New York Knicks’ Needs and Possible Picks

Killian Hayes
Killian Hayes was one of the best international shooters off the dribble this season, ranking at the 77th percentile for points per possession. (Photo courtesy of 7Days EuroCup)

The 2019-2020 New York Knicks again have another season marred with mediocrity and turnover. With the NBA allowing the top-22 teams to resume a shortened season in Disney World, the Knicks end the season with a 21-45 overall record, sixth worst in the NBA. Any team with a record that poor has either been cursed with injuries to players for long stretches or does not possess the requisite talent to compete on a nightly basis. For the Knicks, it is more of the latter rather than former. 

The team’s poor showing this year led to the firings of President of Basketball Operations Steve Mills and Head Coach David Fizdale, who began the year with a dreadful 4-18 record. The Knicks replaced Mills with Leon Rose, a first-time basketball executive and reputable former sports agent at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), according to Forbes.  It is expected that Rose will soon begin a formal coaching search that possibly has Tom Thibodeau as the favorite from a long list of candidates due to his close relationship with Rose and his experience as an assistant coach for the team, according to a report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Mike Vorkunov. In the meantime, Rose has already begun reshaping the front office with hires such as CAA’s William Wesley (“World Wide Wes”) as executive vice president/senior basketball adviser and Walt Perrin as assistant general manager. Perrin is respected for his scouting abilities after spending 19 years as the Utah Jazz’s vice president of player personnel, according to The New York Post. He should help New York identify talent available in this year’s draft. 

It has repeatedly been acknowledged around the league that this year’s NBA draft does not conspicuously seem to have as many players projected to become high-level contributors on winning teams. Even the top prospects have concerning blemishes in their games. This understanding puts an increased pressure on the Knicks to hopefully find a reliable contributor in the draft since the squad is in desperate need of talent. New York needs to begin improving its two biggest weaknesses and give its most promising players, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, the appropriate teammates that suit their strengths. 

Unsurprisingly, the Knicks are near last place in most traditional team stats since they more often than not are outplayed in most facets of the game. One of the most vital areas for improvement is in perimeter shooting. The Knicks rank 27th out of 30 NBA teams for three-point percentage at 33.7 percent, 29th in attempts per game at 28.4, and 30th in makes per game at 9.6. When it comes to outside shooting, the Knicks’ shortcomings are also accentuated when on defense since they allow the third most three-point makes per game for opponents at 13.3 and also the second highest three-point shooting percentage at 38.1 percent. Another crucial reason for the Knicks’ poor on-court performance is a lack of playmaking from scoring threats. The team is 27th in both assists per game with 22.1 and assist ratio at 55.2 percent. 

On an individual player level, New York’s primary facilitator was not adept at both creating opportunities for teammates and perimeter scoring off the dribble. Elfrid Payton, who had the most starts at point guard with 36, was sixth in the NBA in assist percentage at 38.6 percent. However, his passing proficiency is greatly nullified by his limited scoring ability at 10 points per game (PPG), 43.9 field-goal percentage and a horrid 20.3 three-point percentage. Payton’s subpar scoring ability as a point guard gives defenders the license to go under screens, allowing them to cut off drives and clog passing lanes.

The Knicks can easily address their shooting and playmaking woes in this year’s upcoming draft. The team has a lottery pick that is likely to be in the top-eight, and it has the Los Angeles Clippers’s late first-round pick, thanks to the Marcus Morris trade. If the Knicks are lucky enough to have the ping-pong balls bounce their way for a top-three selection, they must target LaMelo Ball

Ball is a dynamic 6-foot-7 point guard with the passing and dribbling prowess to rejuvenate the Knicks’ offense. When the ball is in Ball’s hands, no pun intended, he is likely to make a play either for himself or his teammates at any time. For the Illawarra Hawks in Australia, he displayed a shifitness off the dribble and an ability to make advanced passes that many NBA point guards are incapable of making. His ability to anticipate how plays will develop gives him the comfortability to use his flashiness functionally at times to keep the defense guessing. Alongside the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, Ball would routinely find him for lob opportunities and drop offs when penetrating into the heart of the defense. 

