After five straight sub-.500 seasons, the most recent of which saw their best player suffer a major injury that could sideline him for all of the next campaign, the New York Knicks enter the 2018 NBA draft hopeful to land a high-upside talent who can help chart the path toward a brighter future. We’re still a month away from draft night, leaving plenty of time for rumor-mongering and changed minds. In the early going, though, it sounds like New York’s decision-makers — who own June’s No. 9 overall pick after the 2018 NBA draft lottery — might have their sights set on what some folks see as “the most marketable player in [this year’s] NBA draft class.”
From an NBA draft combine recap published Monday morning by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:
Earlier this week, Trae Young’s father, Ray, told the New York Daily News that New York is a desirable destination for his son because of the spotlight its big market creates. “That’s what Trae lives for,” Ray said of his son, who interviewed with New York on Friday. Multiple league sources told me that the Knicks have the hots for the Oklahoma point guard, so the interest is mutual.
That’s right, y’all: we’ve entered #HaveTheHotsForSZN. PREPARE YOURSELVES!
Why the Knicks would want Trae Young
Because the Knicks missed out on Stephen Curry once before, and the front office of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry don’t want it to happen a second time.
The 6-foot-2, 178-pound Young led the nation in scoring and assists as a freshman, averaging 27.4 points and 8.7 dimes per game in his lone year on campus at Oklahoma. He did so with a thoroughly modern game that often bordered on the audacious, pulling up from miles behind the 3-point line, shaking defenders with his dribble, and showing an advanced understanding of how to orchestrate in the pick-and-roll to create windows through which he could throw slick passes to teammates for dunks, layups and open looks.
“Get [Young] in the open floor of an NBA game and he will excel in a way the restrictive nature of college never afforded him,” our Jordan Schultz wrote last month.
At his best last season, Young broke opposing defenses with his remarkable range, stretching them past their breaking points and dispiriting them with bomb after bomb. Pairing a willing playmaker and capable gunner like Young with a healthy-again Kristaps Porzingis in a pick-and-roll-heavy scheme could provide the basis for an explosive attack, an enticing proposition for a Knicks team that has ranked among the NBA’s 10 worst offensive teams in three of the past four seasons.
“I would love playing with a guy like Porzingis who can score, stretch the floor, who can do a lot, a lot of different things,”’ Young told reporters at the draft combine in Chicago over the weekend.
Beyond that, Young plays with a swagger and style that could make him a bona fide star at the next level — “There’s a magic to certain players. There’s an ‘it factor’ that’s hard to quantify, and I believe he has that,” Omar Wilkes, one of Young’s agents at Octagon Sports, recently told ESPN’s Nick DePaula — and, well, New York’s a city that sure likes stars.
“That’s what Trae lives for. He lives for that type of stuff,” his father, Ray, told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Just think about it: He’s probably the most talked about, most publicized kid in this draft and he’s been through it all. Trae’s been scrutinized to the point that he has thick skin. None of that stuff is going to bother him.”
If Young really is equal to the Broadway stage, he and Porzingis would give Mills, Perry and new head coach David Fizdale an exciting pair of bookend under-23 building blocks for the Knicks’ latest reconstruction project — a reason for rank-and-file fandom to rekindle excitement about the future after two decades marked mostly by disappointment.
Why the Knicks might not want Trae Young
Amid torrents of front-office, coaching and roster change, the one constant with the Knicks during the franchise’s long walk in the desert? Bad defenses. New York has finished among the league’s 10 worst teams in points allowed per possession in 11 of the past 14 seasons, and has not ended consecutive seasons with a better-than-league-average D since 1999-2000 and 2000-01 — the last two full seasons that Jeff Van Gundy spent on the Knicks’ bench. (He’d resign 19 games into the following season. The team has had 10 coaches in 16 seasons since.)
The primary knock on Young? He’s a “low-effort defender” with “physical shortcomings” — he recorded the draft combine’s shortest wingspan (6-foot-3) and its third-shortest standing reach (7-foot-11-1/2) — who will need to be protected on the defensive end of the court against NBA competition.
That said, the Knicks might be well-positioned to provide that cover, thanks to the presence of 2017 lottery pick Frank Ntilikina. The 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard with a 7-foot wingspan spent more than 40 percent of his rookie season checking shooting guards and small forwards, according to Krishna Narsu’s defensive positions dashboard, and looked like a lockdown artist in the making in Year 1, limiting opponents to just 0.65 points scored per possession when guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handler and only 0.7 points per possession in isolation situations, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data.
Ntilikina takes the tougher cover every night, Young takes precedence on the ball while Ntilikina (a tentative driver and initiator during his rookie season) spaces the floor and gets to attack from the weak side on secondary actions, and now you’ve got two under-21 guards worth getting excited about. Sounds good, right? Well, maybe not. The Knicks are set to enter next season with six guards already on the roster — rising sophomore Ntilikina, 2017 free-agent signee Tim Hardaway Jr., veteran Courtney Lee, ex-lottery-pick reclamation projects Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke, and reserve Ron Baker.
“[Drafting a guard] would only make sense if you feel that guard is far and away better than what you have on the roster,” Perry recently told reporters. “And we haven’t been able to make that determination yet.”
A wing and a prayer?
Whether or not Young profiles as that significant an upgrade, New York also has more questions than answers on the wing, with Hardaway Jr., veteran Lance Thomas and late-season addition Troy Williams in line to split time at small forward.
“In an ideal world, we’d like to get a wing player,” Mills said during an interview on MSG Network.
“I think if you look at our roster, that position stands out,” Perry added. “I don’t think it’s any secret that we want to get more athletic and we could improve by adding a wing.”
That’s why many draft analysts have suggested swingmen like Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges as potential fits for the Knicks at the ninth spot. In a league where you can never have enough rangy wing players who can defend multiple positions and shoot 3-pointers, players like the two Bridgeses would seem like ideal fits for an aspirationally “positionless” roster in desperate need of a second line of defense between Ntilikina at the point and, eventually, a returned Porzingis at the rim.
Going for Young wouldn’t seem to help the Knicks reach that particular goal. But if he’s still on the board when New York goes on the clock — for what it’s worth, Schultz’s latest mock draft has him headed to the Orlando Magic at No. 6 — and if Mills and Perry believe he can help them get somewhere even better, the Knicks’ bosses may be ready to swing for the fences.
“It all depends on who’s available when we get ready to select, and how we have them tiered or stacked,” Perry told reporters. “If there’s someone down there at a position you think you’re more strong at, at the time, but the player is clearly a better talent then maybe the position of need, then you have that question: do you go ahead and take the greater talent at that time?”
It’s a big hypothetical … and one to which, if a few things break differently than expected, we could get a franchise-altering answer in just four weeks.
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