NEW ORLEANS — Reality comes quickly for rookies in the NBA. The leap from summer league glory to the grind of the real season — and facing real NBA players every night — provides a wake-up call of just how much they have to learn.
But Knicks first-year coach David Fizdale has little hesitation about playing his rookies, and with the team in a free fall of late, he tweaked the lineup and inserted all three — Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier — into the starting five Friday night against the Pelicans.
If it showed something, it was that the three have as little fear as their coach, as they helped build leads of 16 points in the first quarter and 19 in the second.
As the lead faded down the stretch, Fizdale put all three on the floor again — but this time they looked like, well, rookies.
After never leading in the previous 10 quarters, the Knicks led the entire game until Julius Randle hit two free throws with 2:33 left. From there, a tested group of Pelicans veterans made every big play and the Knicks faltered down the stretch in their fourth straight loss, 129-124.
“These are learning lessons for us,” Fizdale said. “I wanted that young group in there at the end to learn on the road. Can you finish the game? Can you weather the storm from an MVP candidate, an all-defensive guy, a team that last year was a really playoff-tested team? So on the road, I thought that was great experience for our guys . . . I wanted them to go through that and either win it or suffer.”
Suffer it was, as a lead of 11 points with less than eight minutes left turned into another loss.
Perhaps the early lead was more surprising than the eventual fade. The Pelicans’ fourth-quarter surge came with three consecutive turnovers by Tim Hardaway Jr. (30 points). The trio looked like rookies when trying to defend Anthony Davis (43 points, 17 rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (24 points, 10 assists).
“I mean that just shows that we’ve got to learn how to close out games,” Robinson said.
No. 9 overall pick Knox (11 points) made his first start in the previous game. Robinson (seven points, seven rebounds) has been anchored in the starting lineup since the sixth game of the season despite being a second-round pick who didn’t play at all last season (his last game before this season was with Chalmette High School, just a few miles from Smoothie King Center in New Orleans). Trier (11 points) went undrafted, joining the Knicks as a free agent with a two-way contract, and made his second start.
So with three straight one-sided losses entering this game, Fizdale turned to the rookies, putting them in with Hardaway and Emmanuel Mudiay (19 points). The last time the Knicks started three rookies had been April 12, 2017, when Willy Hernangomez, Ron Baker and Maurice N’Dour got the assignment.
Even Fizdale said he didn’t see this coming 16 games into the season, but he added: “I just wanted to keep an open mind to everything and see how it plays out.
“All of these guys to their credit have really shown some great moments in the NBA. So I figured why not look at them all together out there with Timmy and with our best passer and see how that looks.”
Trey Burke (24 points off the bench) referred to a talk from John Starks last week: “He said when that five-minute mark hits in the fourth quarter, it’s a whole other level of focus that we gotta have. It’s not one thing we can just pinpoint. ‘This is it’ or ‘This player did that.’ When that five-minute mark hits in the fourth quarter and it’s a tight game, playoff teams, teams that go deep into the playoffs, they know how to go to another level of focus. Lock in on another level.”