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Tom Thibodeau believes Kenny Payne will help Knicks' player development

Reports say Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne is

Reports say Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne is a finalist for the DePaul job. Credit: AP/Michael Woods

After conducting his first group practice as Knicks coach Wednesday afternoon, it’s not hard to imagine that Tom Thibodeau, holed up in a Manhattan hotel where the team is staying in their mini COVID-bubble, flipped on the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics Eastern Conference finals game.

And he would have seen Tyler Herro, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2019 draft, take over the game with 37 points not even a full season removed from his season at the University of Kentucky. His teammate in Miami and another former Kentucky standout, Bam Adebayo, has been a dominant force as the Heat have moved within one game of the NBA Finals.

As a rookie Herro has been just the sort of player coaches dream about - armed with deadly aim from all over the court and blessed with the confidence of a veteran All-Star. And maybe, as Thibodeau begins his task of rebuilding the Knicks, the connection to those rising Miami stars might forge some positive results.

Through individual workouts last week with players and now in the group sessions, it is the first time that Thibodeau is on the floor with his new roster and also with his new coaching staff. While he brought along some of his longtime associates, the Knicks plucked Kenny Payne from the University of Kentucky to focus on player development.

"Kenny is someone, like I said, I’ve known [Kentucky coach] John Calipari a long time and every year I would get Kenny’s input on all the draft candidates," Thibodeau said Wednesday after the first full practice. "I always thought he was very insightful and he knew the players extremely well. so I thought when we had the opportunity to get him that just made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels."

There are plenty of projects for Payne to work on, including Kevin Knox, who spent one season at Kentucky before enduring an up-and-down rookie campaign followed by a disappointing second season. Along with Johnnie Bryant, who arrived from the Utah Jazz staff with a reputation for player development — having worked with Donovan Mitchell and Portland’s Damian Lillard — there is plenty of work to do. RJ Barrett had a rookie season that didn’t earn him a spot on either the first or second All-Rookie teams despite being plucked No. 3 overall in the draft and handed a starting job from the first game. Mitchell Robinson is talented and athletic, but still raw. Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. have hardly lived up to their lottery pick arrival.

"There’s no magic formula where you’re going to get everything done in one day," Thibodeau said. "I think it’s about establishing and building the right habits to be successful. So you’re putting in the foundation of an offensive system and a defensive system and how you’re going to go about your business. I think it’s all about building the right habits so the team can get better and improve as time goes on. Kevin’s come in and he’s done quite a bit of work. The same thing. I’m getting to know him and he’s getting to know me and it will take some time. But I like what he’s done so far.

"I think for all players the offseason is usually a time where you can add to your game," he added. "Whether you’re a first-year player, second year player or a 10-year player, you’re always trying to add and learn so that’s how you improve.

"You always see tremendous growth from year to year from a lot of veteran players in the league. So I think you never want to stop learning. I think that’s been good. Attitude and approach by the whole team is critical for us in terms of team improvement as well. Because it’s not only a challenge of bringing the best out of yourself but it’s a challenge of bringing the best out of the group as well."

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