Amar'e Stoudemire had to know what he was getting himself into as the self-proclaimed pioneer of this attempted Knicks' renaissance. Along with the Times Square billboard, the magazine covers, cocktail parties with Donald Trump and hour-long shows dedicated solely to him in the MSG Network programming loop -- all the stuff originally reserved for LeBron James -- also comes the reality that, unlike LeBron and some other superstar free agents who took their talents to South Beach, Amar'e didn't step into an immediate championship-caliber upgrade.
No, once LeBron decided against coming to New York, Plan B was in full effect. And Plan B, as you see, involved maintaining cap flexibility for future moves and building with young players.
And for $100 million, Stoudemire is more than willing to carry the weight (and the wait...for, you know, Carmelo and Chris Paul) while the young roster built around him gets its legs. Perhaps the best news to come out of the preseason so far is that Stoudemire, the centerpiece, has been nothing short of dominant with 22.8 points in 25 minutes per game in four appearances. He had 18 points in 24 minutes against the Wizards on Sunday and once again checked out after three quarters. Knicks fans may have to wait until opening night in Toronto to see how effective Amar'e can be in crunch time, when these wins and losses count.
So right now, though his team isn't inspiring much anticipation with a 2-3 preseason record (only one win against an NBA opponent) and 43.7 percent shooting (40.3 percent against NBA teams).
"It's just a matter of us getting out of training camp mode," Stoudemire said. "We'll get it. It don't take much."
Perhaps Stoudemire's intensity, confidence and diligent preparation (it's good to finally cover an athlete who puts so much pride and effort into maintaining the most important part of his career: his physical fitness) will be a communicable trait that seeps into the pores of two of the team's most important young players, Danilo Gallinari and Anthony Randolph.
It's more obvious with Randolph, who is essentially still a foal trying to become a colt, with flashes of stallion that keep the trainers salivating at his potential. If there's a player who needs to follow Stoudemire around and pick up his work habits, it's Randolph. When you look into his background, you see a player who's development has been stunted because of an alarming lack of coaching and experience. He went to four different high schools, garnered only individual accolades and didn't even make the playoffs as a senior.
Then, in his only college season, his coach, John Brady, was fired mid-season as the LSU Tigers were headed for a losing season. He was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, endured more losing and chafed when Don Nelson criticized his work ethic and tried to bring him along slowly. Nellie caused serious damage to the kid's psyche, but in hindsight it does appear the old coach was onto something. It's crystal clear that Randolph, despite some rare physical tools, has so much to learn.
At this point, Randolph has to focus on the simple, not the complex. Set his mind on becoming a dominant rebounder (he had six boards in 25:34 against Washington) and shot-blocker (0.4 per game in 22 minutes per game in preseason has to improve) and challenge himself to get out on the break every chance he can get, because that's where he can be unstoppable.
And, at least early in his career, he should use the Marcus Camby mold as his standard. That may not be the Kevin Durant he might see himself to be, but ask any GM around the league, Camby is an extremely valuable player to be, as well. (Before the NBA Draft in 2008, Randolph himself made comparisons between Tayshaun Prince and Chris Bosh.)
Of course he has to want to be that kind of a player and sometimes the worst enemy of a young player is himself and what he sees in the mirror. His history suggests he doesn't trust coaches. That's a challenge for Mike D'Antoni, who is going to have to kick the big kid in the butt every now and then when he makes a mistake.
Gallinari has sort of the same problem: he has to want to be what the Knicks need him to be, which is a primary player with a scorer's mentality. I think he has that in him, but when you're shooting as poorly as he is in the preseason (he is at 28.2 percent from the field in four games against NBA teams, rock-bottomed by an 0-for-7 in 21:59 against the Wiz).
He tries very hard to put up a poker face, but you can see the fire in his eyes. After his oh-fer, Gallo could only muster, "I don't know, I don't know . . . I don't know" when asked about his lost jumper, which had been temporarily spotted splashing nets in Hartford on Saturday night.
And Hoopshype made a big deal about Gallo telling Eurosport that the trade rumors involving him and a Carmelo Anthony deal made him feel, "Not good." Gallinari is well aware that the Knicks prefer to keep him and that the best-case scenario involves the Knicks signing Melo as a free agent rather than trading away their best young player for him.
I asked Gallinari how he feels right now about his game -- he had his right forearm packed in ice at halftime of the game, though there was no injury announced -- and he shook his head, "Not good . . . not good. But it's still preseason. We will have a lot of games. Like we said from the beginning, we will have a lot of ups and downs during the season. Some of us will not play great every game. We just have to keep our heads up and keep our [eyes] on the goal."
That might be the most maddening thing about Gallo: how he seems to accept the idea of having a bad night (though I don't believe a word of it). This will be part of his maturation process, of course, and perhaps something that some Amar'e Osmosis will cure. When Gallo plays with a killer instinct -- see: Gallo v Melo, 3/23/10 -- he can be a dynamo.
That's not to say he didn't show a killer instinct against the Wizards. He just shot blanks. He did make a concerted effort to rebound, something the coaching staff has asked him to concentrate on, and in the first quarter he already had five in 10 minutes of play. The only problem is that he finished the game with five in 21:59.
Afterward, Gallo admitted that when he's not scoring, "I have to find a way to be productive" and added that against the Wizards, "I didn't do that."
Despite the struggles of Gallinari and Randolph, the Knicks have reason to be optimistic about some of their other young'uns, such as Timofey Mozgov, who had 12 points, 4 rebounds and a block in 22:26 and curiously didn't play in the fourth quarter despite the fact that he wasn't anywhere near foul trouble. You would think Mozgov could use all the time he can get in preseason to get acclimated, but then again, maybe D'Antoni doesn't want to show too much of what he can do.
Toney Douglas (23 points) finally got his offense to catch up to his defense and made a terrific play on a drive and kick-out to rookie Landry Fields for the game-tying jumper with 26 seconds left. TD has a place in this rotation and has improved since last season as a point guard, but he still has some ways to go when it comes to running the offense.
Fields just continues to make a case for himself as a rotation player who might see minuets ahead of veteran Roger Mason. There's no reason to think that Fields couldn't start at shooting guard and let the Knicks bring Wilson Chandler off the bench. Fields doesn't at all play like a rookie and showed by knocking down that shot that he can handle pressure situations. He's an extremely confident kid who, as D'Antoni said, "just comes in and does everything good."
The question that remains with all of the young players is if being good is good enough. Despite the fact that they are extremely young and, in many cases, extremely inexperienced (only Stoudmire, Mason, Raymond Felton and Ronny Turiaf have seen significant playing time in a playoff game), this group won't be allowed to use that excuse. So they must learn on the job and learn quickly.