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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks coach David Fizdale has a tough task this season

Julius Randle of the Knicks, left, speaks with

Julius Randle of the Knicks, left, speaks with reporters alongside teammate Marcus Morris during Media Day at MSG Training Center on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. Credit: James Escher

The Knicks are facing another season of player development, but unlike last season, when a trio of rookies were handed the ball and left to find their way, there are no assurances that the development will take place during the actual games this season.

Knicks coach David Fizdale has been handed an awkward job this time around. He is tasked with developing the young players on the roster — rookie RJ Barrett, second-year players Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier and maybe even former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina. But unlike last season, when there was very little public grumbling over playing time — other than Enes Kanter’s nightly news briefing -- the roster has been stocked with a group of established veterans who will expect to get their minutes.

They're not stars, but they are a group of players unlike last season’s reclamation projects. They have accomplished something in the league, and with only one-year guarantees on their contracts, they will be looking to play and put up numbers.

So can Fizdale accomplish both things this season? Can he utilize the veterans to follow the orders from the front office of winning games and showing a grown-up culture? And can the young players still be developed if their minutes drop? 

“At the end of the day, development should always be happening,” Fizdale said. “But I do feel like this group is more ready to win a little more than last year. We’re challenging them to go out and win every game they’ll be playing. Through competition and fighting for your minutes and your spot, you will develop.”

It’s not as though Knox and Robinson and Barrett won’t play. But Knox was handed the ball last season. Robinson was allowed to play through his foul trouble and mistakes. This season those minutes for Knox might belong to Marcus Morris. Robinson might lose minutes to Julius Randle or Bobby Portis. 

Asked if Knox and Robinson could see their minutes drop, Fizdale said, “That’s going to be dependent on them.”

But if they do, Fizdale said that doesn’t mean the development will stop, adding, “Absolutely. You’re fighting for your minutes in practice against talented players, we’re still going to need those guys to win games. They’re going to have to play well to help us win games. Their minutes will be determined on performance.”

“Yeah, you can definitely develop if you’re not playing as much,” Knox said. “There’s a lot of guys in the league that start off when they first come and don’t play much at all, and then they become superstars. Stay in the gym, stay confident in yourself, working on your game in the summer, learning the offense, practice. There’s a lot of guys in the league that I can name that start off not really doing much but just progress and keep developing to great superstars.”

Knox started 57 games as a 19-year-old rookie last season, averaging nearly 30 minutes per game. Portis, who got a $15 million deal from the Knicks for this season, pointed out that he had to wait his turn as a rookie in Chicago. He sat out 20 of the first 24 games and started only four games all season in 2015-16.

“It was great for me having real vets around that all of them had years in the league, had been to the playoffs, had accolades,” Portis said. “They were already established. Pau Gasol, obviously a two-time champion. Joakim Noah, he was a defensive player of the year. Taj Gibson, he was a great sixth man for the Bulls. So I had great veterans in front of me that really showed me the ropes, showed me how to be a good pro.

“I’m really grateful for that opportunity to have those guys. I think without those guys I wouldn’t know how to do things the correct way. All those guys are real true professionals. They come in early, leave late. They showed me how to get treatments, how to keep my body up, all that. I think me going through those trials my rookie year, having to sit out the first 14, 15 games, I think that really helped build my career.”

The NBA’s gamble

The NBA announced this past week that the league has partnered with William Hill, the sportsbook operators. It should not come as a surprise. In 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver penned an op-ed in The New York Times making the case for legal gambling and has not let up in his belief that gambling is happening whether it’s legal or not — and that there was plenty of money to be made by the league in expressing that reality.

While this may seem like a sensitive subject for a league that still stings from the Tim Donaghy game-fixing story from more than a decade ago, the NBA has pushed for ways to maintain the integrity of the game. That’s something that Silver called for in his op-ed five years ago and something that the official league statement concluded with last week, noting, “Throughout the partnership, William Hill and the NBA will collaborate on best-in-class practices to protect the integrity of NBA games.”

William Hill joins MGM Resorts, FanDuel and The Stars Group as official partners and is expected to be the first on-site sports book with the Washington Wizards coming to an agreement to open one later this season.

Brooklyn roots

While Brooklyn might be a dirty word around the Knicks' camp right now after the Nets landed the star free agents whom the Knicks were targeting, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, there was a bit of Brooklyn in the house last week with the appearance of Bernard King.

King visited to offer some advice to the young Knicks players, including Barrett and Knox. He also spent some time with Taj Gibson, who had never met King in person despite growing up in the same housing project and attending the same elementary school.

“We lived in the Fort Greene houses on Myrtle Avenue,” Gibson said. “I was telling him it was good to finally meet him. He’s a legend. You hear about him growing up, but I never got a chance to meet him. To be put in the same category as him being from Fort Greene and getting a chance to meet him was awesome.

“He lived on the other side from me. There’s different parts of Fort Greene, three different sides to the housing [project]. And we’re very competitive and we tried to build off of what he and his brother [Albert] left behind. They built a good rep and the kids tried to represent it the same way.”

Gibson opted for 67 as his jersey number this season — a salute to P.S. 67, where both went to school.

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