Kentucky coach John Calipari cautioned that rebuilding the Knicks will be a long-term project for new head coach Tom Thibodeau, but he added the hiring of Kenny Payne as an assistant should pay immediate dividends if only because of the relationship he enjoys with forwards Julius Randle and Kevin Knox, who were recruited by Payne.
During a video news conference on Wednesday, Calipari praised the work Payne did at Kentucky as lead recruiter and top developmental coach and said his ability to build relationships with players will be critical. Randle is the Knicks’ highest-paid player and leading scorer, but Knox, who was the ninth overall draft pick in 2018, regressed in his second season, averaging just 6.4 points and making only four starts.
“What I’m happy about is the two that know him well, Julius and Kevin, I think you’ll see a change for the better,” Calipari said. “Obviously, Julius has done well, but now, I’m saying that next step up. And Kevin is what I told you guys would happen, it was going to take a year or two for him to get going because of his age, he’s so young. I think that’ll help those two.”
Calipari’s longtime relationships with new Knicks president Leon Rose and executive vice president William Wesley are well-known, but he insisted Thibodeau made Payne his first coaching hire because of his previous relationship with Payne.
“Thibs has been to a bunch of our games, he’s been at practices, so he’s watched Kenny,” Calipari said. “Thibs is thinking, ‘What would I want my staff to look like going forward?’ He and I had a long conversation about Kenny.
“I want the Knicks to win a championship. But my overriding concern is Kenny Payne. That’s, like, my brother. So, it was: ‘Here’s who he is. Here’s his strengths. How are you going to utilize him?’ I wanted to make sure that he understood [Payne is] leaving a great situation here — the highest-paid [assistant] in college basketball. All of a sudden, he’s coming to the Knicks, and it’s going to be a build.
“Thibs was on point. He knew why he wanted [Payne] on his staff with him. He wanted him right by his shoulder. It wasn’t like, ‘I don’t know Kenny. Tell me about Kenny.’ That’s not what it was.”
Thibodeau has a reputation as a demanding coach whose relationships with his players sometimes grow strained. Calipari said Payne can play a role bridging whatever communication gaps might develop and said that’s part of the job for every top assistant.
“The overriding issue here is: What is this culture going to look like?” Calipari said. “I think they can add a piece or two and make some jumps, but to make the jump to be a championship team, a contender, that’s going to take a little time.
“I think Thibs did his homework. I don’t think Leon or Wes or anybody else would go to Thibs and say, ‘You need to hire . . . ’ Never in a million years would that happen. This was Thibs saying, ‘This is how I need to build my staff.’ ”