How Kevin Knox Can Make Big Strides in Year 3

It’s hard to sugarcoat how disappointing Kevin Knox has been during his first two seasons with the New York Knicks.

Even when you account for external factors beyond his control, the film and the stats are still pretty underwhelming.

After landing No. 9 overall out of Kentucky in the 2018 NBA Draft, the high-flying forward has been markedly inefficient and hasn’t shown significant improvement. During his sophomore campaign, he averaged just 17.9 minutes and 6.4 points on 35.9 percent shooting.

He fell out of the Knicks’ rotation shortly after Mike Miller took over as head coach last season, and his future with the franchise is murky.

Knox’s guaranteed rookie-scale contract expires in 2021, and the Knicks must eventually decide whether to pick up the fourth-year option for 2021-22. It’s a pivotal season for the high-flying wing, who has a lot to prove on both ends of the court.

His level of progress could determine whether New York uses him as trade filler, lets him walk or hangs onto him as a key future piece.

But it’s important to keep in mind that Knox is still just 20 years old. Many NBA players enjoy substantial improvement and development after they’re 20, so it’s too early to definitively condemn what we’ve seen so far.

One NBA executive also noted that the Knicks shouldn’t set star-caliber expectations for Knox, but rather view him as a potential high-quality role player (per Marc Berman of the NY Post).

“We are far from knowing what Kevin will be,’’ the executive told Berman. “All your young guys develop at different states. And normally the ninth pick in the draft is more of a rotational player than an All-Star.’’

With those modest expectations in mind, what exactly can Knox do to make noticeable strides in year three? And, equally importantly, what can the team do schematically to empower him to make those strides? 

ADD STRENGTH, FOCUS ON FOOTWORK

Feb 26, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox II (20) drives in to the basket during the first half against the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

This one is a no-brainer. Knox must continue to add mass and power in both his lower and upper body. He doesn’t have an adequate base to truck past opponents on drives, and he doesn’t have enough arm and shoulder strength to finish through contact in the air.

He shot an abysmal 32.2 percent on drives in 2019-20, which was second-worst on the Knicks roster. His slender frame is part of the problem.

He’s listed at 215 pounds, but it’s a lanky 215. He could use another 10-20 pounds of muscle to become more sturdy and durable when tangling with opponents.

Defenders frequently bump Knox off his path, strip the ball from him, or force him into off-balance layups a shade too far from the rim. The following clip illustrates what happens all too often when he attacks the cup: He gets knocked off his original path, avoids contact near the rim and flips up a layup at an awkward angle:

Packing more power onto his frame and driving more aggressively is a good start to remedy these offensive struggles. Knox improving his footwork is perhaps even more important. His lower body mechanics on both offense and defense are inconsistent, and he must clean it up if he wants to cut down on mistakes. 

His unsatisfactory footwork is partially due to a knock-kneed frame, which may or may not be correctable. But he also just needs to focus on setting his feet more consistently and dictating what opponents do with a stronger base.

Sometimes he gets a little jittery before drives or after catching the ball in the middle of the floor.

Watch how his footwork is all over the place on this sequence against the Washington Wizards in the following sequence. He doesn’t truly present himself as a legitimate driving threat and, thanks to his scattered footwork, he launches an off-balance jumper:

Better footwork will do more than enhance Knox’s shot preparation. It will also help his passing, which is another weakness. As he drives more confidently and makes jump-stops in the lane, he’ll have better strength and balance.

Although Knox showed improvement on defense during 2019-20, his footwork could be much better.

He needs to remain in a low, wide defensive stance more often, and be more disciplined on closeouts. Until he gets stronger, he must learn to use his agility and length to corral opponents. I’m confident he’ll continue to build on the progress we saw from fall to spring last season.

FALL OUT OF LOVE WITH THE FLOATER

Knox likes to attempt a moderate amount of floaters for a young forward, and the results have been spotty. A floater can be a good intermittent weapon, but someone with his length and athleticism shouldn’t settle for them as much as he does.

As mentioned before, he should try to get all the way to the tin more often. He converted just 26 percent of his attempts between 3 and 10 feet from the hoop, partly because he tossed too many floaters.

Although he does a good job trying to take floaters off a two-foot hop most of the time, his balance and touch are still erratic. Knox doesn’t have good enough command on that shot to punish defenders, so he shouldn’t lean on it so much.

This doesn’t mean he should eliminate it from his repertoire; Knox should still practice it and occasionally implement it when appropriate. He just needs to curb usage and avoid turning to it as a default option.

I think he can work to find a better shot for himself or a teammate:

PERIMETER SHOOTING: ELEVATE RELEASE POINT

Significant jump-shooting improvement doesn’t happen overnight for most players. Knox shot 33.7 percent from downtown over his first two years, so we’re not asking him to instantly become a steady, 40 percent marksman. We’re just looking for some incremental improvements to his mechanics.

It’s helpful for players to have a quick release in order to get shots off in tight spaces. However, in Knox’s case, I think he might need to slow down his delivery for now.

For the sake of improved fundamentals, he should be more deliberate until he masters an improved form.

In addition to more consistent body mechanics, it would behoove him to elevate his release point. Right now, his release is barely above his head level, and he doesn’t fully extend his hands upwards to launch the ball. He kind of short-arms the delivery:

This seems nit-picky, but it might make a difference in the long run.

With better footwork and a higher release, Knox could become a respectable shooter. He’s made 190 threes over his first two years, so we know he has some touch. Once his movements become more consistent, his percentage should creep north of 35 or 36 percent.

HOW THE KNICKS CAN EMPOWER HIM

Mar 11, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox II (20) is fouled by Atlanta Hawks guard Vince Carter (15) in the second quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As I previously mentioned, Knox’s struggles and underwhelming impact aren’t entirely his fault. The Knicks had a bottom-tier roster, coaching upheaval and sub-optimal spacing during the past two seasons, providing a tough developmental environment.

New York can do right by Knox and other key prospects by adding more efficient shooters to the roster. Knox’s slashing opportunities were frequently blown up by help defenders who left mediocre-to-poor shooters. If new president Leon Rose upgrades the shooting talent in just a couple of rotational spots, it could open up the offense and Knox’s opportunities.

New York could also help the youngster by using him in some small-ball lineups.

Knox didn’t spend much time at the 4 last season due to the team’s glut of power forwards, but the Knicks should intermittently try him next to Mitchell Robinson in the frontcourt. Let Knox unleash his athleticism and outrun opposing forwards from end to end.

If the team doesn’t pick up the contract options on Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson, (which would be a good idea at this point), there should be more than enough room to experiment with Knox at the 4.

Most importantly, the Knicks can’t give up on him. He’s the same age as a college sophomore or junior.

As Knox sharpens his fundamentals and (hopefully) is surrounded by a more complementary lineup, he could still emerge as an explosive cog.

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