GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Courtney Lee, drenched in sweat, was one of the last players on the court long after the Knicks’ practice was over. He was on one end of the practice floor playing one-on-one with Trey Burke. In a small way, he was getting his own work in, but he had more on his mind.
Lee — who missed all five preseason games with a neck sprain suffered in the first week of training camp when Ron Baker collided with him, sending him hard into the stanchion — was back for practice for the first time since those opening days. But as he worked after practice, it wasn’t just to catch up his own game but to teach — Burke, who was in front of him, and rookie Allonzo Trier, who was looking on and listening.
Lee, 33, has started nearly every game in his two seasons with the Knicks, but the role may be something else this time. He is ready for whatever he is handed.
“It doesn’t matter at all,” he said. “Unselfishly thinking, me understanding that we have a young core and that’s the future of the New York Knicks basketball team, so my role coming in is not what’s guaranteed to me, what have I earned in the past. It’s what can I do to help this team?
“That goes for starting, coming off the bench, playing 10 minutes, not playing at all. It’s going to be a way that I’m going to impact the game, whether it be helping these guys every day, pushing them in practice, challenging them. Like I just played Trey one-on-one, challenging them to get better, trying to coach them, being that players’ coach on the court, trying to put them in the right position, help them out as much as possible.
“Or if it’s me going out there and playing, just trying to do everything the right way. Lead by example. And just be that vocal leader also. So it’s whatever the team needs me to do, that’s my role.”
Perhaps it’s surprising that he is here at all. He was shopped at the trade deadline in February and again over the summer, but despite a game that seems suited for a contender — solid defender, locker-room leader and three-point shooter — the Knicks have not gotten the sort of offers worth accepting. So Lee, who has two years left on his contract, is back and taking what he can get on a team seemingly bound for a long season.
Lee said that despite the time off, he feels ready to play in Wednesday’s season opener against the Hawks. But with Tim Hardaway Jr. expected to start at shooting guard and Kevin Knox at small forward, he figures to come off the bench, a role he has discussed with coach David Fizdale.
“I mean, I missed the whole preseason, so it wouldn’t be one of those where if I didn’t play, I’d be bitter about it,” he said. “It’s just being smart and cautious of the injury that I did have. If he does throw me out there, I’ll be ready. That’s why I’ve been putting in the work behind the scenes, before I jumped out in practice with these guys today, so that I would be prepared and ready.
“Me and Fiz had a brief, very, very short conversation. He told me in the summer, ‘I want you here. You’re a Knick and you’re going to have an important role for us.’ That’s all we discussed, that’s all I needed to hear. Whatever it is. You all know me. I’m a pro. I’m a true professional, even when things don’t go my way. I’m still going to stand by my guys and still support my team. That’s all that matters.”