Sunday night at Madison Square Garden will be a time for dreaming. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz will take the floor, and for a moment, the Knicks and their fans can dream about a future in which the native of Elmsford in Westchester County returns home to save the franchise.
But that’s all it is for now, a dream. Mitchell is under contract for three more seasons and $98 million with Utah, with a $37 million player option after that, and Danny Ainge, who oversees the Jazz, has a reputation built much more on fleecing opposing general managers than handing over assets for dimes on the dollar.
So the whispers around the league that the Knicks’ front-office connections in the past with Mitchell, placing former Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant prominently on the Knicks’ bench and his longing to come home will make for an easy union are exaggerated.
And even if the Knicks somehow can come up with a package to suit the Jazz — think RJ Barrett as a starting point, pile on a handful of first-round picks and start adding pieces to match contract value — would it work?
Mitchell was chosen 13th in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Nuggets, who traded him to the Jazz the same night. The Knicks, picking five spots earlier, had chosen Frank Ntilikina.
Mitchell, who is averaging 25.7 points per game this season and 23.8 for his career, has had a solid supporting cast in Utah but has never gotten past the second round of the playoffs. And the Garden floor is littered with a long history of hometown heroes who have had their hearts broken back in New York, with Kemba Walker only the most recent example.
So for now the Knicks soldier on with what they have. They are tied with the Wizards for 11th place in the Eastern Conference, five games out of a play-in spot with 12 games remaining. Alec Burks starts at point guard and second-year guard Immanuel Quickley, off the bench, provides a small part of the offensive firepower that Mitchell delivers for Utah. Quickley is averaging 10.2 points per game, but since the final game before the All-Star break, he has upped that to 14.8 points.
After some sophomore season struggles, he also has managed to navigate the NBA rule changes and figured out how to get to the free-throw line the way he did in his rookie season. In the Knicks’ win over Washington on Friday night, he was 9-for-9 from the line after a 7-for-8 effort Wednesday.
"I’m watching a lot more film and just seeing how everybody else is getting calls," Quickley said. "You know, I had to adjust just like everybody else. I am not consciously trying, but if I see
somebody out of position, I feel like I can get them, and then I’ll try and do that.
"Studying myself — well, first I’m watching other guys who are getting the calls and then I’m seeing myself in the same position and how I can do the same thing. That is usually what I’m watching when I’m watching film, and that’s been working for me. Trae Young gets a lot of calls, Steph [Curry], people that put people in jail, Chris Paul."
Quickley has a long way to go to get into the class of Young, Curry and Paul — not to mention Mitchell. But he’s what the Knicks have for now.
On Friday night, it was the past on display, with Kristaps Porzingis loudly booed by the Garden crowd. On Sunday night, it will be Mitchell, who likely will get a decidedly different reaction.
Asked Friday night about the reaction Porzingis got, Julius Randle smiled and said, "It’s the Garden."