Before Leon Rose was put in place as team president of the Knicks and before Tom Thibodeau arrived as coach, accelerating the rebuilding of the long-struggling franchise, the draft picks assembled for a night like the upcoming NBA Draft were the hope that fans could cling to.
After years of dealing away picks, building back a base where the franchise not only kept its first-round picks, but also began to grab additional picks, gave assets to build with in the future.
The draft is about a month away and the Knicks hold the No. 19 and 21 picks in the first round, as well as the second pick in the second round. Assets to be sure, but not the star-searching picks that they might have seemed like a few years ago. Instead, the Knicks seem unlikely to use those picks to add three players to their roster, instead using them in a package to either move up in the draft or to acquire veteran help for a team that surprised with a fourth-place finish in the East this season.
So it’s not surprising that as the NBA Draft Combine was held in Chicago this past week the Knicks took the opportunity to investigate not only players projected in their draft range, but also to set up interviews and workouts with players projected to land in the lottery. Scott Barnes of Florida State, who has been projected to go as high as a top-seven pick, met with the Knicks, as did Duke’s Jalen Johnson, Stanford’s Ziaire Williams and Connecticut’s James Bouknight.
Rose and Thibodeau were on hand in Chicago, along with general manager Scott Perry and head of college scouting Walt Perrin. The meetings are due diligence, for the possibility of moving up in the draft or a player falling to them, but also to learn about the players for the future when free agency or trades could make them available again.
One thing that has been clear is that the Knicks are searching for backcourt help. With Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose and Frank Ntilikina all free agents and Rose likely the only one with a chance to return, the Knicks need point guard help — but desperately need the sort of dangerous playmaker who can score and shoot like so many other teams boast right now, including Atlanta with Trae Young, who knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs in five games.
Bouknight believes he could be that sort of player. He scored 19 points per game last season for the Huskies, but shot just 30.3% from beyond the arc while handing out 1.9 assists. But those numbers, he believes, don’t tell the whole story.
"I think [three-point shooting] is definitely part of my game that’s underrated," Bouknight said. "And my playmaking ability. I just feel like the role I had at UConn, being that go-to guy to go get the team a bucket when we need one, I sometimes took ill-advised, tough shots. That came with the role I had. I’m not worried at all about my three-point shot, like at all. I think I’m going to surprise a lot of people.
"I feel like the Knicks fit would be great, just another guard you can give the ball and ask him to get a basket. I really feel my playmaking ability is underrated. I feel going to a team where I can showcase that part of my game, I feel I can do that for the Knicks. Watching the playoffs, you see you need that guy to give the ball, and he can just create a basket and make plays for others and be a go-to guy. I feel I can be that as a rookie. I feel I’m someone you can get the ball to and go get a basket."
That might be music to Thibodeau’s ears. He did put the ball into the hands of rookie Immanuel Quickly this past season and loved his ferocious ability to score — noting even in training camp that he believed he could shoot as well as anyone in the league. But Quickley still is more of a scorer than a true point guard. Players like Auburn’s Sharife Cooper possess much more playmaking ability.
Johnson, who left Duke after 13 games amid the pandemic shutdowns, is an intriguing possibility, too, at 6-8 with passing ability that has reminded some of LaMelo Ball.
"I’m a very versatile player, can guard multiple positions,’’ Johnson said. "There’s a lot of things I bring to the table, the passing and making everyone around me better.’’
The homework that the Knicks are doing now will answer some of these questions. And then it’s up to Rose and his front office to see if they can find a way to get the Knicks into range for these players. One thing you can be sure of though — with winning as a priority, three rookies on their roster is not the building that Thibodeau is looking for this summer.