With the lights now turned off on the NBA Las Vegas Summer League courts, Derek Fisher, Phil Jackson and the rest of the New York Knicks management will face some difficult decisions.
The future looks bright for the Knicks, and their young prospects look promising, after they finished 4-1 in Las Vegas and enjoyed some spectacular performances from numerous young players.
At this point, their two first-round draft picks—Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant—are looking like big hits. Outside of that duo, New York saw encouraging outputs from several others, including Maurice Ndour and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. But now, Fish and Co. are faced with some tough choices as they make rosters for training camp, and eventually the 15-man regular season list—and the predicament they now face all stemmed from a strong summer.
In their Summer League opener against the San Antonio Spurs, the Knicks emerged victorious after pulling away in the fourth quarter of an otherwise close contest. This was the first time Coach Fish was able to get a firsthand look at Porzingis’ raw talent in the mix with NBA bodies. The No. 4 pick started the game at center and finished with 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
“Defensively, he has the potential to be really special,” Derek said of Porzingis. “There were some things that he recognized and made adjustments on—supporting his teammates, switching out on smaller players, using his length to protect the basket. That’s something we’re going to be really excited about as we go forward. I thought on the defensive end, he really impacted the game in a major way.”
Grant also impressed in the opener, showcasing his own polished skill set. The Notre Dame product gave Knicks fans something to be excited about right off the bat. In his Summer League debut, he finished with a line of 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a couple of steals, leaving Derek impressed with his versatility.
“We wouldn’t have drafted him where we drafted him if we didn’t think he could do a lot of the things that we like our guards to be able to do,” Fish explained. “You have to be able to shoot the basketball, handle the basketball, make good decisions, defend, it’s not just one or the other to play guard in our system, and that’s what we like about Jerian.”
The Knicks kept rolling in Game 2, where they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers to improve to 2-0. While much of the focus was still on first round draft picks Porzingis and Grant, it took a team effort to propel the Knicks to this victory.
Porzingis was up to the task of being matched up head to head with Julius Randle, and he continuously attacked the basket and brought good energy to the court. Grant’s skills impressed again as he served as the catalyst for the Knicks offense contributing 10 points and 8 assists while working well with sophomore guard Cleanthony Early, whom he routinely set up with accurate alley-oops. On the other end of the floor, the defensive tenacity from Antetokounmpo and Ndour propelled the Knicks to a five-point lead entering the half. The Lakers came back with a formidable second-half surge, but thanks to a brilliant concerted effort, Fish’s crew held on.
“I thought it was a gritty type of performance from our team,” Fish said. “We got off to a good start defending and getting out in transition, and the Lakers battled back, but our guys just kept pushing and figured out a way to win the game.”
Individually, Grant stole the show again in his second Summer League game, outplaying another high-ceiling rookie prospect in D’Angelo Russell. The former Notre Dame star may be one of the most NBA ready prospects in this past draft class, with a skill package that includes top-level skill and smarts. It is becoming clear that Grant will have a substantial role to play in the upcoming season and seasons to come if he can get more comfortable with the NBA pace.
“I think for him, for most young players, understanding that the motor always has to be level, there isn’t really a casual or cool pace you can play at this level, and once he learns that over time I think he can be really good,” D-Fish said.
New York stayed flawless in its third Summer League game against the Philadelphia 76ers, squeaking out an 84-81 overtime victory. For most of the first quarter, Langston Galloway led the way for the Knicks with his high energy style of play. Antetokounmpo and Alex Kirk continued their impressive summers as role players for the Knicks off the bench, helping them stay in the game, even when the Sixers appeared to be in full control.
The Knicks regrouped at the end of the first half, after a putback from Ndour cut the lead to four going into the break. The Sixers started to lose control of the game at the start of the fourth, when touted big-man Jahlil Okafor began to lose his touch. The former Duke big man was strong against Porzingis in the early going, but New York’s top pick came back and tallied three blocks on Okafor in the second half.
With Okafor struggling, the Knicks stormed back, and undrafted rookie Ndour took over the game. Grant, who was quiet to start the game, began to heat up in the final quarter after he drained a three-pointer.
“I think they’re doing a good job of just figuring it out, it’s not pretty but they just figuring out how to be gritty and win games,” Fisher explained.
Ndour was able to combine all aspects of his game to tie the contest at 74 in the fourth quarter. His impact was most notable at the end of the fourth, when he blocked Okafor’s shot, collected the ball and knocked down a pretty step-back jumper. After watching the undrafted player out from Ohio University flourish, Fish likes his chances of being on a pro roster next year.
“I don’t know if there’s any more that he can do,” Fish said of Ndour. “I think he’s doing everything that is at least in his control to be a guy that whether it’s our team, and hopefully so, but with 29 other teams he’s for sure giving teams a look that he can probably play at this level and be pretty good at it.”
The Knicks euphoria from the first three games came to an end in the fourth Summer League game against Golden State. New York fell to the Warriors 76-54 in a game where they never really got into a groove offensively or defensively. Much of the attention was still on Porzingis, as he finished the contest with 12 points after D-Fish increased his overall workload.
Grant was also able to get going, making some great passes and attacking the rim, but unfortunately the game was already out of reach and the Knicks couldn’t overcome the large deficit, set up by their cold shooting early in the contest.
“It[his ability] complements so many different players and situations,” Derek said of Grant. “I think defensively he complements guys because of his length and rim protection. He’s pretty active and can guard multiple guys. And I think offensively because of his ability to stretch the floor as well as do some things around the basket…I think he’s a player that just about fits with any lineup no matter how you’re trying to play.”
Despite strong efforts by his top two draft picks, Fish left the game disappointed at his squad’s lack of energy throughout.
“Some things you see and like and some things you don’t like as much. Not a lot of surprises in the summer, you don’t expect guys to shoot it well, you don’t expect them to execute that well, but I thought probably the energy level was maybe low after the first few minutes and just couldn’t sustain energy that allowed us to compete,” Fish said.
In the Knicks final Summer League game against Milwaukee, they bounced back and closed out the short five-game summer schedule with an 83-76 victory.
Porzingis sat out the Knicks final contest, and it was Antetokounmpo who stole the show and gave Knicks something to think about when filling out the back end of their roster, scoring 17 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting night against his brother Giannis’ Bucks squad. The Bucks led 43-36 at the half, but the Knicks were able to take control in the second half and finish Summer League play on a high note. Overall, The Summer League was a good chance for Fisher and young Knicks players to work together as a unit.
“I’m here for sure to continue to gain experience and I think a lot of younger players on our roster this year got a lot of good experience,” Fish said after the game.
Antetokounmpo had a perfect shooting day on his 23rd birthday, impressing many with his unexpected offensive outburst. D-Fish praised the Greek standout’s play, adding that he and the Knicks brass now will face some tough decisions as they try to hammer out their roster for the upcoming season.
“I thought overall he was solid in the minutes he got,’’ Fisher said of Antetokounmpo. “It wasn’t the best case scenario because we had Cleanthony [Early] as a young forward we’re trying to develop. [Friday] he was really great. That’s what being a professional is all about. It’s not about getting minutes every game, getting what you want the whole time but being ready when called upon. He did that [Friday]. We’ll have decisions to make going forward about what we want to do. He did everything he can do. I thought he finished the right way and left us with something to think about.’’