How to ruin an elite rookie

The Knicks, RJ Barrett, and the cautionary tale of Kevin Knox

BY DAVID THORPE
Art by Mike McGrath, Jr. Instagram: @michaelmcgrathjr Twitter: @mikemcgrath

Picture two rivers running side by side. Their twists and turns mirror each other perfectly, and they begin at the same place. They’re exactly the same in form but, importantly, not in function. One river flows down a steeper hill than the other. Gravity makes one faster.

Now imagine athletes preparing to race kayaks. They’re equally skilled. Their boats and paddles are carbon copies. In all ways, the two sets of competitors are even. The only difference? One is in the fast flowing river, the other in the slower one. It’s no contest.

We talk so much about talent and work ethic—the quality of the kayakers. I’m a couple of decades into training basketball players, and when I watch NBA games, it feels like that quality doesn’t matter as much as who is best positioned to compete and win. 

Which brings us to the next great hope for the New York Knicks, RJ Barrett. He has a chance to be a wonderful NBA player. The example to keep in mind, though, is the promising rookie the Knicks just mishandled. 

The cautionary tale of Kevin Knox
Kevin Knox, Sr. played wide receiver at Florida State—his quarterback was future Knick Charlie Ward—and went on to play eight years in the NFL. His son, Kevin Jr., grew up playing football too, but by his junior year of high school was absurdly tall as a quarterback. So he focused instead on basketball. His family lives in Tampa, a short drive from my home, so I coached against his father and younger brother many times and saw Knox destroy opponents, really looking like a man among boys. 

In high school, Knox played on a team that wasn’t a traditional powerhouse, yet with him they were able to compete with some of the nation’s top teams. Kevin went from a kid who had a chance to a sure thing. Coaches of younger AAU teams, like ours, told their players that Knox was one of the best players in the world for his age. He carried himself like a young professional, gracious and mature, even as his fame grew. Knox played very well for gold medal teams at back-to-back world championships as a 16- and 17-year-old. He was a consensus five-star recruit and a top-10 player in his class. 

Even after he became nationally known, he’d walk into a packed gym to see his dad’s AAU team play, and every pair of eyes would follow his slow gait as he walked to the side of the court where his dad’s team was sitting. He’d quietly watch them play. I never once saw him turn down an autograph or photo request or ignore the fans who just wanted to say hello to what looked like a future NBA star. He was gracious.

He led Kentucky in scoring as a freshman for a reason: He had immense talent as a power forward with the potential to grow into the more demanding small forward position.

Kevin was an excellent teammate, with a reputation as a role model off the court. On the court, though, he had a delightful hint of smashmouth from his football days. In a nutshell, he would try to dunk on EVERYBODY. It worked on a lot of levels to fire up his teammates and to make a name for himself. It was all built on one of basketball’s sacred skill sets: changing speeds. Knox attacked the game with bursts of speed that were at times jaw-dropping.

Knox had everything, it appeared, to become even more successful in the NBA than his dad had been in the NFL: Grace, aggressiveness, very good production at a major college basketball power ... he seemed to be a can’t-miss player with the athletic bloodlines to match. At 6 feet 9 with a 7-foot wingspan, he approached the mold of today’s most effective players—Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George—who do athletic and explosive things all over the court with bodies that once would have been assigned strictly to the paint.

It seemed perfectly appropriate that he was the ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft. A year later, though, he is the least effective player who gets regular minutes in the NBA.

What happened to Kevin Knox?
For Knox, this past year was a near disaster and a clear case of rowing in a very slow river, alongside fellow young underperformers Frank Ntilikina (once the eighth overall pick), Dennis Smith Jr. (ninth), and Emmanuel Mudiay (seventh). The Knicks are bad at this. 

The Knicks were the worst NBA team on offense this season, fifth worst on defense. Every 100 possessions, on average, they fell behind by almost 11 points. Simply put, the Knicks were an awful team. 

They were much better, though, when Knox sat, only 5.5 points behind. The NBA’s offensive and defensive ratings rank him dead last among all players with more than 41 games played and more than 24 minutes per game. Amazingly, 97 percent of NBA lineups outperformed any lineup with Knox in it. 

