Grading New York Knicks Players as the Season Winds Down
A-plusses to all the New York Knicks fans still cheering long after the playoff hopes faded, long after the faces in the starting lineup stopped looking familiar, long after the unicorn went down but ticket prices stayed up.
Extra credit to those who have accepted your fellow Knicksfam's opinions on tanking and resisted labeling them "fake fans." You've done well.
As for the Knickerbockers themselves, they are a sorry 4-15 since the All-Star break, and some are destined for poor marks and summer school. Yet, a few have managed to squeak out top marks for surpassing expectations, contributing in surprising ways and managing to deliver top performance at the end of the season when so many compatriots have fallen over the course of a bruising few months.
Here are the grades for the Knicks who are still standing.
See Me After Class
Since Kristaps Porzingis, Ron Baker and Joakim Noah haven't played since the All-Star break, they won't be given any new grades this time. However, we can toss a bit of credit to Baker for surviving the trade deadline, Porzingis for walking unassisted post-surgery ahead of schedule and Noah for thus far adhering to the handshake agreement he made to stay away from the team (at least until they decide to jettison Jeff Hornacek first).
As any Denver Nuggets fan could attest, Emmanuel Mudiay is an enigmatic roller coaster. One day, he's shooting highly contested threes with 22 seconds left on the shot clock, telegraphing wild cross-court passe and letting ball-handlers have their way with him on every drive. The next day he scores 22 points off the bench, making power moves on the hoop to finish in traffic and sinking reverse layup and-ones on the baseline. Rather than exhilarating, his flashes of great potential are more frustrating than anything else. Mudiay's game must become more consistent, both in production and effort.
Damyean Dotson is New York's forgotten man. Despite playing in 40 games and being the original stand-in for an injured Tim Hardaway Jr., Dotson never really solidified himself as a key part of the rotation, not even after the All-Star Break when the Knicks roster was overrun with G-League players. He didn't do anything particularly wrong, he just didn't do enough right once the front office loaded up the backcourt with new point guards. The tight perimeter defense that earned him minutes early in the year also loosened up more recently; he held opponents 2.9 percent beneath their field goal average, 11.7 below from three, pre-All-Star, but allowed them to shoot 3.3 percent better (1.6 percent better from long range) after the break.
Isaiah Hicks has an effective, if not very pretty jump shot, a great instinct for rebounding and, in the half-court, can intimidate some ball-handlers making a move on the hoop. His production for New York is, of course, nothing like the 15.6 points, eight rebounds and 57.3 percent shooting he gave the Westchester Knicks this year, and his defense still lacks polish, particularly in transition.
Earning Their Paycheck
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr. also suffered from inconsistency over the course of the season, but since the All-Star Break, his shooting has at least been a fairly steady 43.6 percent from the field, averaging over 19 points per game. Some games he's been the key to the Knicks entire fast-break game, picking off a pass between two Minnesota Timberwolves, making a sweet spin maneuver to leave a defender sprawled on his back while Hardaway drains a triple. Other nights he's oddly absent or makes questionable decisions (and that's not including the ill-fated night versus the Atlanta Hawks in early February during which the decisions were so egregious we dare not speak of them). Hardaway hasn't managed to power the Knicks to victory this season, but he was never supposed to: intended to be the Robin to Kristaps Porzingis' Batman, the two only played 30 games together.
If the Knicks played the Toronto Raptors every night, Luke Kornet might be All-Star material. He showed the Raps a double-double plus four blocks in his NBA debut and dropped 18 points on them in their second meeting. Beyond that, he's been perfectly adequate, but not sparkling, averaging 33.3 percent and 3.1 rebounds overall in 16 games. The screens he sets are savvy, but not always strong. He plays tall, using every inch of his 7'1" frame to make himself a make himself an asset on rim protection and a nuisance on the glass, but against the better rebounding teams he doesn't muscle them out. However, when his three ball is falling, he causes spacing and matchup problems for defenses, and that's a bonus.
Lance Thomas is an essential glue man for whom stat lines mean little to nothing. Sure, March 6 he'll swat the Portland Trail Blazers with a steal in the first possession and then drain a three to score the first field goal of the game. Usually, though, it's the boxing out, ball denial, spacing, back screens, deflections and occasional downtown dagger that makes Thomas valuable. In true Thomas form, he's been doing all of those things and precisely the number of them one would expect. He's doing his job.
The Knicks' turnover numbers would no doubt be higher if not for Courtney Lee's Herculean Plastic Man efforts to secure wild passes from his teammates. There's no doubt that a deflection here, a clutch and-one drive there, his sweet cuts, perfect dishes, baseline traps, steals and 114-of-124 record from the free throw line have been beneficial to the team. He quietly puts up 11.9 points per game on a solid 45.0 percent from the field; 40.0 percent from three. On the other hand, the Knicks have had a better +/- when Lee is off the court than when he is on it since the break, and of the Knicks' three recent wins, one came with Lee playing off the bench and one with him inactive.
