Just about six months after being drafted, Kevin Knox has already taken a front-row seat on the tumultuous roller coaster operated by fans and media that serves as both a euphoric thrill and a nightmarish terror for athletes in New York. It began with a torrid love affair following a Las Vegas Summer League performance that had some Knicks fans ready to squeeze Knox’s No. 20 jersey between Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere in the Madison Square Garden rafters.
Knox averaged 21.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists in four summer league games, prompting local headlines like:
But by the end of November, however, less than 20 games into a rookie season in which he’d already missed significant time due to an ankle injury, Knox saw how quickly things can change. The flowery, hopeful headlines had turned savagely caustic.
You’d think from those headlines that Knox was a high-priced free agent signing who had promised to deliver the Knicks and new head coach David Fizdale an immediate championship — not a 19-year-old, the third-youngest player in the NBA, who was drafted No. 9 overall to a team actively competing for the worst record in the league.
But this is the world that New York rookies enter, and teammate Frank Ntilikina, one of those reportedly ‘soft’ first-rounders who faced the brunt of the harsh criticism last year as a rookie, spoke to Knox early on about the type of scrutiny he’d be under in his first pro season.
“We talked a little bit, obviously I talked to him about my experience,” Ntilikina, who was raised in France before coming to the NBA, told CBS Sports. “I think it was good for him because he was well prepared. He was better prepared than I was, I think, coming from the college experience, staying in the same country. It’s good to see the difference, but I still wanted to talk to him about my experience and how it was. We still to this day talk about it.”
Knox played for one of the most high-profile basketball programs in the country at Kentucky, so Ntilikina’s point is well taken, but the New York fans and media are an entirely different beast. Part of the reason Knox is under such a microscope is that, frankly, until Kristaps Porzingis returns from his ACL injury, Knox is pretty much the only beacon of hope for a desperate Knicks franchise.
While a rookie like Suns forward Mikal Bridges, drafted one spot after Knox with a similar 3-and-D-with-upside profile, gets to hone his craft behind more prominent franchise cornerstones like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, Knox is front and center as New York’s golden child — the one player taking the court every night who could actually develop into a superstar.
As a result, Knox has been handed the keys to the Knicks offense at an extremely early phase in his development, and his lack of experience is showing. His usage rate is sixth among rookies at 21.2 percent, and he’s shot a paltry 37 percent from the field on the season. Bridges’ usage rate, by comparison, is 12.3.
“It’s tough coming in as a rookie, just trying to be that guy, but I think I’ve handled it well,” Knox said after his first game at Oracle Arena, a 122-95 drubbing at the hands of the world champion Warriors. “Just being able to get to my spots. Being more aggressive, finding my shot, knocking down some shots, so I think I just have to keep doing what I’m doing — keep getting better every single day.”
By the way, the New York Daily News headline after that loss to the Warriors, in which Knox had 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting, with two rebounds and no assists? “Kevin Knox and Knicks embarrassed in chance to show Kevin Durant what they’re made of“
It’s not like the fans and media are inventing storylines. Knox has certainly struggled, there’s no doubt about that — his field goal percentage is second to only Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie for the worst among rookies taking at least five shots per game. His assist rate of 5.0 is fourth-worst in the NBA among players with a usage rate of 20 or higher, so he’s struggling to get his teammates involved. One thing Knox is doing, however, is hitting his 3-pointers. He’s at a respectable 35 percent, signifying that at least one aspect of his 3-and-D profile is already panning out.
For Knox, however, spotting up in the corner just isn’t enough. He’s forced to be one of the primary playmakers on a 25th-ranked Knicks offense, and it’s led to some extreme peaks and troughs. His breakout game came in an improbable win over the Milwaukee Bucks, when he scored a career-high 26 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, sparking a stretch that earned Knox Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors for December.
Over his last six games, however, he’s averaging 12.7 points on 33 percent shooting.
Knox’s season will likely continue to vacillate between “he’s the next Paul George” and “why did we draft this guy?” — the same ups and downs experienced by the majority of NBA rookies. He knows he needs to get more efficient from the field and improve defensively, and he stated those as his second-half goals. But as he works through his kinks he’ll also have to face the downside of coming in with such high expectations. That’s the blessing and the curse of playing in the New York market — just as quickly as Knox was criticized, he can be idolized. Just look at Porzingis, who was booed on draft night, like so many Knicks picks over the years, only to evolve into the potential savior of the franchise.
Who knows if Knox will ever become the second star that Knicks fans crave, but one thing’s certain — he’s going to need some time.
“[Knox] is getting better every day at a different aspect of the game,” Fizdale said. “He really takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing. The biggest thing for him is that the game is finally slowing down a little bit. He is starting to see where shots are coming from. He’s starting to slowly recognize his weak-side spots defensively. And you know, again, like I keep telling him, ‘Let your body go. Don’t hold back your athleticism.’
“I think when he truly starts really unraveling that long body, we’re gonna start seeing some more things.”
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