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Does New York Knicks Forward Kevin Knox Have a Future in the NBA?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2021

New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox II (20) in action during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Washington. The Knicks won 117-99. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The NBA's rookie extension deadline came and went Monday, and as overwhelmingly expected, it passed without a deal being struck between Kevin Knox and New York Knicks. So nonexistent were the chances there'd be an agreement, the absence of one never registered as a blip on the radar. 

In many ways, this is the perfect encapsulation of Knox's time with New York. Rookie extensions are reserved for players who guarantee impact or hint at lasting potential. Knox has done neither, and his future, not just with the Knicks but the NBA at large, hangs in the balance because of it.

Monday's deadline served as a reminder of this more than anything else. It was also a crash course in what could have been. 

The Knicks took Knox at No. 9 in the 2018 draft. A handful of players selected after him just inked long-term deals. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) and Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14) signed what were essentially no-brainer max extensions. Mikal Bridges (No. 10) landed a four-year, $90 million agreement that is almost universally beloved by NBA Twitter.

Missed opportunities on smaller scales loom large, too. Miles Bridges (No. 12) is not on the superstar track, but the Charlotte Hornets will pay dearly for not reaching an extension with him if he delivers an adequate encore to last season, in which he added layers upon layers to his offensive game. Kevin Huerter (No. 19) agreed to a four-year, $65 million deal right in line with the sustainably hot shooting and secondary ball-handling he provides.

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Knicks fans look away… three players drafted after Kevin Knox in the 2018 draft have signed contract extensions worth $434 million over the last month https://t.co/HrGnrY1i3e

And yet, this isn't even just about the players taken after Knox who signed or could've signed extensions. His value is so low it verges on defunct. New York would be much better off with Donte DiVincenzo (No. 17) or Lonnie Walker IV (No. 18) and should noticeably prefer Grayson Allen (No. 21), Aaron Holiday (No. 23) or Anfernee Simons (No. 24). 

None of these players profile as stars. Some don't even have discernible paths forward (DiVincenzo and Walker do). But they have all offered more glimpses into skill sets with staying power—or flashed measurable strengths at all.

Knox has failed to even meet the most fundamental barometer for hope. His outside shooting is the closest he's come. He drilled 39.3 percent of his three-pointers last season, including 52.4 percent of his corner triples. That level of marksmanship has clear value. It is less definable when it comes across a 464-minute, sub-100-attempt sample size.

To what end Knox's lack of development falls on him is debatable. Opportunity is part of growth. He has not enjoyed the license to learn without condition. He saw the most floor time as a rookie, on an aimless 17-win team. His sophomore campaign wanted for stability. His minutes were slashed. Head coach David Fizdale was fired. New York's season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year's Knicks team, meanwhile, was actually good. They finished fourth in the Eastern Conference amid a surprisingly stingy defense and breakouts from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Immediacy is the enemy of inexperience. Knox's development was to some degree collateral damage of New York's meteoric climb up the standings—one that took even the franchise itself by surprise judging by its decision to take Obi Toppin at No. 20 in the 2020 draft, with Randle already on the roster.

Knox hasn't given the Knicks enough reasons to play him.
Knox hasn't given the Knicks enough reasons to play him.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Still, "The Knicks were too good for Kevin Knox to grow" is a half-baked excuse plucked straight from the playbook of Ben Simmons' camp. It might be a symptom of the situation. It's not an explain-all.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau isn't known for warming up to youngsters. He still leaned heavily on Barrett, a sophomore. Immauel Quickley cracked the regular rotation as a rookie. Even Toppin, another rookie, mustered 62 appearances last season, despite playing directly behind an All-NBA Second Team selection. 

Granted, Mitchell Robinson's fractured right foot helped open up the frontline rotation for stretches. But you get the point. Quickley didn't suddenly disappear from the rotation once the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose.

