Knicks coach David Fizdale was preparing for the fourth and final preseason game Friday night when he stated the obvious.
“The short preseason now leans more toward the teams that are already established and already kind of got the understanding of who they are,” Fizdale said. “For teams like us, I wish we had eight games. But you try to judge as much as you can, see as much as you can in those four games to get a real pulse on your team.”
Now, with the preseason complete Fizdale has few answers to the nagging questions that began when the front office rebuilt the roster, adding seven free agents and two draft picks over the summer. The player development plan of last season, putting the kids on the floor to learn hard lessons, seems to have been abandoned.
The Knicks have no clear-cut winner at point guard with 2017 lottery pick Frank Ntilikina seemingly an afterthought again even with Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton doing little to show they deserve the job. Fizdale has moved last year’s lottery pick, Kevin Knox, out of the starting lineup. Mitchell Robinson, the hopeful star ascending, did little to prove he could hold off Bobby Portis at center.
The point guard battle has been an object of debate throughout the preseason and after the final game when Ntilikina sat out, Smith shot 2-for-12 and Payton turned the ball over five times, Fizdale was asked if there was any clarity.
“I don’t want to think about it,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “I’ll tell you guys the next time I see you. No, they competed. They really competed hard. They’re making it tough on me. They’re making a tough decision for me.”
The best option might be to throw all three names in a hat and then set the hat on fire and just give the ball to rookie RJ Barrett, who looked as ready for the season as any player on the roster, shuttling between three different positions in the four games while playing more than 37 minutes per game.
In a league where point guards are now the dominant force with the star power at the position scattered around the league, the Knicks have a lottery pick, a free agent signing and a player they dealt away Kristaps Porzingis to obtain and there still seems to be a gaping hole at the position. And it comes with some consequences besides watching the likes of Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker torch them.
The Knicks must make a decision on Ntilikina’s rookie contract extension by the end of the month. An argument could be made that with his defensive skills, the 21-year-old should be given the starting job. And just as likely the Knicks will drop him to third-string point guard and fill-in at other spots.
What the Knicks really have put on display in preseason is that stability is huge for a franchise and restocking the roster every summer — not to mention the hot seat that every coach seems to be on in New York — isn’t exactly the way to create a system that makes it easy to fit new pieces into easily.
“We’re going to keep getting better,” Fizdale said optimistically. “We’ve got a really deep group. Obviously we’ve still got a lot to work on to get connected. But we’re getting better every game. We’ve just got to start building some trust.”
Made for the NBA
While many rookies, particularly one-and-done 19-year-old rookies, have a huge adjustment to the physicality of the NBA, that has not been an issue for Barrett, who arrives in the league with muscle that might not have seemed impressive when he was paired with Zion Williamson at Duke last season. But thrust into the action in the preseason Barrett has shown he can take and deliver punishment.
“I feel like the Knicks drafted me because they knew what I could do,” said Barrett, who was chosen No. 3 overall, two spots behind Williamson, who will start the season resting a sore knee. “That’s my game. I could do that at any level. I’m going to continue to do that and make reads as much as I can.”
Barrett started three games at shooting guard, spotted minutes at point guard and then started at small forward in the final game.
“I said it, man,” Fizdale said. “He doesn’t look like a rookie. He’s a tough kid. He really knows how to play and he’s fearless.”
“Nah, I’m definitely a rookie,” Barrett said before adding, “I feel confident out there. I feel like I deserve to be here. I’m not going to back down at all.”
He averaged 37.4 minutes per game on the floor in the preseason as Fizdale has tried to fast track his learning curve.
“Man, he’s 19,” Fizdale said. “I never got tired when I was 19. I got him down to 35 (minutes Friday), so he’s hard to take off floor, I’m noticing. He does so much stuff to help you win. But I am going to have to figure out a way to manage it, I guess.”
The Knicks waived Kenny Wooten, VJ King and Lamar Peters Saturday morning, cutting the roster down to the maximum 15 guaranteed contracts and one two-way deal. They still have room to add another two-way contract.