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It’s a Hard Knick Life: Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, and David Fizdale on a Season of Development (or Tanking)

New York is taking the long view, but how does all the losing in the present affect the development of players like Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Emmanuel Mudiay?

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David Fizdale didn’t look or sound concerned. If he was stressing over the Knicks’ upside-down record in his first season as their head coach, he didn’t let any of us see him sweat.

It probably didn’t hurt that the Knicks had a few days off in Los Angeles during their recent West Coast road trip. Sunshine and palm trees (not to mention the local nightlife) can be a welcome distraction in January, especially when you’re in the grips of a brutal losing streak that threatens to squeeze the remaining life out of you and your team. When the Knicks came to L.A. last week, they had lost eight straight and 13 out of 14. And yet when pressed on matters of chemistry and camaraderie, Fizdale insisted the Knicks were doing just fine. When a reporter asked how the morale could possibly hold up under the heavy weight of such a lopsided record, Fizdale laughed at first and glanced briefly over his shoulder as if to say, See for yourself.

The Knicks had just finished up practice at UCLA’s John Wooden Center on Thursday afternoon. Behind Fizdale, some of his players were sitting on folding chairs. Others were stretching on the hardwood or gathering up their things. Almost to a man, they were talking and smiling and laughing and, in the case of one player who I couldn’t quite make out from way across the gym because even my eyes are washed now, flossing. (The dance, not the dental hygiene practice.) On-court results aside, how had the Knicks managed to stay up during the down times?

“Truth,” Fizdale said, as though the explanation were simple and self-evident. But truth about what, precisely? “Everything,” Fizdale continued. “Honest about where they are with their game. Honest about where we are with our team. Rotations. Effort. What’s on the film. We try to shoot straight with each other and respect each other that way. We got a whole group of those guys who say that to each other, and they know it’s coming from a good place. The coaches can say things to them, and they know it’s coming from a good place.”

Fizdale credited his players’ character and lauded them for “energetic practices” and “competing against each other hard”—all of which sounded a bit boilerplate and didn’t quite hit the candor target considering all the straight-shooter hype. So what, exactly, I asked him, is the truth about these Knicks?

“I think we’re a struggling team,” he said, “trying to find our way.”

There is a difference between trying to maintain morale and not caring or being affected by protracted, abject defeat. If the attendant nuance there is a bit hazy, Tim Hardaway Jr. presented himself to clear it up. After shootaround on Friday, Hardaway sat on a trainer’s table and rattled off various missed opportunities for victory—games the Knicks didn’t start well and then built insurmountable deficits, games they started well but couldn’t finish, games they lost by tight margins and massive ones. Hardaway said they “all believe we’re better than our record speaks,” but still copped to the myriad ways they’ve found to lose. If not for the fact that he was wearing a jersey, you might have been able to see his emotions right there on his sleeve.

“It doesn’t feel good,” Hardaway said. “It doesn’t feel good to us.”

It probably hasn’t felt good to be a Knick for a while. They snapped their losing streak with an unexpected road win over the Lakers, but it should be noted that L.A. was without LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and Rajon Rondo, which left the Lakers roster looking as thin as … the Knicks. That game was basically the basketball equivalent of the two-Spider-Man meme. The best part of the evening came afterward, when Fizdale revealed that enigmatic Knicks owner James Dolan had gathered his squad before and after the game for a team huddle. I would have paid good American money to witness that. I bet there were trust falls and everything.

Still, pep talks and an isolated win over the LeBron-less Lakers go only so far. Even by recent Knicks standards, this team is having a historically bad year. As of Monday, they were 23rd in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, and carried a minus-7.9 point differential. All of which is why they’ve sunk in the standings. Only the Cavs and Suns have fewer wins. The Knicks haven’t had a winning record in six years. (They won 54 games in 2012-13 and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was the only time they’ve made it out of the first round of the playoffs in nearly two decades.) Since 1999, the Knicks have won 40 or more games just four times. This season won’t do anything to change that.

Going into Tuesday night’s nationally televised game against the Warriors, the Knicks are on pace to win about 20 games. If they don’t clear that benchmark, it would be for just the second time in the team’s 73 seasons. To follow Fizdale’s lead, the truth is the Knicks are really bad—which isn’t such a bad thing when you squint at it with the right perspective.

As an original and unrepentant tanking enthusiast, I find that what the Knicks are doing this season makes sense from a dispassionate, academic standpoint. Losing more games now in the hopes of drafting Zion Williamson (or some other talented young player) later has obvious appeal. After all those lean years, imagine New York fans and media feasting on Zion hysteria. The entertainment value alone would make this season’s struggles worth it. But I do not play for the Knicks. If I did, I might have a different take on the matter. Hardaway certainly does. Nearly a year ago, he said, “Tank is not in my vocabulary,” and added that fans who wanted to see the team bottom out in the service of improved lottery odds were “rooting for the wrong team.” He hasn’t changed his mind.