It’s common for rookies to struggle as they adjust to the bigger, stronger, faster competition of the NBA. But this was something else. Disastrous. There’s no way to get around it. Another year like 2018, and Knox’s days in the NBA could be numbered. It’s likely the Knicks will pick up his third-year option come October. He won’t have that happen again in October 2020, unless things change this season. For that disaster to be averted, his team needs to clear out the clutter and get that river he’s in flowing smoothly. 

The video shows a player struggling to adjust to a new position—small forward—in dire need of two things: ball-handling skill and a plan.

He spent much of the season dribbling around somewhat aimlessly, waiting for a ballscreen to bail him out. His savage attacks at the rim were almost entirely missing. In fact, his lack of using different speeds when attacking was alarming. He played at one tempo consistently, making him far easier to guard. A dribble drive is often a race to the rim—beating the primary defender at the point of attack and then getting to the rim before help arrives. Knox’s methodical drives made him easy to defend both early and late.

This is all a complete departure from his college days, when his quick, assertive attacks almost never required more than a dribble or two. Knox knew how to get buckets and what to avoid, at least as well as can be expected for a freshman. That’s what had scouts so excited. 

The Knicks were unable to put him in those situations. Instead, they put him in pick and rolls, which exposed his middling ball handling. It’s a mistake to assume that he won’t ever have the ability to handle the ball frequently. Durant, George, and James Harden all improved wildly as dribblers since their rookie seasons. 

But this gets to the heart of where the Knicks slowed down Knox’s river. Where he once had a routine need for skill development, now he also needs to rehabilitate his confidence as an attacker. 

For young stars, confidence is the ultimate building block
A player’s confidence is the foundation of success. To understand the value of that confidence, and to appreciate how poorly the Knicks handled Knox, consider this famous story New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman has told many times:

An elderly Bedouin leader thought that by eating turkey he could restore his virility. So he bought a turkey, kept it by his tent and stuffed it with food every day. One day someone stole his turkey. The Bedouin elder called his sons together and told them: "Boys, we are in great danger. Someone has stolen my turkey."

"Father," the sons answered, "what do you need a turkey for?"

"Never mind," he answered, "just get me back my turkey." But the sons ignored him, and a month later someone stole the old man's camel.

"What should we do?" the sons asked. 

"Find my turkey," said the father.

The story ends with something horrible happening to the leader’s family, and when the sons look to their dad for an explanation, he cries: “Once they saw they could take my turkey, we lost everything.” 

Young NBA guys face similar peril in this way. A player without confidence is far less effective, even though his skills are exactly the same as they were when he had it. It doesn’t matter that he’s the same player he was before, it only matters that he doesn’t feel that way.

Knox’s ineffectiveness as a primary ball handler was crushing
Knox’s complex assignment as a primary ball handler in new situations hurt his confidence, which was such a huge part of his game prior to coming to the league. In fact, he never completed a single month with more assists than turnovers. And the Knicks gave him many opportunities to ruin his self-image: He shot a terrible 39 percent on 2-pointers, and often—more than a dozen times a game.

It is said that NBA players need to master at least one skill or talent to make it. That’s ridiculous. Today’s best players have so many skills all over the court. What isn’t absurd is the need for young lottery picks to build their early careers on a foundation that works for them early, earns them playing time, and builds a genuine belief in their future. 

When Harden was new to the league, he took only 7.4 shots per game and had 1.8 assists per game to 1.4 turnovers. The Thunder kept things simple for him, and as a result he played with confidence and built more over time. As a rookie, George took just 6.5 shots an outing. His assists matched his turnovers, 1.1 for each, and though he didn’t look like a future MVP candidate, he entered his second season with his team believing he was on the right track, thanks to explosive plays in transition and a disposition to defend. 

Durant, interestingly, was almost as bad as Knox overall, in how his team performed when he was on the court. But he did find a way to score 20 points a game. A gaudy scoring average on decent shooting proved to his team and himself that he was likely going to win scoring titles one day. His talent in that one area was just that elite. His confidence as a scorer never wavered. 

It would have been amazing for the Knicks to put Knox in roles where he could kick a little butt. There are many ways that could be done. More than a few talent evaluators felt Knox would be best suited to be a stretch four. He made 34 percent of his 3s. Not asking him to do much beyond screen and shoot 3s in the Knicks’ halfcourt offense might have made him more successful. He wouldn’t have been amazing, mind you: Knox is thin and weak, especially in his lower body, making things very hard for him on the interior against veteran players who are so much stronger.

