Which College Point Guard Fits Best with the Knicks?
This year’s draft can help the Knicks improve their woeful defense.
The New York Knicks can blame their subpar record on plenty of shortcomings, but defense is probably the biggest. Though New York has some young prospects that could grow into elite players — and, in turn, help turn the defense around — the team still needs to actively seek out improvements.
Fortunately, this year’s NBA Draft is slated to include a number of talented point guards, most of which would be a boost to the Knicks. So which of these point guards best fit the Knicks?
New York is expected to pick at least in the top 10, if not the top five depending on where they finish in the standings.
So let’s take a look at some of the choices available to the woeful Knicks in this June’s draft:
Lonzo Ball (UCLA)
Can Ball score? Yes. Can he facilitate? Yes. What about his defense? While he is averaging six rebounds per game and averaging two steals per game, there are some glaring faults in his defense that NBA guards will feast on if he doesn’t improve.
Look at this video, which highlights his defensive traits.
The Strengths: As the video demonstrates, Lonzo is good at stopping penetration in the paint with a nice first step (something the Knicks could use given their mostly poor interior defense). He excels at providing pressure from behind, and he also has quick hands — especially on fast breaks — managing to disrupt them even while outnumbered.
The Weaknesses: He doesn’t slide his feet on defense, skipping instead, he hangs onto screens under the assumption the ball-handler will take them — leaving him vulnerable when they choose not to — and is late on closing out on the perimeter, giving his opponents way too much space to shoot.
Markelle Fultz (Washington)
Fultz, who turns 19 this May, may just be the guard head coach Jeff Hornacek needs to run his up-tempo offense. Fultz is fast and agile, and plays like, dare I say, a younger version of James Harden — a guard currently thriving in a defense-leads-to-offense type system — except with better defensive ability.
New York’s defense ranks 16th in forcing steals and 26th in forcing overall turnovers, so Fultz’s ability to create points off of turnovers is a quality trait that would provide a much-needed boost to a team that’s been lacking a point guard with defensive tenacity for quite some time.
At this stage, Fultz’s offensive game is fantastic, but his defensive skills, while solid and exciting to watch, are still very raw.
The Weaknesses: As the folks at draftexpress.com point out, Fultz is not always locked in on defense — which could be a concern going forward — the question is if you're Phil Jackson, are you willing to overlook this flaw and draft him with the hope of having him correct it over the summer in both training camp and the summer league?
Malik Monk (Kentucky)
Although the Kentucky Wildcats are once again in the NCAA Tournament with a superb record of 29–5, the team’s defense has been an area of concern. Monk, in the eyes of some including his coach John Calipari, has not had a strong enough impact on that side of the court. When asked about Monk’s defense, Calipari stated: “I said to him, ‘you’re not rebounding, you’re not defending the way you should. How are we dealing with this?’” Although those statements were made over a month ago, it’s a bad indictment on Monk from a top coach in Calipari. Especially this close to the draft.
To Monk’s credit, he acknowledged his struggles on the defensive end, stating he would have Coach Calipari “sit him” if his defense didn’t improve. Nonetheless, his defensive problems date back to his high school days, as the following video demonstrates (fast forward to the 4:13 mark to see why):
The Strengths: Truthfully, at this moment, his only strength would have to be his steals per game, even then, he's currently averaging only one a game.
The Weaknesses: There are plenty. For starters, Monk doesn’t rebound well at all, barely averaging over two a game, and often times loses focus, leading to severe lapses and breakdowns in coverage. Simply put, he has a long way to go before he can be considered even an average defender.
De 'Aaron Fox (Kentucky)
Fox, unlike his teammate Monk, is one of the better defenders the college scene has to offer. Among his best traits is his ability to provide pressure and defend aggressively enough to where he still causes discomfort for the opponent, but doesn't commit a foul.
See the following clip as a demonstration of that:
Does a whistle go off? Yes, but the call instead goes against Louisville for traveling. Fox is able to use his huge wingspan to wall off his opponent and as a result, eliminate any ability to create a shot, forcing the traveling violation in the process. Footwork is something most rookies seem to learn throughout their first season in the NBA, but Fox however, seems to have already mastered it.
Although the Wildcats defense still remains a concern due to the aforementioned Monk’s inconsistency, Fox’s efforts have helped the team become one of the better perimeter defenses in college basketball. As KenPom points out, opponents only shot 31 percent from three-point range against Kentucky all year, four percent below the usual NCAA average.
Couple this with his decent average of 16 points per game, and Fox, if available by the time the Knicks are on the clock, is a must-snag.