“I’m pretty sure if [the fans] were put in our position they wouldn’t want to feel this way,” Hardaway said. “I understand where they’re coming from. But do they play the game of basketball? Do they know how—what we go through as an athlete, as a professional athlete? … We understand off the court the sense of where they’re coming from when it comes to records and percentage-wise what you can get, what you can’t get. We understand that. But that’s for the front office to figure out. We’re basketball players.”

It should be noted that for a very long time, the Knicks front office had serious trouble with the figuring-out component that Hardaway mentioned.

For years, the Knicks were just bad enough not to be good, and not bad enough to bottom out. While other organizations scuttled their teams in the hopes of floating to the top of the lottery, the Knicks bobbed along in a sea of mediocrity. As a consequence, they’ve been marooned on an island of their making—as far from playoff relevance as they have been from securing top-tier players in the draft to come along to rescue them. A review of their first-round picks over the past decade mostly looks like they shot up signal flares and hoped for the best even though the odds were against them: Jordan Hill eighth overall in 2009 (over DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, and Jeff Teague, among others), Iman Shumpert 17th in 2011 (over Tobias Harris, Nikola Mirotic, and Jimmy Butler, among others), Tim Hardaway 24th in 2013 (over Rudy Gobert), Frank Ntilikina eighth in 2017 (over Dennis Smith Jr., Donovan Mitchell, John Collins, and Jarrett Allen, among others), and Kevin Knox ninth in the last year’s draft (over … actually, this one might be OK. Good for them). To their great credit and fortune, the Knicks grabbed Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in 2015—but that was possible only because the Sixers short-circuited and took the most un-Process player possible in Jahlil Okafor one pick earlier.

Of course a little luck never hurts, especially when the Knicks so frequently self-sabotaged by regularly trading away valuable assets. Because of acute front-office malpractice, the Knicks had no first-round picks in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and no picks at all in 2016. It’s awfully tough to hit the draft bull’s-eye when you don’t have any darts to throw.

The Knicks drifted all over the place for far too long; at least now they’ve picked a lane. With apologies to Hardaway—who has long been rumored as a likely trade candidate—this was the smart, necessary course for the organization to plot. Especially with Porzingis out indefinitely with an ACL tear. However painful the approach might be to the players in the short term, Knicks president Steve Mills was right to finally and fully invest in a long-term vision.

That’s the message the Knicks are pushing—if not publicly, then privately. I had more than one conversation with people in and around the organization who said the Knicks want to be judged on their player development. That’s the kind of thing losing teams say when they can’t say anything good about their record. But for a franchise that long peddled the fantasy of big-name free agents moving to New York to headline Madison Square Garden and instantly save the team, pivoting to a homegrown approach that figures to take significantly more time to yield dividends is a striking departure from previous roster-building strategies. Put more simply, what the Knicks are doing right now is so unlike the Knicks.

On the morning of their first practice in Los Angeles last week, Knox was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December. Fizdale called the award “such a bright spot for us” and said the other players “pounced on” Knox when they heard the news. Considering all the losing, the Knicks seemed happy that one of their own was recognized for something positive. “For us right now,” Fizdale said, “that’s a team award.” It’s not, but you take a win—real or by proxy—wherever you can get them, I guess.

Knox has looked excellent recently. He averaged 17.1 points, six rebounds, and 1.5 assists, and shot 38.4 percent from 3 (on 6.1 attempts per game) in December. The points, rebounds, and assists per game were all more than double what he averaged in October and November.

The Knicks have high hopes for Knox, who is only 19 and still growing—figuratively and literally. Fizdale said Knox has knee pain sometimes because he’s still getting taller and bigger. Fizdale and his staff have lately emphasized teaching Knox “how to prepare his body” for the rigors of being the kind of scorer they think he can become—someone to lean on not just years down the line, but later this season as winter funnels into spring. They’ve seen enough flashes lately to believe they have something in him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Knox is actually playing now. He averaged fewer than 20 minutes over 16 games in October and November. Since then, he’s averaged around 35 minutes while sliding into the ever-changing starting lineup.