Ball’s talents as an 18-year-old make him an obvious potential No. 1 pick, but the two biggest strikes that give teams’ cause to pause are his inefficient shooting numbers and his limited sample size. In Australia, Ball put up an atrocious 37.7 field-goal percentage and 25 percent from the three-point line. Those bad shooting stats can likely be attributed to his awkward-looking shooting form, which includes his off-hand seeming to remain on the ball for too long. Yet, he does possess some obvious touch on floaters and other creative finishes that he displays on occasion. With only a 13-game sample size internationally, it is hard to be completely sold on the degree to some of Ball’s strengths and weaknesses. However, if the Knicks are able to select him, he will instantly create easy shots for others, instill fear in opposing defenders, and put Payton in a much more suitable backup role.   

The next player New York should prioritize drafting with their first pick is the French lefty point guard Killian Hayes, whose competition in the German BBL and the EuroCup is roughly akin to the NBA’s G League. Hayes, similar to Ball, is a tall point guard at 6-foot-5 with a knack for advanced passes at only 18 years of age. He differs from Ball by having a stronger reliance on his dominant hand and having a more methodical style of play that shows less of his athleticism. Hayes’ dribble moves are uncannily similar to left-handed guards like D’Angelo Russell. He also flashes a step-back package reminiscent of James Harden on occasion. Hayes, by no means, is guaranteed to reach the differing level of success of these aforementioned players but at such an early stage of his career, parts of his game already resembles them. Hayes is a point guard tailor-made for the NBA’s pick-and-roll-centric offense, as he can already throw one-handed kick outs with ease or slyly drop off passes to teammates in the paint. 

On the Knicks, Hayes’ threat as a pick-and-roll ball handler will free up driving lanes and create more easy catch-and-shoot opportunities for players like Barrett. Scoring-wise, Hayes’ overall field-goal percentage was solid at 48.2 percent over 33 games. But his three point-shooting was not as appealing at 29.4 percent on 3.1 attempts per game. Although he is a talented shooter off the bounce, as evidenced by his 77th percentile ranking for points per possession (PPP), he was in the 12th percentile on catch-and-shoot jump shots for PPP. Usually on his catch-and-shoot attempts, he tends to unnecessarily flick his thumb on his off hand (right). Hayes, also, can have a low release at times, which gives the appearance that he’s pushing his shots from his chest rather than shooting fluidly from a standstill. However, his free-throw percentage is excellent at 87.6 percent, and shooting numbers from the charity stripe are typically a trustworthy indicator for future perimeter shooting numbers. Since Hayes seems to lack above-average athletic burst for a starting point guard, his outside shot must become a reliable weapon for him to reach his ceiling. If the jumper is realized and useful in a multitude of situations, he will have the scoring and passing prowess to be a successful offensive engine that can run an efficient Knicks offense.  

If the top two point guards are taken prior to the Knicks’ pick in the lottery, New York should consider drafting Alabama’s Kira Lewis. He ended his sophomore year as an 18-year-old, making him the same age, if not younger, than some freshmen in college basketball. He possesses elite speed that will translate to the next level and supplements all parts of his game. He was an effective scorer and facilitator, who put up 18 PPG, 5.2 assists per game, 56-percent true shooting, and ranked in the 89th percentile on no-dribble jump shots in spot-up situations. As the primary option on offense, with even more responsibilities than his freshman year, when he already led the team in both points and assists, the sophomore showed steady improvement in all major statistical categories while also improving his efficiency across the board. Lewis has a strong argument for being the most productive freshman-aged player in the nation. His main drawback is his slight, 170-pound frame at 6-foot-3. This is likely the reason for his questionable finishing ability through contact, and will probably lead to him being overpowered on drives to the rim when defended by typical NBA-level guards. 

With that being said, if the major weakness for the 19-year-old is his weight, the Knicks should be comfortable betting on his trajectory for improvement remaining positive. Once Lewis gets on the proper dieting and strength program to improve his physique, his obvious talent for blowing by defenders will be even more dangerous in transition opportunities and deep penetrations to collapse the defense.

It is also worth mentioning that New York should think about drafting the Iowa State-product Tyrese Haliburton, who most consider as a better talent than Lewis and close to the same level as Hayes. Haliburon’s traditional and advanced numbers were fantastic — 15.2 PPG, 2.5 steals per game, a 42 three-point percentage on 5.6 three-point attempts per game, and a 98th-percentile ranking on catch-and-shoot jump shots in the half court with 1.493 points per possession. Coupled with his defensive instincts and his passing abilities, Haliburton shows many signs of being a productive NBA player who can instantly contribute on a variety of teams.