Maybe playing time in New York wasn't a full-on meritocracy. Knox's irrelevance was still far from predetermined. Frank Ntilikina, now of the Dallas Mavericks, has a bigger axe to grind when it comes to opportunities not given. Defensive effort is supposed to resonate with Thibs, and he defended his butt off.

This all begs the question: What now? Do the Knicks view Knox as a project? Someone who can still crack the rotation, even if sparingly, this season? Or is here merely the next Ntilikina, the player they keep through the year only to let leave in free agency without so much as a second thought?

That he remains on the roster implies the Knicks are holding out hope for something—anything. Keeping him beyond the offseason doesn't much sense otherwise. They'd have been better off greasing the wheels of a salary dump over the summer, perhaps to retain Reggie Bullock's cap hold, if they're truly, irreversibly out on him.

Clinging to the idea of Knox is not the most egregious thing in the world. He just turned 22. Youth is forever a mystery box. Romantics will gesture toward his 2018 summer-league performance, in which he flashed everything from absurd shot-making to genuine initiation, albeit with an untenable green light and on lackluster efficiency.

To Knox's credit, he's not under the illusion the Knicks will guarantee him anything—even spot minutes. As he said in early October, per the New York Post's Marc Berman:

"[Thibodeau] really preaches if your shot’s not going in or having a bad shooting day, what else can you bring to the team? For myself, using my length, using my height and my body to really focus on rebounding and defending on the other end. I really feel I can guard 1-to-4. That’s what he really wants to see from me—locking in on that end. He knows what I can do on the offensive end. He wants to see that defensive energy, the rebounding and really flying in transition and using my length all over the court."

On the bright side, there's virtually nowhere for Knox's defense to but up. He guards with frantic confusion, bordering on purposelessness. He will ball-watch and lose track of his primary assignment. There are possessions in which it looks like he's guarding no one. New York has given up more corner three-pointers with him on the court in each of his first three seasons, an uptick for which he is visibly responsible.

Knox will have to show more discipline—more coherent disruption—on that end if he's going to rescue his tenure with the Knicks. More physical rebounding, too. Pure, uninhibited offense wasn't enough last season, when they desperately needed secondary options and three-point snipers. It sure as hell won't be enough now, after they re-signed Derrick Rose and Alec Burks while adding Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker.

Injuries over the course of the season may inevitably open the door. The Knicks, for all their intrigue, are thin on true wings. They let their best perimeter defender walk in free agency (Bullock) and will now depend on Barrett to tackle some of the toughest covers, a role for which he actually seems suited. After him... there's not much.

Knox will be hard-pressed to crack this year's rotation.
Knox will be hard-pressed to crack this year's rotation.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Fournier isn't providing many net-positive defensive minutes. Burks played a lot of 3 last year and is deceptively long but doesn't have the traditional size to hang with power wings. Miles McBride (6'2") and Quentin Grimes (6'5") are on the smaller and lighter ends and also rookies.

Showing any type of improvement on defense is Knox's ticket to—well, who knows. The Knicks haven't re-entered an experimental timeline. They are very much win-now, and failing unplanned disaster, Knox hasn't built up the goodwill to receive extensive looks in meaningful minutes. 

Playing in summer league might've helped. He ended up getting COVID-19—a real setback that must be taking into account. A larger preseason sample could've gone a long way. He totaled 36 minutes across three appearances.

Perhaps Knox's NBA tenure so far really is just incomplete, a perfect storm of imperfect circumstances. Kevin Knox the concept is still very much tantalizing: a dynamic shooter and scorer with the size and handles to be moved up and down the positional spectrum. But potential must eventually give way to results. Without them, Knox will remain an afterthought, someone looped into the draft-bust discourse.

Whether there's still enough time for him to fend off worst-case scenarios depends on the opportunity in front of him. He can't reinvent his career if he doesn't have the chance to play. The Knicks, for their part, no longer have the gradual timeline to give it to him. Another team might.

   

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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