Young Guards A Must-Watch Down the Stretch

The first game of the Knicks unofficial youth evaluation season opened Thursday night with recently-acquired Emmanuel Mudiay making his first start in a New York jersey.

After the Knicks played a woeful defensive first quarter, they regrouped and beat the Magic, 120-113, in Orlando.

Mudiay finished with 8 points on 4-of-9 shooting with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 turnover and a -8 rating in 23 minutes.

Rookie Frank Ntilikina scored 7 points on 2-of-6 shooting with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocked shots, 1 turnover and a +9 rating in 30 minutes.

Trey Burke, recently signed off the Knicks G-League team, had a season-high 26 points on 12-of-22 shooting with 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot, 1 turnover and a +15 rating in 30 minutes.

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This is the first and last time in these final 23 games that we will provide a head-to-head stat line on the three young point guards that are trying to prove their value to Knicks management.

It’s a trap that every Knicks fan should avoid.

The feeling here is that team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry are wise enough to avoid that trap.

In all likelihood, all of those three point guards – each 25 years of age or younger – will have games that impress and games that will disappoint.

Scoring this competition game-by-game is not the way to go. It’s a trap.

So we don’t take a lot away from the fact that Mudiay was on the court for most of the first quarter when the Knicks gave up 41 points to Orlando.

We acknowledge that while a lot of Knicks played the first half in some post All Star-game haze, Burke came out with energy and attacked. It’s what he does.

We appreciate that Ntilikina, the youngest of the trio, continues to show the potential to be a defensive force and approaches the game with a professionalism beyond his 19 years of age.

From this game until the regular-season finale on April 11 at Cleveland, each of these players must put together their best body of work.

Not just in games. Not just in practices. Not just in film sessions, team meetings, bench demeanor, you name it.

When the season ends, Burke, Mudiay and Ntilikina will have had 23 games to put their best foot forward.

Each will have a clearer understanding of what facets of their game needs to improve. Each should have more confidence, the byproduct that comes with the increased playing time they are expected to get down the stretch.

Which reminds us to pay some much-deserved respect to Jarrett Jack.

The 22nd pick in the 2005 NBA Draft was brought in to provide veteran leadership. He ended up winning the starting point guard position and helped teach Ntilikina the ins and outs of the NBA.

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Jack understands his days as a starter might be over. But having him on the bench and able to provide insight to Ntlikina, Mudiay, and Burke when they come off the court will be of great value.

Mudiay’s first start was inconsistent, which was understandable. Acquired at the trade deadline, he’s still learning his teammates and the playbook.

Mudiay did throw a breathtaking alley-oop pass that Tim Hardaway Jr. snatched out of midair and flushed for one of the highlight plays of the season.

But Mudiay failed to run back on defense on at least two occasions in the first half and there’s no excuse for that. Mudiay needs to improve his ball-handling and perimeter shooting, both of which can be addressed in the offseason.

After two and one-half seasons in Phoenix, Mudiay, the 7th pick in the 2015 draft, has a second chance to make a first impression. He needs to do all the little things that coaches and teammates notice.

Burke did what he does best. The scorer looked for his shot, attacked the paint and played with a big heart. That’s crucial for Burke, who at 6-foot-1 is undersized by NBA standards.

Ntilikina continues to impress in subtle ways, especially on defense where the 6-foot-5 guard with the 7-foot wingspan can be a force.

There was one play in the first half against Orlando when Ntilikina got his shot blocked. He sprinted back on defense and stopped a Magic fast break by stealing the ball.

To say Ntilikina can improve in every facet of his game is no insult. Remember, he’s 19. He has the frame to get bigger and stronger. His decision-making can improve with more playing time.

All three point guards should be better players by the end of the season.

Analyzing their progress game-by-game is a trap.

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