Still, had the Knicks focused their lottery pick on learning that position in year one before expanding his skills later, it’s unlikely he would have been the worst player in the league. Keeping things simple could have done wonders for him. 

Superstars helped young Kawhi
As I have written in Basketball is Jazz, each player among the five on the floor has to connect with the others with some degree of syncopation. None can be too predictable; otherwise, the defense catches on easily. Yet each has to be predictable to one another, fitting in while trying to outplay their opponents. A prime example: Kawhi Leonard in his first season in San Antonio. He took six shots a game playing most of his minutes with at least two Hall of Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, or his captain, Tim Duncan. Often all three stars were alongside Leonard.

I liken rookies to blind people in a sense. Imagine taking the time walking someone who can’t see around a home, letting that person know where every staircase is, where the furniture and walls are, step by step. Once they get the lay of the land, they’ll move around better and better each day. If you moved the walls and the furniture every day, it would be a different story. So it is with rookies who play with good, experienced players.

Put Knox on that Spurs starting lineup, and there’s no chance he plays as badly as he did this year. No way. It’s a much faster river. Would he be as good as Kawhi was? Maybe not, but we can’t know for sure. (If the Knicks surround him with far better players this season and Knox still struggles mightily, then it’s clear the problems rest more on him than the team.)

Instead, Knox played more minutes next to Mudiay than any other guard. If this reads like deja vu, then you know how Knicks fans feel—Mudiay ranked dead last in 2017-18 in Real Plus-Minus for all players who played half the season. (Yes, this year the Knicks employed the three guys who were, statistically, the worst players in the league in each of the last three years, Mario Hezonja being the third guy.)

Take a look at what David Griffin, vice president of basketball operations in New Orleans, is doing with the Pelicans and Zion Williamson. He called Jrue Holiday the face of the franchise, suggesting strongly he’ll keep the outstanding veteran guard to better help Zion learn how to play while winning some games. In a few weeks we will know for certain what he does, but word is he’s actively trying to obtain solid and productive veterans to put in lineups with his new star. 

That speaks volumes to the value of confidence-building. It’s hard for most competitors to take pride in solid production when a team loses so often and so badly. Griffin doesn’t want to expose Zion to that kind of stress in New Orleans. Asking Knox and Barrett to do less this year in New York can pay dividends over time. Let them learn to row in a fast river.

Next year can be better
The to-do list for the Knicks to get Knox on track:

  • Make him an everyday power forward.

  • Add strength so he won’t get pushed around inside. 

  • Limit his role on offense, demanding that he get more involved in the transition game and be more of a shooter and cutter in the halfcourt offense, rather than a playmaker. (That part of his game can be explored AFTER a successful season.)

  • Pair him with Barrett for long stretches. Assuming the Knicks don’t sign any big-name free agents, it could be the Knox-and-Barrett show for years. 

  • Decide where to focus Knox on defense. He’s horrid on and off the ball and isn’t great at reading plays yet, either. He has the potential to be at least an average on-ball defender this season, so getting him to take more pride in that part of his game can bring him closer to average. Studying film and that increased strength will help.

  • Put high IQ players on the court. They don’t need superstars or high-salary players. Get veterans who know how to play. Good passers who know how to help guys get easy baskets. Smart defenders who are typically in the right place. Total professionals who are competitive and build positive cultures.

What to do with Barrett?
While Knox was a very good scorer in college, Barrett is elite—a solid playmaker with the chance to become a good shooter. The most likely mistake the Knicks will make is turning him loose to do what he can. Barrett likes to shoot, there can be no doubt of that. He took five more shots per game last season than Zion, who had the greatest season in college history.

Barrett is far more equipped to be a primary ball handler than Knox, so getting him to think about “us, not me” matters. He isn’t a selfish player, just very confident. That confidence is valuable and needs protection. It would be a mistake to let him fail too much too soon. (Trae Young rebounded from a horrid start with the Hawks last year to a very solid end, but he’s a pretty rare exception.)

The Knicks need to rein in those tendencies early and ask him to focus on scoring within the framework of the offense rather than in isolations. Challenge him to attack open spaces and avoid the crowds. There’s a great lesson to be learned from San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. When asked how Kawhi made such a huge leap from a solid starter to a star, he said “he learned when we call a play for him, it’s for us to score, not necessarily him.” In other words, make the right basketball play for the team.

