by Bleacher Report's Jason King) and his game could and should be attractive to this Knicks front office.
No. 58: Nigel Williams-Goss
The unpredictable tumult of the second round may send Thornwell to the bottom and this next pick nearer to the top. A possible option at No. 58 could be one of the Final Four stars who sent Thornwell's team home: junior Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss.
It's possible Gonzaga would have taken home the NCAA championship title had Williams-Goss not sprained his ankle late in the final game versus UNC. His energy and execution leading an uptempo offense were inspiring.
Williams-Goss is an excellent rebounder for a guard and an eager, effective defender at multiple positions. He was a solid scorer for Gonzaga (16.8 points per game) but, more importantly, a smart, eyes-always-up distributor. Regardless of whether the Knicks select a PG at No. 8 and sign one in the offseason, a third would be a welcome addition to the roster.
But who knows? Jackson and Co. might also be romanced by another 7-footer, like Vanderbilt center Luke Kornet. They might find Florida shooting guard Canyon Barry, who is sadly known more his granny free throws and parentage than for his SEC Sixth Man of the Year award, an irresistible, albeit unlikely, choice. They might simply select teenage international players to Eurostash for several years in another Hernangomez experiment.
The waiting is the hardest part. Save yourselves some grief, Knicks fans. Just take a nap from now until Thursday.