Monday marked the beginning of the New York Knicks 2018-2019 season, as the exciting young team faced off against last season's 8-seed, the Washington Wizards. In an extremely sloppy preseason game (44 turnovers combined), the Knicks defeated the Wizards 124-121 in an overtime period that had the intensity of a pickup game at your local YMCA.
The Knicks came out the gate with blazing speed, showcasing the pace that Head Coach David Fizdale had been pining over all summer long. After finishing 2nd-to-last in the entire league last season in three-pointers attempted (23.3 per game), the young New York squad showed a slight uptick in this category, taking 29 threes and making 13 of them (a very tidy 41%!).
With one game in the history books (totally reliable sample size, right?), I've seen enough to confidently drop some scorching hot takes about this season's roster..
The Summer League-induced hype surrounding the Knicks draft selections was anything but misleading.
If you had the pleasure of watching this game, you'll know that the story of this Knicks victory was the performances by the pair of 2018 NBA Draft selections, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox.
Let's start with Mitchell Robinson who, surprisingly, was the more impressive rookie in Monday's game. Mitch Rob put up a solid 6 points (on 3-4 shooting), along with 7 rebounds and 1 block in 16 minutes. Stats do not tell the entire tale here though.
Considering his lackluster performance in Saturday's Open Practice, where he was repeatedly pushed around by fellow Center, Enes Kanter, I certainly had my doubts about the 7'1" big man. I feared that Robinson wasn't as far along in his development as we had all expected, and I worried that his strong Summer League performance may have been a bit of an aberration.
How wrong I was. Mitchell Robinson was a force in the first half, walling off the rim to the Wizards offense. He showcased his length and defensive instincts that made him so tantalizing as a prospect, and his positional awareness on the defensive side of the ball was extraordinary given his age (20-years-old). Perhaps his best moment of the night was the charge he took against Kelly Oubre Jr. With Oubre barreling to the rim, Robinson noticed the hole in the Knicks defense and moved his feet with the quickness of a guard to get in front of the Wizards swingman. What resulted was a charge, which Robinson had no business earning considering how out of position he was in the first place. On offense, Robinson was a lob-sucking machine. He's one of those guys that can finish just about anything, cleaning up sloppy passes to the rim (a la Deandre Jordan). Seriously, throw anything even remotely close to the cup, and this guy will bring it home for a thunderous slam.
There were still some growing pains, which can best be summarized by my (likely ill-advised) tweet from Saturday's practice:
Mitchell Robinson does the classic “trying to block everything in his sight” thing that a lot of young bigs do, which results in a lot of fouling #openpractice— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) September 29, 2018
Regardless, Robinson showcased his potential as an anchor to an elite defense, further strengthening the points I made in August's article.
Enough about Robinson. The Knicks first-round pick, Kevin Knox, also had an impressive game, recording his first NBA double/double with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Knox started off the game slowly, and likely felt some rookie jitters, missing his first three jump shots. His first field goal was fitting: his already trademarked sweeping right-hook in traffic. His performance really picked up in the second half, after making a sweet 18-foot pull-up jumper in transition. What followed was two swished three-point makes. It still remains to be seen if Knox can shake the label of being a streaky shooter, but the ability to stoke threes with consistency is in there, somewhere.
The one thing that is clear about Knox is that he's going to be an unstoppable force when getting to the rim. With tremendous ball-handling skills for his size, a great motor, and a myriad of finishes, Knox will be a hassle for the opposing defense around the rim.
What really impressed me about his game was his rebounding. Unlike some of his score-first predecessors at the forward position *cough cough, Melo*, Knox has the right instincts when grabbing for boards. He appears to be one of those guys that is always in the right place at the right time, and he has the athleticism to bring down the ball amidst a sea of arms. He has clearly been reading scripture from the Church of Fiz, considering he pushed the ball up the court every single time he grabbed a board on defense. His rebounding will be key for the Knicks, as his finishing abilities make him a lethal threat in transition, which in turn opens up the spacing for his teammates' corner threes.
Last but not least, we can't forget Allonzo Trier, the Knicks 2018 undrafted free agent signing from the University of Arizona. If you looked up the definition of a "gunner" in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of Trier's smiling face next to it. After a very lackluster Summer League performance where he (maybe) passed the ball twice, Trier has shown signs of promise in both Monday's preseason game and Saturday's Open Practice. He's a very shifty player who stole the ankles of not one, but two Wizards players during the fourth quarter.
Trier's biggest skill is playing within himself by putting his head down and getting to the rim. So far, he's showcased a skill that many younger (and older!) players never figure out: utilizing their best skills and their best skills only.
Some more takes...
No one from the trio of former draft lottery selections-turned Knicks' role players has stood out.
That was a mouthful, wasn't it? We need a better name for this group of players (Hezonja, Mudiay, and Vonleh). Let's call them the "Flyer Boyz," shall we? Considering they're all playing for their NBA careers this season.
