Kevin Knox knew this might be a tough Christmas.
The NBA is hard on teenagers, no matter how easy he made it look in the summer. There’s always a veteran looking to feast on young players — and on Tuesday it’s Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who might just be the MVP favorite as the league arrives at the biggest day on its calendar.
But just in time for only his second opportunity to play in front of a national TV audience, Knox has overcome his early struggles and been showing why the New York Knicks view the rookie forward as the player who could be their long-term answer at a position that’s loaded with superstars.
“I knew at some point it was going to kick back in for him, I just didn’t know when, and now we’re seeing the kid that we thought we had,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “The kid’s talented. He’ll hit some more pitfalls this year, that’s just part of the deal, but the one thing that’s encouraging is that he’s starting to see things a lot more clear and do some things that can be determined as big-time.”
Such as averaging 20.3 points over his last seven games, starting with a 26-point, 15-rebound performance against Charlotte on Dec. 9, when the 19-year-old Knox joined LeBron James as the only teenagers with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
Knox said the key to his surge has been not settling for jumpers, instead using his 6-foot-9 frame to get inside.
“The game is really kind of slowing down for me and that’s a really good thing,” Knox said, “because at the beginning of the year I was going 100 mph with everything I was doing, just running up and down the court as most young dudes are. They come in the league just trying to run and just do what they want, but once the game started to slow down for me I’ve been able to make the right reads.”
Knox is still averaging only 11.6 points, but that figures to keep climbing the way he’s playing now.
“Standing next to him, he’s like 6-9, 6-10, so to be able to have that game, that polished offensively, at that age is incredible,” Phoenix guard Devin Booker said. “So he has a foundation set, he has to keep building on it.”
After one year at Kentucky, Knox was the ninth pick in a strong rookie class highlighted so far by Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton and Atlanta’s Trae Young. The selection drew boos in Brooklyn from Knicks fans who preferred Michael Porter Jr. after he surprisingly dropped past the first few picks.
Knox quickly won over the doubters by averaging 21.3 points in the NBA Summer League, ranking fourth in the league. That elevated hopes of a fan base desperate for success, but Knox knows it’s a long way from summer star to All-Star.
“The summer league, I was playing really well, so they thought that was going to carry over to the season,” Knox said. “But they forget summer league is just a lot of rookies and a lot of guys trying to get themselves back into the league, so it’s not like you’re playing against superstars every night, guys that have been in the league 10 years. So it’s a little bit different: defensive schemes, game plans, top defenders guarding you when you get hot.”
Reality set in quickly. Knox struggled so much during preseason that Fizdale rescinded a starting spot that he’d already said would belong to him, and a sprained ankle in the third game of the regular season would sideline Knox for the next seven games and delay his breakout until just recently.
“The growth that we have seen over the last five or six games gives us tremendous confidence in him,” Knicks President Steve Mills said. “We’re sure that there will be ups and downs as he develops but he clearly has the mental and physical tools to become a very important player on our team.”
Mills could have the opportunity to seek an upgrade at the position this summer, when Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard could be free agents. Knox doesn’t worry about that, figuring he could only improve by having players like that around the team.
“That’s better for me,” Knox said. “I get to learn from them, I get to work out with them every single day after practice, watch film with them, just be able to absorb all the information that KD or Kawhi or whoever comes here” has.
For now, the Knicks are focused on how Knox competes against those players. They were undersized up front last season using guards as forwards, and Fizdale noted that’s no way to match up with players like Durant and James.
Fizdale said Knox’s ability to stop those players isn’t there yet, mostly because he isn’t strong enough. But he pointed to a recent blocked shot against Cleveland as proof that Knox is already making defensive strides, so perhaps it will come in time for future Christmas games.
“Those are the things I’m really pushing him to do more of to eventually build himself into one of the elite wings in the league,” Fizdale said.
Source: The Associated Press