The New York Knicks hope to turn a corner in the second season of the Phil Jackson/Derek Fisher era after a franchise worst 17-65 record in 2014-15. New York added eight new players in the offseason, including first-round draft picks Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant, and Carmelo Anthony is back in the lineup after undergoing season-ending knee surgery in February.
The Knicks split their first two games, blowing out a shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks team 122-97 Wednesday night, before dropping their home opener 112-101 to a well-oiled Atlanta Hawks team the following evening.
This team is a work in progress, as Coach Fisher continues to figure out the most effective lineups and the best way to utilize his talent. However, there is plenty of insight to be gleaned from the Knicks’ first two performances.
In any other season, the biggest story in Knicks training camp would have been Anthony’s recovery from knee surgery, but New York fans’ curiosity has centered on the 7’3” Porzingis since the Knicks passed up better-known American talent to select the then 19-year-old Latvian with the fourth pick in the draft.
The Zinger was New York’s highest draft pick since Patrick Ewing was selected first overall in 1985 and could determine the fate of the franchise for the next dozen years. He has drawn comparisons to everybody from future Hall-of-Famers Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki to notorious busts Shawn Bradley and Andrea Bargnani.
After two games, it is apparent that Porzingis is highly skilled for his size. The Latvian has a nice touch around the basket and though he has connected on just one of six three-point attempts, he has looked comfortable launching from well beyond the arc and nailed 36 percent of his long balls for Sevilla in Spain last year.
Porzingis has a surprisingly tight handle and moves very well for a seven-footer, as displayed in this highlight steal, spin and flush against the Hawks.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) October 30, 2015
There is a litany of skilled seven-footers who have gone bust in the NBA. (See Andrea Bargnani and Darko Milicic.) It is too early to say for certain which direction Porzingis’ career will go, though there are two promising signs that he will be more Dirk than Darko: he appears to love the game and he has a little dog in him.
When asked by scouts what most excites him about life in the NBA, Porzingis replied, “I think it’s pretty cool you can get into the gym at any time. You don’t have that option in Europe. So that’s pretty exciting.” via Herring of WSJ.com While that answer may sound canned, all reports by ex-teammates and coaches support the sentiment.
Porzingis has also demonstrated some fight through the first two games. Despite his frail frame, he has repeatedly driven into traffic and banged with bigger bodies, instead of shying away from contact.
It will take a few years for him to learn the intricacies of NBA basketball, e.g. when and how to assert himself offensively, when to pull up for a jumper rather than forcing the drive, how to avoid foul trouble, the nuances of the Triangle Offense, etc. He also desperately needs to put on weight, as he is currently not strong enough to exploit his size on the block, forcing him to drift out to the perimeter.
Porzingis’ ideal role as he continues to fill out is as a pick-and-pop player. The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring makes a compelling argument that Zinger should be playing more time with the second unit, which uses more pick-and-roll sets.
Something I've noticed about Porzingis, and how much better he seems to play with Grant on the court. pic.twitter.com/Oot8rpSHu2
— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) October 30, 2015
The trade that sent Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Atlanta Hawks for the 19th pick in the draft may have been the shrewdest move of Jackson’s tenure as President of the Knicks. New York used the pick to nab point guard Jerian Grant.
Throughout the preseason and the Knicks’ first two games, Grant has demonstrated an excellent feel for the game. He knows how to run an offense and has compiled five and seven assists, respectively, in limited action during the first two games.
Grant’s quickness provides a new dimension to the Knicks’ attack. He has instilled pace into a second unit, which outplayed the starters over the first two games and is the only Knick who can consistently break down a defense by driving into the paint. Fisher has adapted the second unit’s offense to include more pick-and-rolls in order to accommodate Grant’s strengths.
Grant’s inexperience has been evident at times, specifically with some sloppy passes against the Hawks. He has also missed some easy layups after electrifying drives to the rim. Teams are going to go under screens against Grant until he proves that he can consistently knock down the three ball.
Fisher will likely keep Grant with second unit based on that groups success, but do not be surprised if Grant is closing games for the Knicks in the near future.
Carmelo Anthony has no spring in his legs, which is not surprising after knee surgery. He is shooting just 33 percent from the floor, including 1 for 12 from downtown. It may take Melo a couple of months to get his legs underneath him. In the meantime, expect the eight-time all-star to use his strength to bully his way to the basket, as he did against the Hawks. There has to be at least some concern that at age 31, with a lot of mileage on his legs, Anthony will never fully regain the explosiveness that made him such a devastating scorer.
Starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo missed most of training camp and the first two games with a strained left hamstring. The injury is not considered serious, but hamstring injuries tend to linger. The Knicks are counting on Afflalo to be a consistent second option to go with Anthony.
Robin Lopez is as advertised. He is not exceptionally long or a great leaper, but is an intelligent defender who knows how to cover angles and use his body effectively. Lopez showed off a right and left-handed hook shot while putting up 19 points against the Hawks. He and his backup, Kyle O’Quinn, bring a grittiness to the team that was sorely lacking last season.
O’Quinn may have been a steal for the Knicks at $16 million over four years. The bruising big-man has about the same vertical leap as my 96 year-old grandmother, but he has six fouls and he knows how to use them. O’Quinn was quietly effective during his four seasons with the Orlando Magic, averaging 13 points and 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes and has made the most of a bigger role with the Knicks.
He grabbed double-digit boards in each of the first two games. He knocked down an eighteen-foot jumper against the Hawks and even delivered a couple of nifty drop passes for layups out of the triangle. Old School Knicks fans had to delight in the site of the Queens native exhorting his teammates on while trailing the Hawks by 22 late in the third quarter. That is the attitude the Knicks need as they transform a losing culture.
Derrick Williams is looking to create a niche in the league after a disappointing start to his career. The second pick in the 2011 draft led the Knicks in scoring in the preseason with 15 points per game.
Williams put up 24 points on 8 of 17 shooting in the opener and could thrive as the No. 1 option on the second unit. The hybrid forward needs to stop settling for outside jumpers, where he is below-average shooter (30 percent from downtown for his career), rather than using his athleticism to get to the rim. Coach Fisher needs Williams increase his presence on the boards and become a more active defender.
New York started veterans Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic in the first two games, though both could find themselves on the bench before long. Vujacic, who played in Europe most of the past four year, is a spot starter while Afflalo’s hamstring recovers and could find himself out of the rotation when Afflalo returns. Vujacic has a strong understanding of the Triangle Offense and can knock down an open three, but offers little else offensively, and he and Calderon are a liability defensively.
Calderon may be done. The point guard attributed his poor 2014-15 season to a nagging Achilles injury, but he has not looed any better in the early going. Quickness was never the Spaniard’s forte, and at age 34, he cannot even keep backup points guards out of the lane. He takes care of the basketball and is still an above-average three-point shooter, but it is difficult to keep him on the floor, when he cannot penetrate or defend the pick-and-roll.
Look for Grant or second-year guard Langston Galloway to take Calderon’s late-game minutes and possibly his starting spot. Galloway can play both guard positions and is not afraid to take a big shot. He appears to be developing chemistry with Grant who has hit him for several open jumpers. The next step in his development is to incorporate more dribble-drive into his game and put greater pressure on opposing ball-handles.
New York is still unlikely to snag a playoff spot in the inferior Eastern Conference. They lack reliable second and third options and Lopez is probably the only plus defender in the starting lineup. However, the team is headed in the right direction. They added much needed depth and a number of high-character players whose attitudes alone will make the team more competitive. The development of the two rookies and Galloway should also make the Knicks fun to watch.