Entering Monday, Fizdale had stitched together 41 five-man lineups that have played 10 or more minutes together. But of those groups, only five have played 50 or more minutes together and just two have played more than 100 minutes. Hardaway is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes. After that, Noah Vonleh, Enes Kanter, Emmanuel Mudiay, Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina, and Knox are all averaging between 20 and 27 minutes. Six others—Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja, Mitchell Robinson, Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee, and Luke Kornet—fell between 12 and 19 minutes per game. The only thing you can count on with these Knicks is that you can’t count on anything when it comes to Fizdale’s rotations.

Recently, Fizdale went to a starting lineup of Mudiay, Hardaway, Knox, Vonleh, and Kornet. As Fizdale said, he continues to “figure out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much.” For the most part, they are kids. Lee and Thomas are the only players on the roster in their 30s; everyone else is 26 or younger, which makes the Knicks one of the youngest teams in the league by average age. Cynics might see a starting lineup that includes Vonleh and Mudiay—former lottery picks who quickly fell out of favor with the teams that drafted them—as a not-so-subtle nod toward tanking. But it’s easy to forget that Vonleh is only 23 years old and Mudiay is just 22.

Mudiay, in particular, has become something of a Rorschach test when it comes to how people perceive these Knicks. Maybe he represents a good example of the new player-development ethos. Or maybe he’s precisely the sort of recycled player you’d want to empower when the ultimate goal is acquiring more ping-pong balls. Maybe both. Either way, Mudiay is playing better than he ever has. As of Monday, he was averaging a career-high 14.3 points, along with four assists and three rebounds. The biggest knock against him was always his shooting, and rightly so. In his first three seasons, Mudiay had a 46 true shooting percentage; this season it’s 53. He’s still below league average from distance (31.8 percent from 3), but he’s been more efficient from the floor, where he’s shooting 44.9 percent overall (up from 37.4 percent in his first three years). His PER has also improved from 10.6 over that same span to 16.

When I talked to Mudiay after practice last week, he seemed pretty chill about his second chance with the Knicks. He was soft-spoken as we chatted off to the side, and I had to strain a bit to hear him over the post-workout din. At first, he answered my questions about what changed with standard clichés about “taking it one day at a time” and “working hard.” It was understandable enough; it was only the second time I’d ever talked to him, and I doubt he remembered the first. But after a while he warmed up—especially when I asked him about the difference between his time in Denver and his time in New York. He called playing for the Knicks a “whirlwind,” and he was thrilled for the opportunity to “keep chopping that tree.” That’s a favorite coachism of Fizdale’s, a man Mudiay credits with helping him reboot a career that the Nuggets pulled the plug on.

“He’s the best, man. The best coach I’ve had,” Mudiay said. “He puts a lot of confidence into his players. Not just me. One through 15. The whole roster.”

It was a nice sentiment, and I believe that Mudiay believed what he said. But if we’re still sticking to this whole honesty-is-the-best-policy thing, it didn’t quite pass the truth-telling test.

Frank Ntilikina had to think about it for a while. We were standing off to the side after practice last week. It was just the two of us, and we were talking about the same topic I discussed with the other Knicks: the record, the morale, and, most crucially as it pertained to him, the rotations.

Ntilikina has recently had his minutes slashed significantly. The 20-year-old started the season averaging 30 minutes in October. By November, his playing time dipped to just under 20 minutes per game. December was even worse. He started last month by catching three straight DNP-CDs against the Bucks, Wizards, and Celtics. He got hit with another DNP-CD against the Bucks in a nationally televised game on Christmas Day. The fact the Knicks lost that last one by 14 and had plenty of garbage time available that Ntilikina could have cleaned up only made the situation stranger. If the Knicks want to be judged on player development now, shouldn’t they put their young point guard in a blowout to do some developing?

After the DNP-CD (Did Not Play–Christmas Day), Fizdale said, “Frank has been struggling” and insisted gluing him to the bench wasn’t “a permanent thing. “Frank is very important to us, and we just have to find a way to just get that confidence back in him.” Since then, the Knicks have been on a road trip. Ntilikina played 21 minutes in Milwaukee, 16 in Utah, 18 in Denver. He played all of one minute in L.A. before hurting his left ankle and getting shut down for the remainder of the evening. X-rays were negative, but he was in a walking boot after the game and will miss some time as a result.

It has obviously not been a good run for Ntilikina. The 10 points he posted against the Nuggets was the first time he’d scored in double digits since doing so against the Cavs in mid-December. He also had a nice dunk on/near Rudy Gobert against the Jazz. That was the closest he’s come to a highlight in a while, and it made him smile—mainly because he and Gobert are friends, and the night before Gobert had Ntilikina over to his house for dinner. “He said, ‘I feed you, and that’s how you treat me?’” Ntilikina recalled. “It was pretty funny.”

