Before the season began, the Knicks made it clear that player development was a priority. And while the plan may have taken a twist from the start of training camp when the front office and coach David Fizdale imagined a team just waiting on Kristaps Porzingis and playing a defensive-focused game that would keep them ready for a quick jump forward, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Kevin Knox is being given every opportunity to be ready for those better days.
The 19-year-old rookie has played more minutes per game than all but four rookies in the NBA this season, scoring 12.5 points per game. But it hardly has been a smooth ride from the start. After an eye-opening performance in the Las Vegas Summer League, Knox was penciled in as an opening day starter — until opening day when Fizdale decided he hadn’t earned the spot.
He came off the bench and then in the third game of the season suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for two weeks. He didn’t become a full-time starter until Dec. 12 and he has started the last 28 games — the only constant in an ever-changing roster and lineup. Now, as the Knicks limp to the finish line with 24 games remaining and their place in the upcoming NBA Draft the only real thing to play for, Knox is hopeful of continuing his work-study program for next year.
“Yeah, a lot of ups and downs the first half of the season,” Knox said last week. “Got to keep playing hard, get my rebounding back up. But offensively I’m just going to keep staying aggressive, stay in the gym and make shots. I’ve been struggling a little bit lately, but I’m going to stay in the gym always. I’m not going to be perfect, but go in there and keep working hard so I can come back after the break and get some shots over the break, come back and be more aggressive on defense and offensively.”
Knox has been as erratic as you might expect from the second youngest player in the draft — earning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors in December, but struggling with his shot since the new year began.
“This is the waves of the league that he’s been going through,” Fizdale said. “One night he goes for 20 against Toronto and then he hits a couple of bumps. That’s just the waves of the league for him. Now three-quarters through and he’s probably feeling it a little bit.”
The other problem is that while the last Knicks’ rookie to be tasked with large offensive expectations — Porzingis — had Carmelo Anthony to serve as the primary option. Knox has no such luxury.
"I think it’s a 19-year-old on a team that doesn’t have distractions,” Fizdale said. “This looks a lot different if you throw him on a team with a couple stars and some veterans. The warts come out when you’re depending on every night to be a guy that has to produce. But that’s good for him. He’s got to go through these bumps. He has to understand what that entails to have to carry a scoring load and have to be efficient and also be a guy that helps his team win.”
That is not just a scoring load placed on him. Fizdale believes that the defensive struggles will dissipate when a steady defensive core is placed on the floor around him.
"You could hide him more,” Fizdale said. “Absolutely. No doubt about it. That’s exactly how it is. But we’ve got a bunch of guys, other than [DeAndre Jordan] and Lance [Thomas] running around out there, it’s the blind leading the blind a lot of the time. That’s part of it. They go through those bumps together … How do you rescue a guy in the ocean when you can’t swim? That’s really what we’re seeing with these kids. What I love with them is they stick together and they keep fighting for each other and they keep picking each other up.”