Barrett also has the body and size to be a good defender. If he plays a limited role on offense, he’ll have the energy to compete harder at the other end. That can pay long-term dividends for him and the Knicks. It’s likely going to be an awful season for them, but progress in developing their new lottery pick can at least seed long-term success from short-term failure.

If the Knicks figure out how to get their franchise flowing downhill faster, their two young lottery picks will reach their significant potential. Otherwise, they’ll either fail or find that potential somewhere else.


Kevin Durant’s difficult right foot

BY HENRY ABBOTT

The Athletic’s Ric Bucher writes:

While a consensus of league executives said they expect Durant—in part because of his 7-foot height, slender frame and ability to effortlessly score from anywhere on the floor without making a move—to still be one of the league's best players upon his return, he is contemplating the most difficult of questions: "What if I'm not?"

He’s 7-feet tall and can shoot from anywhere. Both factors suggest he’ll age better than most. 

But the same article suggests that since his Achilles injury, Durant is now considering guaranteeing himself $31 million more in total career income by signing the biggest possible contract. That would be for five years and $221 million with the Warriors, instead of four years and $190 million with another team (even if he then gets the Warriors to trade him to the team of his choice, after the mandatory six-month waiting period).

If you were making the case for Durant to grab the money now, it would go like this:

  1. Just being 30 years old at one of the NBA’s most athletic positions predicts significant decline. 27 is typically the high point of NBA careers.

  2. Generally—but not always—Achilles injuries are devastating to NBA productivity. In one small study of 18 NBA players, 40 percent didn’t return to the NBA court at all. 

  3. Although players tend to return after about a year, research has shown it is two years before they are fully recovered. At that point Durant will be 32. See point 1.

  4. He has not generally been a great healer. His last big surgery—for a Jones fracture in his foot—required two unplanned follow-up surgeries before healing properly.

Elton Brand tore his Achilles. In January, Brand was a guest on ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast: “That whole kinetic chain: Once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back. No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy.”

And then there is the case of his poor right foot
In late February 2009, Durant was on crutches and in a boot with what was called a Grade II sprained ankle. He missed seven games, then rattled off five years without a significant injury.

Then in 2014, all sorts of stuff went wrong with that same right foot, as Royce Young reported for ESPN.com:

Durant reported to the team's doctors he was feeling some discomfort following a preseason game, and it was later discovered he had a small crack in his right foot. He underwent surgery that appeared to be successful, returning to play for a stretch of nine very good games, albeit under a minutes restriction.

Durant had just dropped 30 points in 19 first-half minutes but stepped on Marreese Speights' foot right before halftime, rolling his ankle and sidelining him for six games. He came back, played wonderfully and then stubbed his big toe against the Cavaliers on a drive to the basket, causing him to sit two games. He played 37 minutes against the Grizzlies but came back too soon and then sat out two more.

Durant came back to play five games, but in 34 minutes against the Grizzlies before the All-Star break, changed his shoes three times during the game and iced his foot throughout because of discomfort. He played 10 minutes in the All-Star Game, against the wishes of the Thunder, and then 37 minutes against the Mavericks the first game after the break.

Because of a screw inserted in his surgically repaired foot rubbing against a bone, Durant was shelved again, undergoing a second surgery to change screws. He tried to come back, returning to practice, but soreness persisted, and eventually he was removed from all basketball activities and underwent an intensive bone graft procedure. 

This Spring he injured his right ankle against the 76ers March 2 and then again against the Suns eight days later, when he left the game with a contusion after landing awkwardly.

Then, of course, in the second-round of the playoffs on May 8 against the Rockets, he strained his right calf and sat out for a month before rupturing his Achilles 12 minutes into his comeback on June 10. 

Re-capping, the area below his right knee he has had:

  • A right ankle sprain more serious than many players ever have. 

  • A fracture in his right foot that needed three surgeries. 

  • And then just over his most recent four months of play, two sprains with a contusion, a calf strain, and a severed Achilles. 

That’s a lot for one little part of his seven-foot long body, including an average of an injury a month over the last four months of play. Will he be back at 100 percent? Anything is possible. We have explored the strange ways bodies move, with the implication that these kinds of issues felt in the extremities very often originate in the core. However Durant moves, the pattern—as played out over 31,305 NBA minutes—stresses the hell out of his right wheel.

“What if I’m not” is a very good and honest question to consider. 


Coming up: A tale of a player on the NBA fringe doing the hard work of reinventing himself.