3 Observations

1. Noah Vonleh is doing the little things.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s been doing the big things, too. Most notably, he’s added a three-pointer to his repertoire, which (teaser alert!) I plan to examine in-depth in a future article. He’s coming off three straight double-doubles and he’s energized the team with several highlight-reel blocks. He even led the team in assists on Friday night versus the Pelicans with five dimes. But, I want to focus on a different kind of playmaking: his screen assists. At 6.8 screen assist points per game, Vonleh leads the team at freeing up his teammates for buckets, per NBA.com. Lately, he’s been developing even more screening chemistry with Knicks ball-handlers. In his last five games, he’s averaging 9.4 screen assist points per game, a number that would rank him 11th in the entire league for the season.

In the Celtics game, Vonleh had two consecutive plays, freeing up Trey Burke for open looks. Here’s the first:

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It’s a nice mind meld between the two players. At first, Vonleh realizes he can’t get to the spot in time to disrupt Jaylen Brown’s pursuit of Burke. So, Burke steps back, going between his legs and Vonleh is ready for the re-screen. Vonleh even moves his body just enough to impede Brown’s contest without being called for the offensive foul.

In this second play, watch how Vonleh flips the direction of his screen at the last second. The audible leaves the Celtics center Daniel Theis a step behind Burke, resulting in the and-one layup:

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Take a look at this last play: a little two-man game with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Vonleh.

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Vonleh appears to be trying to post up Gordon Hayward, but we know better. Marcus Morris thinks he’s forcing THJ towards a helping Hayward. Instead, Vonleh has sealed Gordon, rendering him unable to slow Hardaway’s drive. The result is another three-point play. Vonleh will not record any screen assist points for this play, but it’s a technicality. Vonleh effectively screened his own man, leading to Hardaway’s layup. The more chemistry Vonleh develops with these lead ball-handlers, the more potent these pick-and-rolls will become.

2. Emmanuel Mudiay has been awesome…but he needs to improve defensively.

In my last article for The BBall Index, I looked at Mudiay’s improved touch around the basket. Since that piece ran, Mudiay has been even more impressive, including a clutch 27-point, 7 rebound, 4 steal performance in their win against New Orleans. But, if we’re going to celebrate the positives, we need to point out the negatives as well. There have been times this season when Mudiay’s defensive effort has looked poor. There’s a reason the team’s defensive rating is 4.2 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. Check out this play in which Mudiay turns it over with a lazy pass, then jogs back:

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After such a bad turnover, you’d like to see more urgency from Mudiay. Instead, he loafs back, leaving Mario Hezonja in an extremely difficult position, trying to defend two players at once.

In this next example, Mudiay is unable to get between his man (Kyrie Irving) and the basket. Watch the chain reaction that creates:

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Mudiay’s positioning forces Enes Kanter to stop the ball, leaving his man (Aaron Baynes) wide open at the top of the key. Frank Ntilikina rotates to help and THJ even leaves his man (Gordon Hayward) to fill. All the while, Mudiay is ball-watching, unable or unwilling to anticipate the obvious next move, a wide open Hayward corner three. Luckily, Hayward misfires, but it’s the process that is worrisome here.

The ugly relative of ball-watching is ball-chasing. Going back to that Celtics game, we’ll find an example of that too.

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You can argue that Mudiay didn’t trust Kanter to make up the ground to contest that long two by Al Horford. But, even then, a long two by Horford is a much better outcome than a wide-open three by Irving. You can tell that Kanter is perplexed by Mudiay’s maneuver. He throws his hands up in confusion twice on the play: once when he sees Irving wide open and a second time when the ball drops through the net. When Kanter is the voice of reason on defense, you know something has gone wrong.

3. Knicks’ issues boxing out have led to way too many second chance opportunities.

This is an obvious, but important one. On the season, the Knicks rank 27th in second chance points allowed, surrendering 16 points per game. Lately, it’s been even worse. In the last 10 games, no team has given up more second chance points at nearly 19 per game.

The root cause is also obvious: the Knicks are not boxing out on the defensive end. Per NBA.com’s hustle data, the Knicks rank 29th in the league in defensive box outs at just under 20 per game. Watch Allonzo Trier on the play below:

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Trier looks back multiple times to confirm Smart is behind him, but makes no effort to box out. I’m not worried about these guys’ desire to compete for loose balls. It’s a simple fundamental that Fizdale and his staff need to continue to harp on until boxing out becomes second nature. Per Cleaning The Glass, Trier has ranked in the 32nd percentile in defensive rebounding among his position.

According to CTG, Trier isn’t even among the worst culprits, though. Kevin Knox has only rebounded on 8.6% of opponents’ misses, placing him the 4th percentile among his position. Mitchell Robinson (7th percentile) and Frank Ntilikina (10th percentile) are both in the bottom 10% of their respective positions as well. The common theme here is the Knicks’ poorest defensive rebounders are all extraordinarily young. Look for them to improve in this area as the season progresses. Also, it hasn’t helped that Dotson has received three consecutive DNP-CDs. He is one of the team’s best rebounders, ranking in the 79th percentile among wings, which leads me to my first question.

2 Questions

1. In what world does Mario Hezonja deserve playing time over Damyean Dotson?

Look, I understand Fizdale’s whole, “I’m just tinkering and seeing what we have for these first ~20 games” thing. It’s fine to tinker. But, giving Dotson three consecutive goose eggs still feels like malpractice. He is the only reliable two-way option on the perimeter. Leaving him on the bench in favor of Hezonja sends the wrong message to the team about how it values defense.

I know Fizdale supporters will point to Trey Burke’s success story: going from starter to multiple DNP-CDs back to stud. But, Burke’s benching could at least be justified at the time. He was really struggling to find his shot and his size automatically makes him a defensive liability. Dotson was experiencing a minor shooting slump himself when he was showed the pine. The difference is that Dotson’s entire value doesn’t revolve around his ability to hit shots. His defensive chops and ability to rebound at his position are very valuable for a team that needs both skill sets.

Also, Hezonja has been…bad.

2. Is Trier starting to figure out a balance between scoring and distributing?

In my last Buzzer Beater column, I criticized the Knicks’ passing ability, specifically pointing out a couple plays by Trier. In the last two games, though, Trier has shown a renewed interest in sharing the ball. He’s even looked like a plus playmaker at times. Against New Orleans, he finished with four assists, including these three promising plays:

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He showed the ability to kick out to the perimeter on a drive, dump it off to a big on a drive, and throw a lob over the top to a diving big. Those are three high-degree-of-difficulty passes, all of which Trier made look easy.

He is still prone to plays where he decides to shoot before seeing what the defense gives him, though. That kind of pre-determined decision making seems to be common among young players. Here, Vonleh sets a screen and is wide open on the roll.

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Trier has been sensational at times and is an incredible addition to this Knicks team. The reason I tend to nitpick his game is that I think he has such tremendous potential on the offensive end.

1 Prediction

This week, Fizdale will finally unleash the lineup for which so many Knicks fans have been asking.

Ntilikina, Hardaway Jr., Dotson, Knox, Robinson. This lineup has played 0 minutes, so far. This week that changes. Mark it down.


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