The New York Knicks have a young core, which includes three point guards however, they might not have their point guard of the future. Each young guard has had his ups and downs in this equally tumultuous 2018-19 season for New York. None of the three have been the clear number one choice going forward. It’s possible the Knicks’ point guard of the future isn’t even on the team yet.
New York Knicks Point Guard Options Going Forward
The Knicks being bad is nothing new. Since their last NBA Finals appearance in 1999, they have the worst winning percentage, the most losses, and the third-fewest wins in the NBA. Only the Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans have fewer wins, but that’s mainly because they played fewer seasons since 2000 due to relocation and expansion. Insert 100 laughing/crying emojis here (depending on if you’re a Knicks fan or not).
Something that is new for the Knicks is that the franchise has hope. Although the chances seem fuzzy and unclear, the Knicks could draft a potential superstar in Duke’s Zion Williamson and sign any combination of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Insert 100 more laughing/heart eye emojis here (depending on if you’re a Knicks fan or not).
However way you want to slice it, the Knicks are in a position to have a legendary summer. Even if they don’t, they have a batch of youngsters to continue moving forward with. Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Emmanuel Mudiay make up the three young point guards on the team. Right now, it seems as though one of these guys will be the future point guard of the team moving forward. It’s an important position to fill, as just about every team has a point guard leading them right now (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard) or is grooming one for the future (Ben Simmons, De’Aaron Fox, D’Angelo Russell, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). It’s one of the most important positions in the NBA.
Let’s evaluate each of the Knicks’ young point guards to see why they may or may not be their point guard of the future.
Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith, the incumbent starter and shortest-tenured Knick out of the trio, was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks 9th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. He fell into Dallas’ lap right after New York drafted Ntilkina with the 8th pick. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013, Smith was the first piece in the Mavericks’ rebuild. Smith put together a respectable rookie campaign, averaging 15.2 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game as a 20-year-old. His scoring efficiency was poor, as was his defense, but his potential was clear.
Enter Luka Doncic, the young Slovenian who carved up overseas competition as a teenager. Dallas had concerns about how they would fit together and ended up trading Smith to New York in a deal centered around Kristaps Porzingis. His game hasn’t changed much this season. Smith improved his efficiency and defense, but not by much. As a Knick, Smith has upped his assists and decreased his turnovers. Yet, he’s shooting poorly on three-pointers (29.0%) and free throws (56.1%).
Smith is described best as an athletic combo guard. Both types of guards -athletic and combo- can be successful in the league, but each has a skill that Smith has yet to master. Combo guards like Curry and Irving are centerpieces of their respective offenses, but they are both very efficient scorers, which Smith still isn’t. Athletic guards like Westbrook and John Wall have been able to find success as well, but their lack of a strong outside shot hurts them. Both are also strong playmakers.
Curry and Irving are score-first players while Westbrook and Wall are more like floor generals. Smith seems to have a touch of both, but not enough in either direction to ensure complete security as the Knicks’ point guard of the future. He still forces a lot of shots and passes, isn’t a good defender, and has plenty of nights shooting around 40%. His IQ is his biggest issue; improving on that will open up everything else in his game.
As mentioned previously, Ntilikina was selected 8th overall by the Knicks in the 2017 draft. New York was enamored by the French 18-year-old’s potential, specifically on the defensive end. Despite his promise as a defender, the Frenchman was expected to struggle offensively at the NBA level. It’s safe to say he delivered, as Ntilikina averaged a measly 5.9 points while shooting 36.4% from the field and 31.8% from beyond the arc. His numbers this year have been roughly the same.
Obviously, he is a strong defender. His six-foot-six frame and seven-foot wingspan allow him to contest any shot that happens near him. He has the quickness to stay with guards and the length to cause problems for forwards. Additionally, he is a smart playmaker, as he has a very respectable 2.15 assist to turnover ratio. When he’s on the court, the offense moves the ball much more frequently.
That’s just about the extent of positive things Ntilikina does consistently well at this point. The scoring struggles were expected, but as it stands now, it isn’t a stretch to say Ntilikina is the worst scorer in the NBA. It’s very sad but true. His eFG% of 40.0% ranks 456th in the league. Four hundred fifty-sixth. It’s not like he takes bad shots or takes the ball in isolation all the time. He takes smart, open shots most of the time; they just don’t go in.
Defensive-oriented point guards will always have a place in this league, but if they can’t be passable scorers, they can’t be effective players. His defense will always be his strong suit and should improve as times goes on, maybe even reaching All-Defensive team levels. Despite this, Ntilikina will have to figure out how to score even somewhat efficiently to be an impact player.
With the 7th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the Denver Nuggets selected Mudiay, the six-foot-five point guard who was playing most recently in China. Mudiay’s numbers in his first years are eerily similar to Smith’s: 12.8 points, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds. Like Smith, Mudiay struggled with efficiency. Once Jamal Murray grew more comfortable, Mudiay was out of Denver’s starting lineup, and eventually out of Denver all-together.
Since the Knicks were tanking and willing to take a chance on any young player, they swapped 26-year-old Doug McDermott for the 21-year-old Mudiay in a three-team trade. Although he didn’t show much in his first half-season in New York, he has improved this year. This season is his best in terms of points per game, and field goal percentage. His playmaking has dipped and his defense is spotty, but he has improved.
The most troublesome thing about Mudiay is his tendency to get tunnel vision. Far too many times, he takes on the defense himself, which frequently ends in a bad shot. The balance between scoring and playmaking has shifted more towards scoring, and it prevents teammates that share the floor with him from getting into a rhythm.
Mudiay is the least likely option for the Knicks because of his age. Mudiay is already 23 years old, which pales in comparison to Smith -21- and Ntilkinia -20-. Having nearly double the experience of the other two players while failing to clearly ascend past them is a problem. Also, Mudiay is set to hit restricted free agency this summer, while Smith and Ntilikina are under contract for two more years. It’s safe to say Mudiay is most likely not a real option for the Knicks as a future point guard.
The Knicks currently hold the league’s worst record. Yet, their odds at the first overall pick is just 14%, the same as the teams with the second and third worst records. This doesn’t bode well for them drafting Zion. If the Knicks don’t land the first overall pick, they could opt to draft Murray State’s Ja Morant instead.
Although the competition in the Ohio Valley Conference isn’t incredible, Morant’s play is. His numbers speak for themselves: 24.6 points, 10.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 50.3% shooting from the field. His explosiveness and vision make him a nightmare for defenses, while his quickness allows him to be a formidable defender. Recently, he led Murray State to an OVC Championship, clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Morant appears to be more of a floor general than any of the Knicks’ point guards. He could be a Chris Paul type of player where he orchestrates the offense by scoring and getting teammates involved. With score-first wings like Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier on the roster, having a strong passer makes perfect sense. Again, we can only speculate on Morant’s ability in the NBA. However, he has the makings of a professional playmaker.
If the Knicks decide they prefer Morant and his potential to Smith, Ntilikina, and Mudiay, then they could make them expendable. This would mean trading Smith or Ntilikina and letting Mudiay leave in the summer. It’s up to the Knicks’ brass to choose who to keep, or even if to move one of them at all. Still, if the Knicks don’t land the number one pick, they should consider number 12 from Murray State.