The Strengths: Superb footwork, fantastic perimeter defense, a decent ability to score, excellent interior defense, and he rarely loses his man, consistently remaining focused on his opponent. Fox, 19, is the perfect counter to Knicks broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s often used quote: “Playing defense with your hands instead of your feet”. Although opposing guards may not score in the paint at all against the tandem of power forward Kristaps Porzingis and center Willy Hernangomez, Fox — if drafted by New York — will make sure they don’t get to the paint often to begin with.
The Weaknesses: There aren’t any. At least on the defensive end, that is. Perhaps he can work to up his assist totals, only averaging around five per game at the moment. Given the fact he’s been surrounded by guards like Monk and Isaiah Briscoe, this isn't too much of a concern however, as his numbers will probably increase once he becomes the lead guard in an offensive system. Especially given his style of passing.
A product of Europe, Ntlikina is a bit of a wildcard. His career began in 2013 in the France Espoirs league, playing for the club Espoirs Strasbourg. Since then, he’s bounced around in several Euro leagues, but returned to France last year.
Ntlikina’s best year to this point came during his third and presumably final stint in the France Espoirs league during the 2015–16 season, a season that saw him average both 14 points and two steals a game.
Ntlikina, although an unknown in America, has earned a solid reputation overseas for providing good coverage and forcing turnovers as a result.
In this clip, Frank puts solid pressure on his opponent, essentially clamping him down and leaving him with very little room to operate. As a result, his opponent throws a bad pass, leading to a fast break.
As previously mentioned with Fox, consistent focus is vital and Ntlikina seemingly provides it, possessing both great awareness and instinct on the defensive end.
Here are a few of his finest defensive highlights:
The Strengths: Ntlikina, like De’Aaron Fox, posseses great footwork, and like Fultz, has a knack for creating points off of turnovers. He guards the baseline almost perfectly and his brilliant on the perimeter as one of the clips above will show you. Man-to-man defense is his strongest attribute — essentially trapping his opponent — something that would help the Knicks greatly down the stretch of a tight game.
The Weaknesses: Also similar to Fox in this regard, Ntlikina’s offensive game could use some polishing up, as his production in the points department is alarmingly inconsistent. In his four years as a pro in Europe his points averages include a career high of 14 per game versus a career low of just one, with both of those totals coming during the 2015–16 season.
However, on the flip side, given the fact that the sample size in both his career high and career low point totals were small considering the amount of games he played with both the France Espoir league’s Espoir Strasbourg club and the French league’s Strasbourg club were relatively small, whose to say he isn’t actually a decent offensive player? Plus, even if he doesn’t turn out to be a good offensive player, it’s not like a defense-only point guard can’t succeed in the NBA. Look no further than Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves as a perfect example.
Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State)
Based on his stat sheet alone, you could say Dennis Smith Jr. possesses a solid all-around game, averaging 18 points, six assists, and five rebounds a game.
It’s in analyzing his defensive prowess however, that NBA front office executives and head coaches alike should worry. Although tremendously athletic, Smith’s defensive rating is flat-out abysmal, with his defensive plus/minus ratio sitting at an awful -2.6 according to libertyballers.com’s Marc Whittington.
Whittington also goes on to point out that NC State actually performs three points per 100 possessions better with Smith NOT on the court.
On the flip side, his amount of steals is decent, as he’s averaging just under two per game. Part of this can be attributed to his solid ability to jump the passing lane and create a fast break off the steal, as the clip below will show:
The Strengths: Smith plays the passing lanes well, knowing just when to jump them, and is capable of playing solid man-to-man defense, forcing his opponents into bad shots or a turnover as the second clip above displays. He also has decent footwork, although not as good as Fox or Ntlikina, but nonetheless capable of walling off the opponent.
The Weaknesses: Smith at times doesn’t even bother trying on the defensive end. Look no further than the disgraceful effort he displayed on this inbounds play, leaving his man wide open for the three. Given Hornacek’s recent complaints about the Knicks lack of effort at times, Smith Jr. may not be the player New York should draft.
Ultimately, all of these players possess amazing skills on either the offensive or defensive end that will make them NBA stars for years to come, and there’s no reason to believe any of these players can’t adjust their deficiencies and turn eventually turn them into strengths.
However, given the Knicks dire need of a point guard that can provide a balanced attack on both ends of the floor, De’Aaron Fox stands out as the best choice above all. While drafting Frank Ntlikina would also be a welcome move and wouldn’t come as a shock given Phil’s history of signing or drafting European players such as Mindaugas Kuzminkas, Kristaps Porzingis, and Willy Hernangomez, it’s Fox who seems like more of a sure thing at this point.
If Fox plays brilliantly in this year’s NCAA tournament, his draft stock will inevitably surge and he could very well be off the board by the time it’s New York’s turn to pick, but if he isn’t, Phil Jackson simply can’t let the chance to draft the potential solution to the Knicks’ point guard problems pass him by.