The rest of his season hasn’t exactly been a laughing matter. It probably wouldn’t be easy for any young player, and it certainly couldn’t be for someone who was the eighth overall pick not even two years ago. And so I asked him whether it was difficult.

“Uh …” Ntilikina began. You could almost see the ellipses trailing out of his mouth while he thought about the question. The “uh” hung between us for a while—for about seven seconds, actually (I checked my recorder), though it felt a lot longer. Probably for him, too.

“I mean, when you experience it at first, it might be,” Ntilikina conceded when he resumed speaking. “But after you learn through the process how to stay even, and that’s really important as a young player, I know the most important thing is to stay even no matter what happens. It’s a long season, 82 games, a lot can happen during the season: injuries, change of the rotations, everything. A stretch of games where you don’t play good, a stretch of games where you play great. Whatever happens, you have to stay even.”

When he considered it some more, Ntilikina decided it wasn’t so much “difficult” as “challenging.” He thought that was the right way to put it. It was the first time I’ve ever spoken with him. He seemed like a nice kid who was trying to do a very delicate balancing act between wanting to play and get better and abiding by the wisdom of his coach and organization. He swore more than once that things are all good, especially with Mudiay, whom he called “a big brother.” He said they talk a lot and have a “great relationship.” And like Fizdale and so many other Knicks, Ntilikina said he knows he hasn’t played particularly well and he’s “not hiding from anything.” It struck me as a pretty mature take on a taxing situation.

Not everyone has handled the season with the same aplomb, though. Enes Kanter is a complicated dude, but on the matter of his playing time and his recent shift from starter to reserve, his position is quite clear. It can be pretty safely summed up in three words: This is bullshit. That’s me paraphrasing on his behalf, but given everything he’s recently said, I don’t think he’d object to the shorthand. After being demoted in late December, Kanter waited exactly two games before complaining to the media. He said his goal was “to try to be an All-Star this year.” Which, sure.

Last week, Kanter had a meeting with Knicks general manager Scott Perry. During their impromptu summit, Kanter reportedly said he did not request a trade because “I like it here a lot.” That’s something he repeated to the media. He likes the Knicks a lot. But, then again, there’s also the matter of him being openly aggravated about being a future All-Star who comes off the bench for the Knicks.

“I’ll go out and do my job and help my team win,” Kanter said. “If we’re winning, it’s good. But if we’re losing it’s a problem. If this adjustment is going to get us a win, cool. But if not, there’s a problem.”

That is … quite a quote. He also said that Perry told him he is a “very, very good basketball player.” In his defense, the Knicks have pushed this whole truth thing, and Kanter has his own version. Getting him to spit more honesty spice into my recorder wasn’t as easy I anticipated, though. After the first practice in L.A. last week, he ducked out a side door while everyone else was laughing and flossing. The next day after shootaround, a Knicks PR handler asked me who I wanted to grab. When I asked, “Is Enes talking today?” the reply was hilarious and also true: “Enes has talked a lot.” Hard to argue. Instead, I chatted with Kornet, who usurped Kanter’s position.

As recently as late November, Kornet was playing for the Westchester Knicks in the G-League. Now he’s getting starter’s minutes for the big club. He said, “We all kind of understand the frustrations [Kanter’s] been having,” but added that “Enes doesn’t hold any resentment toward me.” Kornet said he’s “empathetic” to Kanter’s current plight. And in fairness to Kanter, the man has a lot of stress in his life. After the Knicks beat the Lakers, Kanter told us that he wouldn’t travel to London later this month for the team’s game against the Wizards because he fears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whom he called “that freaking lunatic”—might try to have him killed. That led to a subsequent flame war with former NBA player and Turkish countryman Hedo Turkoglu, who is now a chief adviser to Erdogan. Between coming off the bench, getting big mad online, and, you know, fearing for his life, it’s understandable that Kanter might be a little on edge.

“There’s always going to be friction,” Fizdale said when asked about potential tension between young guys who might be on their way up and older guys who are almost certainly on their way out. Kanter is one of seven Knicks whose deal expires this summer. The Knicks are projected to have something around $33 million in cap space this offseason, though they could clear around $46 million if they get creative. (KD, anyone?)

Whatever happens with this group the rest of the way, they figure to look awfully different next year. They’ll have Porzingis and Knox and beyond that a bunch of question marks that need answering. But leaving so much unresolved is precisely the resolution the Knicks needed. They appear to have realized that being bad for a while might be good for them in the end. That might not seem like much of a bottom-line revelation to anyone outside New York, but for a franchise that so frequently tried to sell itself and its fans on the viability of various get-rich-quick schemes, there’s a lot to be said for an honest audit—however painful.

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