The Knicks win with an unremarkable NBA Draft

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images /

Sitting at the Knicks training facility, what was striking about the 2018 NBA Draft after covering this team for so many years was… how normal it all went.

The Knicks selected Kevin Knox with the ninth overall pick in the draft, which is… what a normal team would do.

There is risk involved, to be sure. But in this, Scott Perry’s first go-around as general manager, the Knicks made a choice based on risk and upside. The idiosyncrisies of the triangle offense, whether the owner thought the player would help sell tickets or seemed “New York” enough, the desire to own the headlines in area papers — none of this factored into the decision.

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None of the usual angst applied as Perry walked into the team’s media room and addressed us all on Thursday night, a few minutes after New York selected Knox, and about an hour before they picked the 7-foot-1 big man project Mitchell Robinson with the No. 36 pick in the draft.

This may not seem like a big deal. But for the Knicks, a competent general manager utilizing his staff to rationally improve the team on draft night, well, it felt like a new beginning.

And Knox does that. Any level-headed look at where the Knicks are, and where they need to go, sees this roster as built around twin pillars. One is Kristaps Porzingis, established star, but injured until at least the middle of the upcoming season. He is 22. But while there are no guarantees after knee surgery, planning must include the idea that Porzingis will be your five for the forseeable future.

Then there’s Frank Ntilikina, the parting gift of the Phil Jackson era, who won’t turn 20 until this coming July. It is easy to dismiss his rookie season because of his shooting woes, but another way to think of him is this: at age 19, he was already an elite defender in the league, allowing just 0.855 points per possession, per Synergy, and performing even better against the pick-and-roll ball handlers and in isolation, answering plenty of questions on the defensive end the Knicks haven’t really managed to address since Y2K.

So getting a player like Knox, within the broader team context, made sense.

“I do think he fits with those guys because of his length,” Perry said of Knox. “The game is going to the openness now, if you will, and with pace, and when length and size does matter, and guys being able to play multiple positions matters. So you’re talking about those three individuals having the ability at least to be able to play a couple of positions, that is very important.”

Knox does some things well already. His ability to score on cuts to the basket — 1.65 points per possession, per Synergy — reflects an advanced athleticism and comfort playing within a system. He shot north of 50 percent from the field, and between that and the mechanics of his shot, it is easy to envision utilizing him as a floor spacer, too.

In essence, the Knicks bet on the difference between Knox’s age and that of Mikal Bridges, selected just after him, utilizing that time to turn him into Bridges-plus. For the gamble to work, that means Knox must become a lockdown defender, which Bridges already is, an elite 3-point shooter, which Bridges looks like he’ll be right away, and provide additional value beyond that in a more versatile game.

Just the fact that Perry and the Knicks calmly made such a choice in team-building reflects at least the internal belief that Jim Dolan, not often known for his patience, will sit back and let a long-term process play out.

“It is all about being patient from the very beginning,” Perry said. “But we think this guy is going to come in, even though he is young, we are going to push him to be able to contribute as early as possible. So, it is not like we are looking at the selection of him as a guy who is not going [to help]. Now will he be out there like most rookies, making mistakes and things of that nature? Of course. But I think again, we talked about this team needing more talent and adding to our talent cupboard, if you will. I think Kevin represents that for us. He is a guy that has the level of talent we are looking for.”

If there is any red flag, for me, to Knox, it is that none of those things they need him to be are yet in evidence, at least statistically. He’ll need to be a 40 percent-plus shooter from deep to serve as a primary building block at that wing spot — he shot just 34.1 percent from deep at Kentucky. He’ll need to be a primary wing defender — he was fine, nothing terrible but nothing great, for John Calipari in that role last season.

“Well, I think his length, obviously, and his ability to switch onto various positions,” Perry said about what stood out for him on Knox defensively. “I mean, he is going to grow in that area. Again, we are talking about a young person that still may be not even done growing. He is a very good athlete now, I think he will even get better, athletically. And I think he is very coachable. Again, going back to this time at college where I know he was challenged to play on that end of the floor. All our research tells us too, that he is gonna be a guy that wants to compete, is going to comply, and try to be the very best player he can be. So, we are excited about him being able to become a very solid defender for us.”

He has time to grow — he was born on August 11, 1999, so he won’t even turn 19 until after Summer League, and is closer in age to my second-grade daughter than he is to, say, Quincy Pondexter. So whether the Knicks were right to bet on him over the two Bridges, Mikal and Miles, won’t be clear until sometime next decade.

There were, to be sure, chances for the Knicks to Knicks things up in this draft. Michael Porter, Jr. dropped in this draft because of concerns about his injury history. The team that brought you Antonio McDyess and Amar’e Stoudemire’s guaranteed five-year contract could have embraced its history and ignored those medical reports that scared away so many other teams. Or in an effort to move up, they could have traded future assets, looking for that now splash, chasing the ephemeral draft night cheers of the Barclays Center crowd.

Instead, while Knox vowed to use those scattered boos as motivation, Perry thanked us all for coming and returned to the draft room, where a bit later he grabbed another young potential building block, the 7-foot-1 Robinson, at pick 36. Robinson is just 20, with two weeks, total, of college on his resume, thanks to some eligibility issues at Western Kentucky. But he has first-round talent. And the Knicks need more high-level ability.

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The night reflected a recognition of where the Knicks are, and team-building around that reality. There’s no guarantee any of it will work — the best front offices miss on projecting teenagers, and we don’t yet know whether Perry, Steve Mills and company are even that.

But there were no odd tweets critical of other players in the draft, no ongoing feuds with Knicks already on the team to address, no bigfooting of the analytical process from above.

The Knicks are just an NBA team now trying its best, and that already counts as a victory.