Growing Pains During Knicks Youth Movement

As the first quarter of the season nears, the youth movement has officially stalled.

David Fizdale said he planned to treat the first few weeks of the season like an extended preseason, mainly because his roster, which is the youngest in the NBA, is made up of so many new players and most of them inexperienced. After some early exuberance led to some entertaining efforts and exciting finishes, that youth and inexperience is starting to show.

It was on display yet again in Orlando, where the Knicks (4-13) ended a three-game road trip with yet another loss to extend their losing streak to five games. A starting lineup that includes three rookies, which got off to such a good start in New Orleans on Friday night, was overwhelmed by the Magic, who were up 28-10 halfway through the first quarter and held a 44-31 lead after one. The rookies — Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier — were targeted early and often by the Magic. Knox and Robinson both went to the bench with early foul trouble and Trier was spinning in circles to a -14 in 7:55.

“That’s what you see out of rookies, man,” Fizdale said. “One night it’s ‘Wow, they did this!’ The next night it’s, ‘Where’s he at?’ You’ve got to go through it until you understand the consistency of competition.”

Coach Fizdales addresses the media after his team comes up short in Orlando 131-117.

“Every night,” Fizdale continued, “People are going to be coming at you, trying to expose you, trying to get you in foul trouble, trying to beat you up.”

Knox, who starred in high school at Tampa Catholic (a few hours away toward the Gulf), didn’t get four minutes into his homecoming game when he picked up his second foul trying to guard Aaron Gordon, who went for 20 points in that opening quarter. It was pretty clear that Magic coach Steve Clifford told his team to exploit that from the start and then start working Nic Vucevic on Robinson, who was also in early foul trouble.

“A step behind in some basic NBA actions,” Fizdale explained when asked about Robinson’s issues. “He’s reacting to the play instead of anticipating the play. And usually, that leads to some kind of touch fouls.”

Robinson, who had a rookie franchise record 9 blocks in the last meeting with the Magic, was visibly frustrated by the whistles and lost any defensive aggressiveness he might have had for the game. He and Knox were on the bench shaking their heads at their early exits.

“It’s the same with Kevin,” Fizdale continued. “They run an action they’ve never seen and suddenly their survival instincts kick in and they reach, grab and they get those cheap fouls.”

This is all part of the learning process, the coach said. “We’ve got to take a lap for that,” he added, which means go through the season facing every team for the players to get the experience of facing different teams, players and systems. But beyond understanding NBA offenses and memorizing the scouting report, there is simply learning how to compete on every play and to break the habit of ball-watching.

[Watch Coverage of the Knicks-Blazers Game Tomorrow at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO. Get the App Now.]

In New Orleans, we saw Trier get caught watching a free throw miss from the perimeter rather than focusing on making sure Julius Randle didn’t sprint in from a few feet next to him to snare a critical offensive rebound. In Orlando, it was Knox who, with only three fouls, played soft defense against Jonathan Isaac on a drive during Orlando’s game-clinching run in the fourth quarter.

But it wasn’t only the rookies. Emmanuel Mudiay was caught ball-watching on the perimeter and it allowed Isaac to cut behind him for an easy score during that same fourth-quarter run. There were bad switches and poor communication on pick-and-roll defense that led to allowing a season-high 131 points, which followed allowing a season-high 129 points in New Orleans, after allowing a season-high tying 128 in Oklahoma City.

Note the trend here. While there has been so much public concern over the offense and lack of playmaking — the Knicks are last in the NBA in assists per game — the issue, even without Kristaps Porzingis or the presence of quality three-point shooting, really hasn’t been scoring for this team. If I told you a team averaged 109 points per game, you’d argue they probably win more than they lose, right? If I said a team averaged 114.7 points per game and shot 46.5% from the field, had 12.7 offensive rebounds per game and took 27.3 free throws per game, you’d say they were probably very successful.

Well, the former is what the Knicks average in this five-game losing streak and the latter is what they’ve done over the three-game road trip.

Now, let’s talk defense.

During the five-game losing streak, the Knicks are allowing 126.2 points per game. (Not a misprint)

On the three-game road trip alone, the Knicks gave up 129.3 points per game, which is by far the highest in the league in that span. Their Defensive FG% (52.9%) is the worst in the league and opponents averaged 31.3 assists per game on the trip, which was the most in the league over the last three games.

Fizdale believes the issue is one quarter per game where “The doors get blown off.” There was the 44-point first quarter in Orlando or the 41-point fourth quarter in New Orleans or the 37-point first quarter in OKC, the 30-point first quarter against the Magic at The Garden or 39-point second quarter in Toronto.

But it’s really been the fourth quarter that continues to be the major issue for the Knicks. Just on the road trip alone, the Knicks were outscored in the fourth quarter by a total of 26 points and allowed 34 points per game in each final quarter. They allowed opponents to shoot 56.7% from the field and make 11 of 21 from three, which is the most alarming number when you consider most defenses clamp down in the final quarters. The Knicks defense seemed to get worse. And Fizdale doesn’t apologize for playing his young players late in games to get the experience.

With a young team, the tuition for this type of higher education is expensive. The cost is losses.

That cost is mounting.


– Speaking of young players, Frank Ntilikina had one of those stat lines that can divide a fan base. For some, his team-high +10 and steal in 21:31 suggests his effectiveness on defense on the court. For others, the fact that he took just one shot, did not score and registered only two assists and two rebounds say he does not contribute to the game. Fizdale’s reaction? “I’m not stressing it,” he said and added that Ntilikina “did a great job on Ross,” who struggled early with his shooting but finished with 7-of-10 points in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Ntilikina was +18 in 14:38 after three quarters, which means he was -8 in about six minutes in the fourth quarter.

– The vets carried the team, for the most part, in this game. Trey Burke followed up his breakout game in New Orleans with a 31-point performance off the bench, while Tim Hardaway Jr. had 32 points and was 9-for-10 from the free throw line. Enes Kanter had 21 points, 19 rebounds and a team-high three assists (not a misprint). Mudiay had 12 points and two assists, but only three points in the second half. Here’s the question: once the Knicks complete the first quarter of the season, should Fizdale move away from starting the rookies and playing the youth in crunch time and instead go with a starting lineup of Burke, Hardaway, Courtney Lee (once he is healthy), Noah Vonleh and Kanter? Let the Fiz Kids come off the bench and go up against backups and learn under those circumstances for a while? May take the pressure off and also create a different chemistry with the young players banding together as a second unit.

– Burke’s 31 points off the bench is a season-high for him and the most points a Knicks reserve has scored off the bench this season. But it is 11 points shy of the franchise record for scoring from a reserve. Do you know who holds that record? Hint: It’s not J.R. Smith, but this guy is also from New Jersey.

[Watch Coverage of the Knicks-Blazers Game Tomorrow at 7 PM on MSG & MSG GO. Get the App Now.]