This Knicks young core won’t be the starting five — but maybe it should be

Obi Toppin drives to the basket

Yes, it may only be the preseason, but seeing the Knicks come back in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night was still electrifyingly fun to watch.

The Knicks outscored the Cavs 34-13 in the final frame, with the average age of the players on the court in blue and orange being 21 — and they were all draft picks. 

It was the young guys who made it happen.

Rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, as well as RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox led the way back. Both Barrett and Knox would finish the night with 16 points apiece, while Robinson had a double-double with 13 points and 10 boards. Quickley had nine points and seven assists, with Toppin scoring eight and collecting seven rebounds.

But really, why does that matter given it’s only the preseason? It goes way deeper. These young players can ball, and head coach Tom Thibodeau should be taking plenty of notes after what he saw.

When the regular season begins, a lineup like the one in the fourth quarter Wednesday night probably won’t be the starting five. Players like Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton will most likely touch the hardwood first given their veteran status and the fact that the Knicks brought them back this season.

While Randle performed well against Cleveland – team-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five rebounds and three assists – a larger sample size from a year ago shows that isn’t his consistent stat line. And Payton had a rough night: 2-of-12 from the field, including all four missed threes, but had seven assists. That’s not what you want to see from a starting point guard, if in fact Payton will begin the year in that role. There’s obviously a lot of guards to evaluate at the moment.

But when Thibodeau stands up on the sideline and watches what that group did in the fourth, how could he not love the grittiness, smooth play, and most importantly, lockdown defense? Quickley finished with a team-high plus-19, and Toppin had a plus-16 on the night. Robinson was, well, being Robinson with his team-high four blocks as he protected the rim. And Barrett at plus-13 is what you want to see every night from the No. 3 overall pick a year ago.

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It was the defense that sparked the comeback and Thibodeau loved it, especially in Quickley’s case.

“We got going off our defense and I thought Quick was terrific,” Thibodeau said. “(His) ball pressure, the fact that he can shoot the way he can, it opens up the floor.

“He’s getting better and better. Very productive.”

Thibodeau also noted the “sky’s the limit” for Robinson, whom he called a “great rim protector.” And he also pointed out Barrett’s natural play-making ability that can even get better.

What does that all mean? The Knicks’ mantra is development. In that fourth quarter, those are the players who will embody that mantra.

So Wednesday night should be “Exhibit A” for Thibodeau and the rest of the coaching staff to realize  these players can not only ball, but they are the future of this organization. Of course, the Knicks will take great veteran play from someone like Randle. But the main priority this season, if the Knicks win or lose, should be using the staff to develop these young players into a cohesive bunch that can contend down the road.

Another reason to invest: The Knicks are likely not going to get that big-time superstar soon. I know Thibodeau said it was “critical” for the team, but after Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his supermax deal with the Milwaukee Bucks to go along with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving choosing Brooklyn over the Knicks, it’s hard to see someone else coming over in the immediate. For next offseason, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin all have player options, so that leaves guys like Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan.

Leon Rose can maybe work some magic behind the scenes, but for right now, this roster is what the Knicks got. And all fans want is these draft picks, which includes Frank Ntilikina, to grow into a solid group that can contend for a playoff spot in the East. 

Published: 2020-12-17 21:11:08

Tags: #Knicks #young #core #wont #starting

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