Anyway, the #FlyerBoyz weren't exactly intoxicating on Monday. Mario Hezonja, a personal favorite of mine, was probably the best of the group.
After an electrifying performance during Saturday's Open Practice that consisted of no-look passes and a barrage of three-pointers, it's safe to say that I was ready for the Hezonja experience in New York (insert: my second shameless Twitter plug).
I’ve doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on Hezonja at this Knicks Open Practice. Dying on this hill— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) September 29, 2018
Hezonja began Monday's game looking downright terrible. First was the bad pull-up three that air-balled with plenty of time on the shot-clock. Then came a silly turnover, as Hezonja forced a pass to the corner that was quickly swallowed up by two defenders. Things on Hezonja Island were looking pretty dire. Rations were low and we were beginning to panic..
That all changed as Hezonja began to heat up in the second half, hitting a couple of threes and threading the needle between three defenders on a nice no-look pass to Mitchell Robinson. Hezonja finished the game a -1, which seemed pretty appropriate. He didn't particularly stand out however there wasn't anything appalling throughout his 22 minutes of playing time.
Noah Vonleh was someone I was checking for during the game. He didn't enter the game until the third quarter, which was surprising, considering he was an inside force during Saturday's scrimmage. The man's body composition is downright ridiculous: 6'9" with a 250lb frame of pure muscle and legs the size of tree trunks. Combine that frame with his age (23 years young) and athleticism, and you'll see why scouts were drooling over him in the first place. He has more speed than most big men his size, and he can easily topple over smaller defenders while banging bodies in the post. In the perfect world, Vonleh would learn the tricks of the trade from Enes Knater, and become one of the best low-post bruisers in the league. After Saturday's scrimmage, it appeared that he was well on his way to earning that title.
This game was a different story. The basketball IQ issues that my colleague, Dylan, detailed in his excellent article were on full display on Monday. His worst moment of the night was when he attempted a lay-up that was spiked into the crowd by former Knick, Jason Smith, of all people. Considering how much of a physical freak he is, it's alarming that even after 5 seasons, Vonleh still hasn't found a place in this league.
Last up is Emmanuel Mudiay, who much like Vonleh, showed no signs of improvement in the weakest part of his game: decision making. Mudiay was 1-6 on the night with a particularly awful finish in traffic that barely grazed the rim during the first quarter. He also lost the ball off his leg during a wide-open breakaway.
- The team plays similar to the Golden State Warriors. - In that they come out the gates like gangbusters in the beginning of both halves. It remains to be seen if they can have the third quarter success that makes the Warriors so deadly, but it's enticing to see the Knicks come out with such intensity.
- Frank Ntilikina does not appear to have progressed on offense. - Frank's biggest problem last season was his tendency to give up the ball too easily on offense. He was tentative, to say the least, and this problem appears to remain unresolved. Frank quietly put up 5 points and 2 assists during the game against the Wizards. He wasn't bad per say, but he didn't do much on the court and frankly wasn't involved at all on offense. This unfortunately resembled his performance during Saturday's Open Practice, and I'm beginning to worry about his fit on offense with this young Knicks core.
- Lance Thomas is finally getting used correctly. - At long last, someone is coaching Lance Thomas the right way. After receiving an undeserved amount of disdain from Knicks fans, Thomas was impressive in Fiz's new system, anchoring the defense with his veteran leadership. Thomas was the leading scorer of the first half, launching corner threes and dropping in some nice floaters. Thomas finished the game with 12 points on a very nice 4-5 shooting night. For the first time since his 2015 contract-year season, Thomas looked comfortable on the court. Perhaps Knicks fans will finally learn to appreciate the most underrated player on this roster, Lance Thomas.
- Kanter is easily the most consistent player on this roster. - (no surprise here). He had some great pick-and-role chemistry with Trey Burke. Speaking of the former Wolverine...
Trey Burke will likely be the starting point guard for this team. He was hands down the most steady guard on the court, finishing the game with a +2 on the night. He flashed those around-the-rim chops that I've written about in great detail in the past, and also produced (arguably) the highlight of the night:
Smooth... pic.twitter.com/i17rWdjs0W— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) October 2, 2018
- For better of for worse, Tim Hardaway Jr. is going to have the green light all season long. - Outside of Knox, Burke, and maybe Trier, Tim Hardaway Jr. is the only player on this Knicks roster that is capable of creating his own shot. Boy does he use this to his advantage. Timmy was particularly trigger-happy against Washington, throwing up 8 attempts in 11 minutes of playing time. It seemed like he barfed up a shot the second the ball touched his hands. Perhaps the most concerning part of his game was his 1-6 shooting night from three. The majority of Hardaway's three pointers were heavily contested, off-the-dribble heaves that occurred early in the shot-clock. These shots are pretty ill-advised, considering the difficulty of these attempts, and the fact that he shot a below-average 31% from three last season. Even with this in mind, Hardaway Jr. showed no signs of slowing down. So yeah, be ready Knicks fans. Tim Hardaway Jr. is here to chuck.