Phil Jackson bumped into Magic Johnson in Chicago on Thursday and told the legendary Lakers point guard that few players come into the league as polished and NBA-ready as he was nearly 40 years ago.
Johnson, the Lakers’ president, led his team to the NBA title as a rookie in 1980. Now the Knicks hope to draft someone who can help them get into the playoffs.
The Knicks will be seeded seventh in Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery. They have an 18.3 percent chance of getting a top three pick and won’t select any lower than 10th. Most of the top 10 players chosen could be freshmen, and only 19 years old.
Jackson, whose Knicks haven’t reached the postseason in his three full seasons as president, already is asking for people to be patient and let the team’s draft pick grow.
“I told Magic after we bumped into each other and had a little exchange, not too many kids can come into this game and win a championship like he did back in ’80,” Jackson said at the NBA Draft Combine. “They’re just not that way. They’re not that mature.
“Of course, he was a sophomore when he came out. It’s just really tough. The maturation level, particularly the education the game has stepped to, the amount of work it takes physically, mentally, the preparation. We don’t expect a whole lot.”
But New York expects a whole lot.
Kristaps Porzingis delivered after being booed when the Knicks took him fourth two years ago. Jackson said the Knicks will look for “wings and guards” in this draft.
Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox are the three best point guards. Kansas small forward Josh Jackson is the best wing. The Knicks likely would have to jump into the top four to get any of them. Fultz is projected to go first, Ball second, Jackson third and Fox four or five.
Versatile Kentucky combo guard Malik Monk, N.C. State’s Dennis Smith and French guard Frank Ntilikina are possibilities if the Knicks stay at seven or fall in the lottery.
At the Combine, the Knicks met with the only two projected top-10 prospects who showed up: Fultz and Fox.
Jackson said he tries “to knock them off base a little bit and see what their personalities are.” Fox, a cool customer on the court, said he felt the Knicks’ contingent was trying to get him to let his guard down. He didn’t get rattled, though.
“I don’t feel pressure. I’m just going to go in there and be myself,” Fox said. “I felt it. The rest of the guys were like he’s not going to break. That’s how I am. I’m always chill. You’re never going to see me nervous or anything. I’m always just like this. I see this as fun, not just a job.”
Fox said Jackson “was more staring at me, like trying to feel me out” in the meeting. Based on what Fox showed on the court at Kentucky and how he handled himself in his media interviews, he could be ready to handle the pressures that come with playing for the Knicks.
He said he doesn’t know the triangle offense but will learn it in a hurry if the Knicks draft him. Fox, who torched Ball for 39 points in the Sweet 16, also said he and Porzingis would be a lethal duo.
“I don’t know too much about the triangle,” Fox said. “Everyone says it’s hard to learn. But if I go in there and have to play in it, I’ll learn quickly. And Porzingis, he’s amazing . . . He’s great. If I’m able to play with him, I feel like we can do something special.”
Fox’s coach, John Calipari, said Fox and Monk won’t get fazed by the big stage because of all the attention they get and the pressures that comes with playing at basketball-crazed Kentucky. Calipari points to his many former players in the NBA who are handling the huge expectations thrown at them.
“That won’t faze them,” Calipari said. “They all want to win.”
Calipari’s former players include Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Karl-Anthony Towns, Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They tend to perform better than other players when they get to the NBA because of how they were prepared in college.
If the Knicks can grab one of the Kentucky kids, their pick might be able to make an immediate impact. Calipari said Fox has “a buzz” and “a spirit about him” and described Monk as “special.”
“What our kids learn to do is fight,” Calipari said. “They fight. That’s what they learn with us because they have to practice every day and go against it. The kids in this year’s draft will be the same.”
“Coach Cal runs a system like an NBA team,” Fox said. “Everything we learn from the way we run our offense to the terminology that he uses. He just showed us we have to fight going into a man’s world.”
The Knicks haven’t shown enough fight in recent years, especially this past one, when they seemed to have enough talent to contend for a playoff spot but finished 31-51.
It’s another critical offseason for Jackson and the Knicks as they try to build a team that can win now and in the future. The draft is just one avenue. But even the prospects’ staunchest supporter says to give the players time to grow.
“They’re all young,” Calipari said. “They’re 19. They can’t get a beer. They can’t go to a club. If you’re going to draft them, know that. Don’t think they’re 25. They’re not 25. They’re 19.”
The Knicks hope to draft someone who plays beyond his years, or at the very least is worth the wait.