Opportunity Knocks For These Knicks

5 thoughts on the loss:

1. As Kristaps Porzingis heads off to surgery and a long recovery process, the Knicks moved forward in their rebuilding process. Scott Perry made two moves before the trade deadline that may not have great significance on the current season but were more in the realm of asset collecting.

Perry described it as “acquiring vehicles that are going to help us get better.”

We’ll get to the two second-round picks the team got for Willy Hernangomez a little later. For now, the greater intrigue is in the three-team deal Perry worked with the Mavericks and the Nuggets to turn Doug McDermott — who was headed to restricted free agency — into former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay.

One former NBA GM texted me to say he felt it was “a really good deal” for the Knicks. “You don’t give up on 21-year-old point guards,” he added.

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Connections I have in Denver told me the Nuggets were reluctant to do just that with Mudiay, whom they selected 7th overall in the 2015 Draft. But his minutes and role had been significantly impacted by the emergence of Jamal Murray. They wanted to get a veteran behind him for stability and experience and Devin Harris fits the bill.

The Knicks had Mudiay in the facility during the pre-draft process in 2015. He was believed to be high on their list of targets in the draft, but at No. 4, they went with Porzingis. Mudiay has good size at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds. He will turn 22 in March, so he came into the league, like so many guards these days, very young and inexperienced. His game is still very raw, though his shooting from the perimeter has improved over three seasons.

In fact, he’s proven to be a decent three-point shooter at 37 percent this season. His issue? Like many young guards in the NBA, he struggles to finish at the rim. Mudiay has one of the lowest field goal percentages on layups this season, according to Basketball-Reference. In the top-10, it’s all young players, such as Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball, Kris Dunn and, yes, even Dennis Smith Jr.

With the Knicks, in the final 26 games, he will get a chance to get his career back on track while the Knicks get a chance to get a daily look at him and consider his potential. He has one year left on his contract after this season before he heads to restricted free agency, so it’s a short-term commitment. At worst, he can be a $4.3 million expiring contract to trade in the summer. At best, he can be part of a core for the future.

2. But what does that mean for last year’s lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina? He has a lot of similarities to Mudiay in size as a big guard and in issues as a finisher at the rim and field goal percentage. Both players have to improve their ball-handling skills and passing. Mudiay is a better athlete than Ntilikina at this point.

Ntilikina didn’t seem threatened by the move. He told reporters before the game in Toronto that he believes he and Mudiay can play together in the backcourt at times. He added that he felt secure with the franchise. “People want me here,” he said, “so I’m happy about the situation.”

There were reports the Knicks were also talking to the Magic about another former lottery pick, Elfrid Payton, who was eventually shipped to Phoenix for basically the same return as the Knicks got for Hernangomez. The reports said the Magic asked for Ntilikina in return and the Knicks passed. That’s a good sign for Ntilikina, but if Mudiay plays well, could Ntilikina become an asset for a future move?

The reality is, with three point guards on the roster under the age of 25, there aren’t enough minutes for everyone to get for proper development. Against the Raptors, Ntilikina played 21 minutes and had just five points with five turnovers. Trey Burke, who just can’t seem to get a regular shift in the rotation, had 12 points in 13 minutes.

At first, there was a belief that Ntilikina would eventually take over the starting role from Jarrett Jack, but what if Mudiay proves he deserves it?

Jeff Hornacek said talk of Ntilikina starting “could be down the line” but added, “we’ll see what happens in the next week or so. We have four more games before the All-Star break.”

3. While the opportunity is there for the young point guards, Hernangomez is going to have to hope he gets his chance in Charlotte. The Knicks traded him for two future second-round picks and Johnny O’Bryant, who was immediately waived. The deal was for the picks, which fills in the blanks in 2020 and 2021 when the Knicks did not have any picks.

One would think in Porzingis’ absence, Hernangomez would have finally gotten a chance to play. But the Knicks already planned on moving him, which says a lot. He was an All-Rookie selection last season and had expectations of either starting or getting a backup role off the bench this season, but the arrival of Enes Kanter changed everything. Kyle O’Quinn completely outplayed him in the preseason and Hernangomez was relegated to the bench. Last week, he asked for a trade.

“Obviously, it was a difficult year for him,” Perry said.

The Hornets have their own logjam in the frontcourt with Dwight Howard, Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller, but they liked what they saw and offered a gentle nudge at the Knicks in their statement.

“We’re excited to add a player of Willy’s caliber to our team,” GM Rich Cho said. “He showed last season he can contribute when given the opportunity…”

See what they did there?

Knicks general manager Scott Perry addresses the media about the future of the franchise after the team lost Kristaps Porzingis for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL in Porzingis' left knee.

4. Opportunity, instead, goes to 22-year-old Luke Kornet, who for one game looked like he was more of the NBA prototype big man than Hernangomez. The undrafted rookie, whose father played for the Milwaukee Bucks in the early 1990s, put up 11 points and 10 rebounds with four blocks in his NBA debut. It was impressive.

It was also a sign of the times. Kornet is a 7-footer who, like Porzingis, shoots threes and blocks shots. In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, he is the first NBA player to debut with at least three made three-pointers and three blocked shots since Donyell Marshall in Nov. 1994. Marshall, a rookie from UConn who came off the bench for the Denver Nuggets, was 5-for-8 from three and had three blocks in a loss.

Kornet also became the first Knick to make his NBA debut with a double-double and multiple blocked shots. In fact, the last time a Knick made his NBA debut with a double-double was John Wallace in 1996.

Now all Luke has to do is keep doing it. Or at least something close.

He’s got the size and shot the ball from three-point range very well in the G-League with Westchester. He’ll get plenty of more chances to show he can transfer that game to the NBA level.

5. So many of you were looking forward to seeing a youth movement and you’re likely to get it. At one point in the fourth quarter in Toronto, the Knicks had four players from their Westchester team — Kornet, Burke, Daymean Dotson, Isaiah Hicks — and Ntilikina on the court together.

Hornacek has remained steadfast in starting Jack, 34, and kept his starting unit filled with veterans. The job of the coaching staff has always been to develop the young players while trying to keep the team competitive. We can see around the league how many franchises have prioritized development and some teams, such as the Raptors, are reaping the benefits of a successful relationship with their G-League team. The Raptors bench is one of the best in the NBA and it’s made up of young players who spent time in the G-League.

So the work has to continue by Hornacek and his staff, and Perry and his, to keep pushing the franchise forward, even at a time when the season’s result looks bleak.

“Our goal, over this timeframe now, between now and the time KP comes back,” Perry said, “our goal is to have this team continue on with our culture and be better and stronger by the time he comes back.”

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The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.