Kevin Knox was the last player left in the Knicks’ locker room Sunday night — the last left at the Garden, with the Charlotte Hornets already on the bus out of town — and maybe he had good reason to be the last to finish his postgame treatment, shower and finally get to his locker.
Knox had done work, even in a losing effort like so many nights are for the Knicks right now. The 19-year-old rookie had played a season-high 41 minutes and contributed 26 points and 15 rebounds, becoming only the second teenager in NBA history to record at least 25 points and 15 rebounds in a game.
The company he joined with that accomplishment? LeBron James.
That is why, even as the Knicks went down for a fourth straight game to fall to 8-20, David Fizdale wasn’t going to give him a breather.
“I feel pretty good,” Knox said afterward. “I was tired, I’m not going to lie. I was tired, I was getting up and down the court. But Fiz told me he was going to keep me out there, keep playing, keep competing. I just want to make sure I keep getting up and down the floor. I was tired.”
The next step for Knox would seem to be the one Fizdale has navigated carefully — making him a starter.
For 10 straight games, the coach has turned to a lineup that includes players who, at least relative to much of the roster, are veterans: Emmanuel Mudiay and Tim Hardaway Jr. at the guard spots with Enes Kanter, Noah Vonleh and Mario Hezonja on the front line.
But Hezonja played only five minutes Sunday as Fizdale turned to a group consisting of the rookies and second-year players on the roster when the game got out of hand. Frank Ntilikina resurfaced in the last two games after sitting out three straight and responded Sunday with the best offensive performance of his career, scoring 18 points, all in a span of 7:38 in the second half. The group cut a 28-point lead in half but wore down as Fizdale rode them to the finish.
Ntilikina shot 7-for-11, including 4-for-4 from three-point range. “When Frank had his little hot streak going, I run to the corner,” Knox said. “He makes the shot. I run back. I was going back and forth. But I was happy, though. I was cheering him on because I knew how excited he was for this moment and I’m glad he took advantage of it.”
The points are something the Knicks know will come from Knox, but what Fizdale has stressed with the rookie is to rebound. He delivered that Sunday, surpassing his previous game high by six.
Fizdale has spoken at times of Knox not always playing all out, noting an inconsistent motor in his game. But that, even in 41 minutes, has improved.
“Definitely has gotten better with that,” Fizdale said. “He’s made some jumps in that area. He’s going to the rim stronger on more plays. He’s taking that extra dribble that we’ve been talking about a long time, and it’s finally starting to turn the corner a little bit from that standpoint. He’s running the floor harder, going after rebounds above the rim more.
“Again, it’s just a matter of his body adjusting to the physical nature of this game . . . That’s what happens when you’re 19 and you come into a man’s league. They’re going to try to beat you up. But there’s definitely a package of skills there that I’m really happy about, and I think we can really grow.”