The one situation that I see being the most difficult fit for Haliburton would be as the motor of an offense. His talents are apparent and show in the numbers, yet his deficiencies stylistically would be glaring for New York. He does not embrace enough contact when finishing drives, and his ball handling is solid but not elite enough to break down most NBA defenders for a drive towards the basket or a clean pull-up jumper. Speaking of his jumper, it is very effective from a standstill, but it is not as efficient when in an isolation situation. His NBA floor as a player is exceptionally high especially if paired with another ball-dominant player. In the Knicks’ case, he would be looked upon as the unquestioned primary offensive creator — the role where his ceiling as a player is the most limited unless his handle becomes tighter, and he gets better at creating scoring opportunities for himself.         

With the Knicks’ late first round pick, selecting players with long-term potential should not be the foremost priority since it is far less likely whoever they choose is anything more than a serviceable role player. New York should specifically target players who are ready to be productive in a limited role since the team is devoid of talent, and in case its higher pick needs more developmental time. 

Combo guard Grant Riller from Charleston is a player who can be an instant contributor and should be available in the late 20s. He is an aggressive 23-year-old scorer with the ability to simply put the ball in the hoop — evidenced by his three consecutive seasons of more than 18 PPG. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Riller has an explosive first step to blow by defenders, the size at his position to absorb contact, and the creativity to create his own shot without a screen. The dual reasons why Riller is not expected to be a high-level NBA player is due to his age relative to other prospects, and the weak level of competition that he faced at the mid-major level. These two factors combined are enough for some to doubt the extent his talents carry over to the NBA. However, the Knicks should not be a team that hesitates to select Riller if he is still on the draft board.  

Another player worthy of the Knicks’ late first-round selection is Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes. Hughes’ peak projection is exactly the type of player the league wants more of: NBA-caliber athletes at the wing position, with size and the ability to shoot from range. This season for the Orange, he was challenged to become more of an on-ball threat on offense while still being a consistent shooter. He did shoot only 34.2 percent from beyond the arc; however, it was a high-volume 7.1 attempts per game, with many of them being contested. He does fall to this level of the draft since he projects to be a “three-and-D” wing, who shot a mediocre percentage from distance the past season and is unproven as a man-to-man defender since Syracuse solely plays a 2-3 zone. New York should contemplate selecting him, with the plan of giving him a simplified role as an off-the-bench shooter. 

The last player the Knicks should consider in this spot is another floor spacer: Desmond Bane from TCU. The senior specializes in shooting — he shot over 40 percent from beyond arc in his final three years in college. The release of his jumper does resemble a catapult more than the typical follow through seen in most specialists. Nonetheless, he was at the 96th percentile (1.33 PPP) on three-point shots in the half court. A healthy amount of these opportunities came from movement off the ball, which is a plus.      

Without a doubt, the Knicks should not draft an interior player. The team already has Robinson and Julius Randle, who both should be played over 28 minutes per game next season. The team also has the 20-year-old Kevin Knox, who is more suited to play power forward, as disappointing as his career has been thus far. Additionally, the market for a backup big man is normally cheap as well as deep. The Knicks can easily sign a serviceable role player, such as the Clippers’ JaMychal Green, who has a player option and can become a free agent this summer, according to spotrac.com. 

The New York Knicks have the lowest payroll in the league, and can have as many as eight free agents this upcoming offseason. It is probably worth giving a new deal to only Allonzo Trier, 24, who had a promising rookie year and an injury-riddled sophomore season. Besides him, the remaining young players and veterans are expendable, meaning that the Knicks are free to consider all available options for filling out the roster. New York should also be especially keen on signing shooters and ball movers so as to bolster their weaknesses to at least league averages for the 2020-2021 NBA season.  

Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements:  Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com.  Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.

About Toyloy Brown III 7 Articles
Toyloy is a contributing writer at Hoops Prospects. He is also currently a student majoring in journalism at Quinnipiac University. He is the opinion editor of his school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and has contributed to other sites, including NYChoops.rivals.com, YCteenmag.org, and hayesathletics.org.