Grading New York Knicks’ Mid-Lottery NBA Draft Targets

There is always hope in the next New York Knicks draft pick.

Despite the franchise’s frustrating recent history and tumultuous management, there’s a buzz and eagerness to talk about the future in Leon Rose’s first offseason as team president.

The talent at the top of this year’s draft isn’t particularly stellar, so many franchises may opt for more of a needs-based approach than they normally do. However, it would behoove the Knicks to still lean toward targeting the best prospect available, regardless of position.

They need help in all areas, and they should aim to acquire maximum value.

Given their current record (21-45, sixth-worst in the league), New York will likely land a mid-lottery slot in the 2020 draft. That won’t yield a surefire star, but several intriguing talents should be available in that range. Depending on who they pick, the Knicks’ lineup combinations and playing style could change substantially.

If the Knicks win the lottery or land in the top-five, then talents like LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and Onyeka Okongwu would be in play. But for now, let’s discuss who might be available in their more probable mid-lotto range. Again, this isn’t a list of the Knicks’ absolute best fits or the most talented players on the board. It’s a look at a few prospects often projected to land in the Big Apple.

Cole Anthony, North Carolina PG

Per-Game Stats: 34.9 mpg, 18.5 ppg, 4.0 apg, 5.7 rpg, 38.0% fg, 34.8 3fg%

Notable Numbers: 32.5 Points Per 100 Possessions vs. ACC Opponents (The Good), 53.6% Shooting at Rim (The Bad)

If New York picks in the 6-8 range, there’s a good chance Anthony will be available. And given SNY’s Ian Begley reporting that the Knicks have done “extensive” homework on the Tar Heel freshman, it seems they’re trending towards this selection.

The Knicks shouldn’t expect the North Carolina product to singlehandedly buoy them, and there is risk attached. But if he taps into his upside, Anthony could be a key component in the club’s gradual growth.

He is a tricky prospect to peg because he was in a sub-optimal situation last season: UNC was in rough shape, lacking its usual level of functional talent and adequate floor spacing. However, Anthony was also part of the problem, with spotty shot selection and passing miscues, as my TBW draft colleague Adam Spinella points out below:

The good news? Anthony flashed enticing scoring prowess throughout the year.

He has a good-looking shooting stroke with deep range, and he knocked down a bunch of tough triples last season. Anthony went 49-of-141 (34.8 percent) from deep, mixing in convincing NBA-range bombs with some questionable attempts. Nonetheless, his perimeter touch should be well-received by a Knicks’ squad that ranked dead-last in threes per 100 possessions in 2019-20.

Anthony has the agility, shifty handles and maneuverability to get where he wants against most defenders. However, his penetration and creativity didn’t seem to consistently cripple defenses last season.

He was an unsuccessful at-rim finisher and an underwhelming facilitator when he got into the lane. It remains to be seen whether the NBA playing style and improved spacing will help him in those areas.

Bottom line: He’s far from a perfect fit, but he could be helpful as a shot-creator and floor-spacer.

Knicks’ Fit Grade: B

Obi Toppin, Dayton PF

Feb 28, 2020; Dayton, Ohio, USA; Dayton Flyers forward Obi Toppin (1) takes a shot against Davidson Wildcats forward David Kristensen (12) during the second half at University of Dayton Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Per-Game Stats: 31.6 mpg, 20.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 63.3 FG%, 39.0% 3FG

Notable Numbers: 82.8% Shooting at the Rim (The Good), 1.2 O-Reb/6.4 D-Reb per game (The Bad)

The Knicks don’t have many key players who are naturally talented scorers. Other than forward Julius Randle and guard Allonzo Trier (who have their flaws), everyone else is a raw project. New York’s talent deficiency and imbalanced roster construction is the main culprit for its 28th-ranked offense in 2019-20, and there are simply too many power forwards.

Nonetheless, Obi Toppin could bring a new level of skill and stabilize the frontcourt offense while prompting New York to clear the logjam.

Dayton’s breakout sophomore uncorked a devastating mix of interior and perimeter scoring last season. Per Synergy Sports, he led all high-volume players in points per possession with a blistering 1.20 PPP. Toppin’s multi-dimensional scoring touch is a huge reason coach Anthony Grant’s offense led the NCAA in PPP, outscoring opponents in the paint by 12.1 points per game.

The Knicks could use Toppin in a variety of ways: He’d be a useful pick-and-roll receiver, presenting the threat to dive all the way to the rim, short roll to the middle, or pop to the perimeter. Toppin would also be a dynamic high-post option with the ability to create his own shot or collaborate with Mitchell Robinson on high-low plays.

Games like this one against Rhode Island give NBA teams the blueprint for how to weaponize Toppin: run a variety of cross screens, iso’s and pick-and-rolls for him while hunting for ways to get him the ball in the open floor.

The much-publicized downside to adding Toppin and his offensive treasures is his uninspiring defense. The Knicks would have to pair him with a strong rim protector (i.e. Robinson) as much as possible, as it would be extremely dicey to play Randle and Toppin at the 4 and 5 for extended stretches, despite their offensive potential.

Knicks fans may talk themselves into Toppin being a savior figure, but I wouldn’t go that far. He’ll be a productive asset, pitching in 15-20 points per game in the short term and maybe 20-plus down the road. He’ll need a halfway decent ecosystem to maximize his versatility, and that will continue to be the million-dollar question for New York.

Knicks Fit Grade: A-

Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State G

Per-Game Stats: 36.7 mpg, 15.2 ppg, 6.5 apg, 5.9 rpg, 50.4% fg, 41.9% 3fg

Notable Numbers: 63.1% True Shooting (The Good), 18.4% fta/fga (The Bad)

Toppin won’t be the only breakout sophomore in New York’s crosshairs. Haliburton’s per-possession usage took a huge leap from last season—9.2 percent in 2018-19, then 20.1 in 2019-20—and he had no problem handling the extra responsibilities.

He won’t be a prototypical shot-creator at the NBA level, but if he’s still on the board at No. 7 or No. 8, he’ll probably be the best prospect available.

The Cyclone’s playmaking, shooting accuracy and defensive potential stood out last season. He was a productive passer and an extremely efficient floor-spacer, consistently bringing Iowa State dual-threat value. Haliburton went 101-of-237 (42.6 percent) from three-land during his two years in Ames, which is an encouraging sample size despite his low, stiff release.

How does he factor into New York’s rebuild? I wouldn’t expect him to be a primary ball-handler or do a ton of shot-creating early on. He’d likely play next to someone like Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton or Allonzo Trier, who are better at getting separation. Haliburton just doesn’t have the wiggle as a creative threat off the bounce.

However, the Knicks can still use him as a pick-and-roll facilitator in secondary sequences, and his sharp passing instincts will shine through during broken plays.

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor summed it up aptly when describing Haliburton’s ability to execute on both ends: “A coach’s dream: He does all the little things on the court, from smart, timely defensive rotations to making rapid decisions to keep the offense flowing.”

Haliburton’s shooting potential is an enigma: He sizzled from deep in both seasons at Iowa State with a noticeably unorthodox delivery. There’s not much actual jumping involved, and the release is paused and low. He’ll need to gradually speed up and elevate his mechanics. Meanwhile, he has yet to prove he can consistently hit pull-up jumpers.

Nonetheless, the Knicks have some time to groom him, and they definitely needing shooting specialists across this roster.

Knicks Fit Grade: B+