Somehow, someway, the Knicks have found themselves once again in the precarious position of making a mistake of catastrophic proportions.
From a tanking perspective, their starting five to end the year probably wouldn’t have won any more than 10 games if trotted out for the entire season. This, of course, was by design – finish with the worst record in the NBA with a firm hold on the odds of landing the #1 overall pick in the draft. In typical Knick fashion, they (for reasons still unknown) won a couple games down the stretch that, for all intents and purposes, completely defeated the purpose of tanking, allowing Minnesota to squeak by them with the worst record. Adding insult to injury, they drew the #4 pick in the draft – an absolute monster of a backfire.
So Phil Jackson's brought into win, can't lose on purpose, and the ping pong gods continue to punish us for letting us have Ewing and not ever getting him a ring. The 4 spot in the draft isn't the end of the world by any means. Naturally though, the only "consensus" prospects this year at the top are going 1, 2, 3: Karl Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), and D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State) are all projected to fall in some order to the Timberwolves, Lakers, and Sixers.
It is absolutely imperative that they get this draft right if they're going to right the ship and put out the dumpster fire that's been smoldering since the Isiah Thomas era. So instead of praying one of these three teams reaches up and grabs somebody else (although I'll be praying regardless), let’s have a look at the players available to the New York in the four slot:
Emmanuel Mudiay (China)
Unfortunately for the Knicks, simply comparing Mudiay to Russell Westbrook six thousand fucking times won’t magically transform him. Mudiay spent an injury riddled year playing in China after bailing on Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and Southern Methodist. On tape, he’s got a ton of upside: athletic, great build, a willing passer and shows flashes of the slashing ability Russell Westbrook brings on a nightly basis. What also stands out: a scarily low 57% free throw percentage for a guard, coupled with a 3PT% of 34. Knicks fans may take some solace in the fact Westbrook shot similar numbers during his tenure at UCLA – he shot 55% from the line his freshman year, and his 3PT% coming into the NBA sat around 35%.
At 19 years old, I think it’s safe to say this kid isn’t broken – these problems can be fixed. His current jumper has a release of the ball on the way down – that obviously (hopefully?) won’t stick. But this is exactly what the Knicks do not need – a project. He may live up to the comparisons, but it won’t be for a few years and Carmelo is not getting any younger.
Justise Winslow (Duke)
Winslow also has the build for the NBA, and brings the much desired ability to guard multiple positions and even potentially some leadership coming off a National Championship at Duke (oh and a kinda cool name). His offensive game, however, will be probably be limited in the NBA – his chiseled frame and quick feet allowed him get away with a lot of post points at the collegiate level. He’ll need to develop some resemblance of a dependable jump shot at some point, as he won’t find some of the same successes down low at only 6 feet 6 inches. He brings plenty to the table, but it’s what he doesn’t bring that is concerning. Ultimately, at the 4th spot in the draft, I’d expect Knicks fans to be disappointed in taking Winslow without having traded back for him, but would not mind acquiring him in the 7-10 range.
Mario Hezonja (Croatia), Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia)
At the tip-off of the 2014-2015 season, an NBA record 101 foreign players were on professional rosters. Eight foreign players were drafted inside the top 20 last year, although many of them went to school in the states (notably Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid). Both Mario and Kristaps have had no problems showing off their stuff in Euroball, and both bring completely different skill sets to the NBA level.
Porzingis in particular is high on almost everyone’s list – he’s a lock in the top 7 and the Magic are reportedly incredibly ready to draft him should he fall. The 19 year old 7-footer has played against the best competition in Europe and has a polished, well rounded game. Hezonja has a beautiful, smooth jump shot, a boatload of athleticism and a cockiness about him that scouts seem to love and hate in different realms. After the top 3, these guys are my favorite prospects coming into the draft.
The fear is not what’s on paper for these two. It’s the absolute coinflip that is drafting foreign prospects. And naturally, given their position this year with these two Euro stars right there for the taking, the Knicks are far too familiar with landing the wrong side of that coin:
Italian Danilo Gallinari was drafted by New York at the 6 slot in 2008, who would go on to miss the majority of his first year with back problems, and was subsequently bundled in a package to Denver in the Carmelo trade. In 2002, the Knicks drafted Nene, who went on to have a relatively successful NBA career… after the Knicks turned around and immediately traded him, Marcus Camby, and Mark Jackson for the crumbling Antonio McDyess and a later pick (they would select Maciej Lampe, and he would never be heard from again). And, of course, there's Frederic Weis, the guy most notably remembered for getting completely destroyed by Vince Carter in the 2000 Olympics. After being drafted in the first round (#15 overall), Weis would ultimately refuse a contract with the Knicks, and never play the NBA.
Soooooo yea… the bar can't be set any lower. Hezonja and Porzingis are oozing with talent, and the Knicks are oozing horrible karma and terrible luck. One would think at some point that something’s gotta give. I wouldn’t be so sure.
Once Towns, Okafor, and Russell are off the board, Phil Jackson will be left with an absolute nightmare of a decision. Word on the street is that the apple of his eye of Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, who is viewed as a solid piece of the Zen Master’s dream of a resurrected triangle offense. However, his services could be acquired as far as five to eight picks back, making a selection at the four spot an incredible gamble and waste of a resource they tried so hard (or rather, tried so hard not to try hard) to get.
Trading back is probably the best case scenario for New York, picking up future picks and maybe some more immediate help/incentive for free agents to sign. Teams know they're desperate to get out of that spot, and one can only hope Jackson won't be desperate enough to take a deal that doesn't help them immediately. If a trade scenario doesn't work itself out before the Knicks are on the clock, the Big Apple will hold its collective breath and wish for a miracle. Unfortunately, even a miracle is still probably just short of what they'll need to make it back to relevancy.