It already was an adjustment for Kevin Knox when he went from the Knicks’ leader in games started and minutes played last season as a rookie to a role off the bench this season with the influx of free-agent veterans to the roster. But Wednesday night in Philadelphia, he played a season-low 10 minutes and 19 seconds and never got off the bench in the second half except to cheer on his teammates.
It was the most notable benching of his young career, a hard lesson coming courtesy of Knicks coach David Fizdale. While Knox has improved his shooting this season, his struggles on the defensive end have cut into his playing time. He averaged 23.6 minutes per game in the first 11 games of the season, but in the last four, he has seen that drop to 14.7 minutes — and no coincidence, Fizdale has pointed to the defense as a reason the team has played better in those games.
“It was his decision he made,” Knox said after Friday’s practice. “I didn’t say I deserved it. I made maybe a couple mental mistakes defensively. That kind of led to that decision. But that’s something I’m not going to sulk about. That’s just a decision he made. So I’m just going to come back next game, go in the game with a mindset defensively, play aggressive, play with energy, so I can be able to stay on the court longer.
“It was tough, but it was something that had to be done. Fiz made the decision so I just made sure I was the best teammate on the bench, made sure I was cheering my guys on, keeping my guys up. I didn’t want to sit at the end of the bench and sulk and cry and just have an attitude because I wasn’t playing. So I had the right mindset going in. Came in the next day, got my work in, watched film on what I need to get better at so when my opportunity comes next time I can be able to produce.”
Knox was moved out of the starting lineup this season in deference to Marcus Morris. It is a delicate balance for the Knicks, relying on Morris, who signed on for a one-year deal this summer. The nine-year veteran is not only playing for his next contract, but with his production figures to be the sort of player the Knicks could move at the February trade deadline to a contending team.
Last year Knox was installed as not just a starter, but the main component in the Knicks plans as he was given extended minutes as a 19-year-old rookie in the name of player development. Now?
“I wouldn’t call it disappointing at all,” Fizdale said. “But I am definitely riding Kevin, to challenge him to go to another level, especially defensively, because I think offensively he’s starting to figure some things out. His shooting percentage is up, finishing around the rim is much better, he’s seeing the floor better. But I want him to take a big jump forward defensively and that’s why I’m really being hard on him right now.”
Knox said he’s used to that, from the lessons taught by his father to his year spent playing at Kentucky for John Calipari.
“I let him know why,” Fizdale said. “We got candid relationships around here. No one’s got thin skin. He and I have been through a lot together already. He knows where I’m coming from. He knows I want the best for him and I’m going to continue to challenge him. He can accept the challenge. You think I’m crazy, Cal is a lot crazier than I [am] and he can take Cal. The kid is going to be just fine. Like I said, his offense has taken that step forward, now I’m pushing his defense to take that step forward.”
“Yeah, that’s something that I’ve lived with my whole life,” Knox said. “I’ve always had discipline. My dad was always on me growing up. I went to Kentucky just for that, so I could have that same mentality going into college, have somebody that’s going to be on me 24-7. Now Fiz, he’s really on us guys to play hard, play with more urgency. So he challenges us, I’m challenging myself as well, so that’s something that I’m going to step up to the challenge and get better at.”
Morris played with a fiery determination Wednesday night in Philadelphia, scoring 22 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, handing out six assists and dragging Joel Embiid to the floor to add a technical foul and a flagrant foul to his stat line.
But when he was asked if it meant something playing in his hometown, where he had secured approximately 50 tickets for family and friends, he could have added another flagrant to his line.
“Not at all. I don’t care about playing at home,” Morris said. “I’ve been playing here for a while. It’s my ninth year now. They can see me any time now because I’m in New York. This doesn’t mean [anything] to me. Winning means the most.”
When Frank Ntilikina scored a season-high 17 points Wednesday, the Knicks also got 13 points from Dennis Smith Jr. off the bench, the best offensive production they have gotten from the point guard position this season.
“I’m happy for him. I’m super excited for him,” Smith Jr. said. “There’s a lot of people that counted him out. I’m definitely a fan of Frank. It’s just all confidence. That’s what me and him talk about. Being confident. We stay on each other about that. No hesitating and going out and playing and having fun. We’ve been doing a good job with that.”