Kevin Knox poses with NBA commissioner just after Knox was drafted by the Knicks on June 21, 2018.

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Schmeelk: Knicks Bet On Their Player Development Program In Draft

Picks Need Seasoning Before We Can Judge Them

John Schmeelk
June 22, 2018 - 10:30 am
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Grading any team's draft the day after is stupid, and I’m not going to do it. Let’s start there.

It can take three years to figure out exactly what these players are going to become, and there’s no way to know for sure how good any of these guys are going to be. One thing is clear, however: The Knicks bet on their ability to develop players.

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The Knicks left the 2018 NBA draft with 18-year-old forward Kevin Knox and a straight-from-high-school center in 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson. Both players have tools but have a long way to go to become the players the Knicks are counting on them to be for this to turn into a productive draft. The Knicks have been very vocal in their confidence in their new (somewhat secretive) developmental program led by Craig Robinson. It is about to be put to the test.

So let’s cut through the noise and break down Knox a little.

Traits: Knox stands at 6 feet 9 inches with a 7-foot wingspan at 212 pounds. He isn’t the twitchiest player with his first step or especially explosive going to the basket. He’s more of a smooth and coordinated athlete. The Knicks refer to him as a combo forward, while Knox believes he is a straight-up small forward or wing. But his measurements, traits and skillset, at least in my opinion, translate best to a stretch four in the NBA. There are 6-5 guards playing small forward in today’s NBA, and I’m not sure Knox can stay with them off the dribble.

What We Know He Can Do: In college, Knox got the majority of his points in three ways: jumpers, floaters and transition dunks. He has a smooth shooting stroke and hit jumpers off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. He also shot well off of movement and featured a decent floater in the lane. His finishing ability in transition was also strong. All of this projects to an effective stretch four offensively.

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What He Didn’t Do In College: Knox was not asked to create off the dribble in isolation or pick-and-roll in college, nor did he show any signs of playmaking or passing ability. He rarely took someone off the dribble and got all the way to the basket in a half-court setting. His motor was inconsistent, and he often got lost within games on both ends of the floor. His defense, especially on quicker players, left something to be desired. His lack of activity is reflected in his inconsistent team defense, pedestrian 5.4 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.3 blocks per game.

The Knicks must have reason to believe Knox is a lot more than the player he showed under John Calipari at Kentucky. It is quite obvious they were very impressed with his performance in the group workout he was a part of with Miles Bridges. It’s often risky to put too much credence into a workout, but perhaps he convinced the Knicks' front office he can do some of the things he did not show in college.

Calipari has the tendency to put his players into very specific roles at Kentucky, and it might be possible that he simply didn’t allow Knox to be a playmaker with the ball, even though he is capable of it. Calipari often had him running around screens like he used to with Malik Monk. Predraft workouts are designed for showing offensive skills, but bringing those to real in-game situations can be tricky. The Knicks are hoping what they saw in the workout will translate much better in the NBA than it did in college.  

Knox's poor team defense, inconsistent motor and lack of activity are all things that would be tough to disprove in a workout setting, but perhaps he shut down Bridges, which gave the front office hope he could grow on that end of the floor? I find player development programs are much better at improving fundamentals and things like shooting technique, but sometimes they are ineffective in turning a low-activity, non-instinctual defender into someone who is a plus on that end of the floor. We’ll soon find out if the Knicks can do that with Knox.

If Knox develops his game to the point that he can play and defend both forward spots, rebound and make plays off the dribble for himself and others, he would prove to be a no-brainer pick at No. 9. He just didn’t show he could do those things in college. He says he can, and the Knicks seem to believe he can eventually become that guy as well. The Knicks will have to get him better at those things once he is in their development program if he is going to evolve into the type of player deserving of the ninth pick. The physical traits are there, even if the high-end athleticism isn’t.

When the Knicks were set to pick at No. 9, they only had four realistic options: Missouri power forward Michael Porter Jr., Villanova small forward Mikal Bridges, Michigan State small forward Miles Bridges and Knox. Clearly there was something very disturbing in Porter’s medical reports since he dropped all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. Without knowing what the reports said about the long-term prognosis of his back injury, it isn’t fair to criticize the Knicks for passing on him, since they did have that information at their disposal.

As for the two Bridges, they were my preference for a couple of reasons. Mikal had two NBA-ready skills: elite shooting and strong defense. He was an older prospect, three years older than Knox. I think people overrate their ability to predict upside, but most people see Bridges as having a low ceiling when it comes to his optimum developmental outcome. If he becomes a Klay Thompson-type player, the Knicks will regret passing on him.

Miles Bridges is an interesting case. He is only one year older than Knox and was a far more advanced player in college. He is a more explosive athlete, a better defender on wings due to his side-to-side movement, a superior rebounder and a better finisher. Miles Bridges did far more with the ball in his hands as a playmaker and shot the ball better. He is one year older and 3 inches shorter than Knox in both height and wingspan. Perhaps those characteristics, along with the poor workout showing against Knox, are why Miles Bridges was not heavily considered?

Mitchell Robinson, meanwhile, was a bit of a shot in the dark. He hasn’t played basketball since high school because after deciding to attend Western Kentucky, he left school and took a whole year off preparing for this draft process rather than playing in the D-League or in Europe. He’s made some questionable decisions with his career that raises questions as to who is advising him.

In terms of Mitchell Robinson as a player, he was ranked as the 11th-best prospect in 2017, right next to Knox and Jaren Jackson Jr. He blocked shots well in high school with his 7-4 wingspan and should be a big-time rim runner. He’s an athlete with switching potential on the perimeter (down the road), but his strength right away is as a rim protector. This is a risky pick, and Robinson will likely need some time before he can even step onto an NBA floor and contribute.

There were still some wings on the board when the Knicks selected Robinson, but it is hard to argue against the pick when he has so much untapped potential. It’s a worthy roll of the dice.

Alonzo Trier was a late undrafted free agent signed by the Knicks to a two-way contract. The combo guard scored 18 points per game on 50 percent shooting and 38 percent from 3-point range as a junior at Arizona. He’s 6-5 with a 6-7 wingspan, but has a ton of questions surrounding his defense. There’s no doubt he can score and gives the Knicks a player with a real NBA skillset.

Both Knox and Robinson are both young, full of potential and very unfinished products. It will be the Knicks job to get the best out of them. These draft picks might become very good contributors, or they might fizzle if they can’t improve on their flaws. It will determine whether this draft was another step in the right direction, or a big setback for an organization that certainly can’t afford one at this stage of its rebuild.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk