clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can the Knicks’ Youth Movement Push Them Over the Hump?

Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle deserve much of the credit for the Knicks’ success this season. But New York wouldn’t be in this position if not for its young core, and that group just might be the X factor in the team’s first-round series against the Cavs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After Julius Randle turned his ankle during a game against the Miami Heat in late March, the New York Knicks were forced to play the final five games of the 2023 season without him. With the team’s playoff berth already secured, and their positioning as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference all but guaranteed, the Knicks were able to afford their All-Star forward some much-needed time to rest for the postseason. But in the days and hours leading up to the start of New York’s first-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Randle’s playing status remained up in the air—as did the Knicks’ playoff aspirations.

In the end, Randle not only suited up for the game, but also he was able to push through some shooting struggles to scrape together a 19-point, 10-rebound performance and grab a crucial offensive rebound to seal the narrow 101-97 win on Saturday. But while the Knicks took Game 1 in Cleveland largely off the strength of their veteran trio—Randle, the ascendant Jalen Brunson, and versatile wing Josh Hart off the bench—they’ll need the young members of their roster in order to win the series.

The Knicks’ most recent playoff run, in 2021, ended in the first round after Randle shrunk in the spotlight and the roster’s glaring flaws were exposed. Randle is still leading the way this year, but in addition to the Brunson signing, the development of the Young Knicks represents a concerted effort by the front office to solve for the 2021 team’s weaknesses by investing in young players and building through the draft for the first time in the 21st century.

Sure enough, the turning point of this season came when head coach Tom Thibodeau shook up his lineup and afforded opportunities to the team’s prospects, who had spent far too much time in recent years watching their coach stick with struggling veterans. Following a 10-13 start, capped by a 21-point defeat to Dallas in early December, the typically immovable Thibodeau tightened his rotation: veteran Derrick Rose and former lottery pick Cam Reddish fell out of favor, while Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes saw their minutes increased, and 22-year-old Deuce McBride got his first real chance to play consistently.

Beginning with a win against the Cavs—of all teams—the next night, the Knicks won eight straight games and lifted their defense from 26th to eighth. While McBride has fallen out of the lineup since the deadline acquisition of Hart, Quickley and Grimes have emerged as the heart of a youth movement in New York that also includes Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin. With the exception of Hartenstein, who signed with the Knicks this past offseason, all of these players were either drafted by New York or acquired via trade on their respective draft nights within the past five years. And their roles have increased in the past two seasons as they’ve added depth and versatility around Randle and Brunson.

The evolutions of Quickley and Grimes have elevated New York’s backcourt on both sides of the ball. Quickley, in particular, has become a consistent two-way threat and one of the favorites for Sixth Man of the Year. After the All-Star break, Quickley—or simply, “Him”—went on an absolute tear, averaging 21 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.4 steals per game with a 47/40/81 shooting split. His impact on defense played a massive role in the team’s turnaround, as the Knicks allowed 12 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. The third-year guard also stepped into the starting lineup for 21 games and authored several huge performances, including a standout 38-point outing in a double-overtime win against the Boston Celtics in early March.

Grimes, a 22-year-old guard out of Houston, started off the season slow due to a lingering foot injury, but he’s since developed into one of the more promising young 3-and-D wings in the league. After shooting 35 percent from deep on 5.2 attempts per game before the All-Star break, Grimes has found his long-range rhythm at the best possible time: In the 22 games after, those numbers improved to 45 percent on 6.9 attempts per game. And when Randle and Brunson each missed games at the end of the season, Grimes stepped into a larger offensive role and knocked down 43 of his 90 3-point attempts (48 percent) in the team’s final nine games. On the defensive end, the 6-foot-5 Grimes is often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player, and he’ll likely continue to be the primary defender on the Cavs’ Donovan Mitchell as the first round progresses.

Elsewhere in the Knicks rotation, Robinson has become invaluable with his combination of rim protection and offensive rebounding. The fifth-year center sat out the Knicks’ 2021 postseason loss to the Hawks because of a foot injury, so this is Robinson’s first taste of the playoffs—and he’s already making a significant impact.

Robinson entered the league as an elite shot blocker and set a franchise rookie record for total blocks. But he’s since grown into one of the most fearsome rebounders in the NBA as well, ranking second in offensive rebound rate this season (16.4 percent). He helped lead a teamwide effort on the offensive glass as the Knicks finished third in offensive boards per game (12.6) and boasted the league’s second-best offensive rebound rate.

Injuries have plagued Robinson throughout his young career, and after his absence in the postseason two years ago cast then-35-year-old Taj Gibson into the starting lineup, it became clear that the Knicks needed a reliable backup. They found one this past offseason in former Clippers big man Hartenstein.

Not only does Hartenstein provide terrific insurance for the injury-prone Robinson, but he’s played a major role on the team’s impactful second unit. The 24-year-old is nearly as dangerous as Robinson on the offensive boards, and he can space the floor and keep the ball moving, offering a more versatile option in the Knicks’ frontcourt.

Along with Randle and Hart, Robinson and Hartenstein create extra possessions for the Knicks and present a matchup challenge for Cleveland. Despite the Cavs’ elite defense and twin-tower lineup with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, they struggle to secure rebounds on that end of the floor (20th in defensive rebound rate this season), which came back to bite them late in Game 1.

“This is going to be the story of this series: Can we limit them on the offensive glass?” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the loss, in which Cleveland allowed 17 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points. “If we can’t, we’re going to have a hard time winning. If we can, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Yet of all the young Knicks, perhaps the biggest wild card is the one whom the team drafted third overall in 2019 and signed to a $120 million extension: RJ Barrett. Barrett scored 30 or more points in seven games this season, including a 44-point performance against Chicago in late December. But despite the promising strides he made early in his career, Barrett continued to struggle with consistency in Year 4.

Only 22, Barrett just had a career-worst campaign from 3-point range (31 percent on 5.3 attempts per game) and often fell out of Thibodeau’s closing rotation during the last couple of months of the season. The Knicks scored fewer points and allowed more on defense while Barrett was on the floor, but—as rough as that reality is—he’s also shown glimpses of becoming the type of cornerstone player the front office believed they were drafting in 2019. With Barrett’s slashing ability and knack for drawing fouls on his way to the rim, he’s as capable of scoring 20 points on a given night—which he did 34 times this season—as he is to go 2-for-12, as he did on Saturday.

Another potential X factor among the young Knicks players is Toppin, the third-year forward who provides a burst of offense off the bench. With his aerial supremacy and highlight potential, the former dunk champion has long been a fan favorite. But his chances to shine have largely been limited by Randle’s stellar play.

In the Knicks’ final five-game kick, when Randle was out, the former no. 8 pick flashed his offensive potential, averaging 22 points, three assists, and three rebounds per game on 58/44/90 shooting. It wasn’t the first time, either, as Toppin ended his sophomore season with 35- and 42-point performances. Toppin still needs to prove he can maintain that level of production in fewer minutes, but he looms as an option off the bench if Thibodeau wants to speed up the game against Cleveland, which plays slower than any other team in the league.

As the series resumes with Game 2 on Tuesday before swinging to New York on Friday, the Knicks will need a healthy Randle and continued stellar play from Brunson. But the recent growth of the young Knicks has shown that they’re capable of picking up the slack when called upon—and that they might just be the key to pushing this team further than it went two years ago.

The Knicks have advanced past the first round of the postseason only once since 2000, when they fell just short of reaching the Finals with a team that featured an aging Patrick Ewing and Thibodeau as an assistant on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff. The team that now stands in their way is a fitting test from the basketball gods. Cleveland made the summer blockbuster trade for Donovan Mitchell that the Knicks stopped just short of committing to. While Mitchell, a New York native, has the opportunity to compete against the team he grew up rooting for, the young Knicks players whose names were swirling in trade rumors have a poetic opportunity to prove that the front office made the right decision to stay put and trust in them.