It's perfectly fair to argue that Enes Kanter doesn't excel at everything and that he's uncomfortable defending away from the rim, allowing opponents to score opponents score 4.0 percent better than their average. However, what he is good at, he's very good at, and he's continued to show his use to the team. He continues to hold a spot in the top-five in the league for offensive rebounding and averages a double-double overall by dodging some of the best rim protectors with slick, powerful post moves. His toughness and will to win are unquestionable, the most recent example being his continued wincing hustle in transition after writhing in pain on the floor after a hard foul. Those qualities are not to be undervalued.
Always taking the time to give due admiration to Trey Burke's fresh braids or interrupt a press conference to hug Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle O'Quinn also adds value with his team spirit off the court. On the hardwood, he's doing everything, 6.9 points, relentless on the glass (5.9 boards in 17 minutes per game) and gorgeous feed after gorgeous feed to find cutting teammates. When he isn't occasionally arguing with Jeff Hornacek on the sidelines about how he's gone soft on Karl Anthony-Towns, KO has positively dominated some nights—eight-point, seven-board, five-assist, three-block effort versus the Toronto Raptors on March 11; a 15-point, 10-board, one-assist, steal-steal, one-block game against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 15. Overall, O'Quinn's D and facilitating for teammates have been energetic and effective all season, and he'll certainly have a strong case for a pay raise this summer.
There are some who will still gnash their teeth growling "we shoulda" at the mention of Dennis Smith Jr. or Donovan Mitchell. However, the Knicks' first-round rookie has performed admirably this season and shown improvement. Late in the season, he's become more assertive with his own shot, ticked up his rebounds and cut back his turnovers. He's as precocious a defender as promised, holding opponents 5.3 percent below their average on two-pointers, 0.7 below on threes. Plus, he handled it with grace when the front office signed more point guards to the roster. Not only has he played effectively as the off-guard to Trey Burke's point, nobody celebrated more than Ntilikina when Burke got a lucky bounce on a wild scoop layup And-1 to put the Knicks ahead by one in the final minute versus the Washington Wizards.
While on a 10-day contract, Troy Williams jammed down a one-handed put-back so thunderous it made the entire Knicks bench reel, stumble and giggle. Williams puts himself in position for these successes and creates for himself with sly, athletic slashing, and has already racked up seven double-digit scoring outings in just 17 games averaging 17 minutes. He's also been effective on the defensive end, staying with opponents with wide stances and smart decisions instead of reach-in fouls. Simply put: Since the All-Star Break, the Knicks have their best +/- when Williams is on the court (-0.6), and their worst +/- when he's off the court (-7.7).
You're probably right: It's ludicrous to grant an A to a man who's played in only one game since the All-Star break. I'm doing it anyway, because players contribute in many ways, and while many may chafe at minutes reductions and "developing young players" once the playoffs are out of reach, Jarrett Jack appears to be the greatest veteran any losing, rebuilding team could have. Instead of complaining about his role, Jack has gone from starting point guard to the loudest jersey-clad super-fan in Madison Square Garden. It was most evident when mic'd up during Monday night's MSG Networks broadcast, he called out notes, jumped out of his seat, cheered on Kyle O'Quinn to get that board, and when Frank Ntilikina faked a behind-the-back dribble on a sneaky drive to the bucket and slam dunk, erupted in a double "Woooo-hooo-hooo-hooo."
When the season began, very few people would have imagined Michael Beasley chasing down Giannis Antetokounmpo on the break to block his shot from behind, scrambling for a loose ball in the thick of three Washington Wizards or closing off Dario Saric's path to the lane by staying in front of him and perfectly stuffing Saric's shot. However, Beasley's defensive effort and overall hustle have continued to show improvement throughout the season, surpassing all expectations. Plus, his shooting has been consistent all year; since the break he's averaging 14.4 points on 52.3 percent shooting from the field, 46.2 percent from long-range. The Beasley show was lavishly seasoned with spicy offensive highlights, from swirling lefty finger rolls to a cross and poster slam on Andre Drummond.
Trey Burke is clearly the best performing point guard on the Knicks roster. One of his best traits is that while he manages to protect the ball far better than the other 1 guards on the squad—only 1.1 turnovers per game compared to 1.9, 1.9, and 1.7 by Mudiay, Jack and Ntilikina, respectively—he also maintains his dribble until the defense forces him not to, thus keeping his offensive options open as long as possible. It might be one his driving layups or calm mid-range step-backs; it might be a nifty dime to one of his bigs for an easy bucket at the hoop. He dropped a cool 42 points on the Charlotte Hornets (in an overtime loss March 26), while also dishing out 12 assists. Overall, Burke is averaging 12.7 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 4.4 assists, almost entirely off the bench. Plus, despite his size (6'1", 191 lbs.), he corrals opponents with pesky defense and pairs well with Ntilikina.
All stats are from NBA Stats and are current entering games on Friday, April. 6,