There are only four more games left in this seasons tanking festivities. The New York Knicks and head coach Jeff Hornacek have shuffled the teams lineup quite a bit in search of a future point guard. These last few months, the organization has been getting vital information on Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina, and Emmanuel Mudiay in hopes of finding the point guard of the future. It is safe to say that at the end of the year, none of them have emerged as genuine options to be a productive starter. It is also safe to say that a lot is still unknown about all three of them and they all still have untapped potential. The three of them will figure prominently in off-season decisions when it comes to the draft and free agency. Below are recaps on the season each had and how their age, contract, style of play, and other factors will determine whether or not they should be part of the Knicks’ future. Before that, a quick word on “point guard” and what I mean by that.
What is a point guard?
The NBA is a constantly changing organization and basketball is a constantly changing sport. The current search for a point guard that most teams go through really means a “lead guard”. Obviously, all of this comes down to head coaching, play style, and organizational philosophy but the league is trending towards more combo players and less traditional players. For this conversation, the point guard runs the offense. That does not necessarily mean a focus on distribution but instead the initiator of the offense, the lead in the pick and roll, and someone who can reliably get a bucket by themselves. Shooting, good defense, and passing ability are the top traits but you usually can’t get all three in a single package. Right now, the Knicks are searching for this lead guard and hope that one of the three below can potentially develop into one.
The recaps of Frank’s rookie season will include the phrase “up-and-down”. Usually, after they get done describing the down part the next thing noted will be Frank’s age. At 19 years old (he turns 20 in July), there is a built in excuse for Frank’s not good season. This is all true and very fair. But these are the Knicks and basketball isn’t fair. If no one is going to be impatient then allow me. The most disappointing thing about Frank’s season is how many other really, really, really good rookies out there this year. Forgetting about everyone before Frank, the names selected after him include Dennis Smith Jr, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Kyle Kuzma, OG Anunoby and Jordan Bell. Even if you don’t know all these names, you can safely assume if a redraft happened tomorrow, all of them would go ahead of Frank. But the time to wallow in despair is over because Frank is on the team and he is here to stay. The only way the eighth overall pick won’t be here for the rest of his rookie contract is if he gets traded or if he somehow plays worse. As of now, Frank is a part of the Knicks plans moving forward.
Not the best Frank
Assuming Frank plays in the last four games he will end the season with 78 NBA games worth of experience. The result? A stat line of 5.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game on 35.5% shooting from the field and 31% from three with a PER of 6.49. For all those non-PER fans, it basically takes all of the good you do, subtracts all of the bad, and comes up with your player-efficiency-rating. It’s a more complicated +/- and a decent indicator of how much a player is positively contributing on the court. Right now Ben Simmons leads all rookies with a PER of 19.85. Frank is third from the bottom with his 6.49, ahead of only Dwayne Bacon and Semi Ojeleye.
He is also second to last in true-shooting percentage (what your shooting percentage would be if you included free throws and 3-pointers). This isn’t from a small sample size either, of all the eligible rookies Frank is 17th in usage rate. The Knicks gave him a fair chance on and off the ball this year. The result was a truly bad shooting performance, generally lackluster offensive play, and a “great effort” on defense pat on the back every once in a while. To be honest, the only upside to Frank’s season is his obvious NBA physical ability and his defense. Everyone seems overly excited about that. I personally did not believe his defense warranted more playing time than he was getting. His total lack of offense was egregious. Frank’s defense, while more than capable, gets lost in the shuffle because the Knicks are bad defensively.
His contract, age, and draft position all make waiting on Frank to develop not that big of a deal. When considering the players taken after him and just how bad his rookie season was, it’s easy to consider that Frank might spend the majority of next season in the G-League. Getting used to the game, travel the United States, and everything else that comes with being a reliable NBA starter is a daunting and difficult task. The Knicks need to be patient.
They need to understand something. Rushing him out in hopes of him learning through the fire can be just as detrimental as it is helpful to in the long run. Making sure his confidence is high and he gets good minutes as opposed to just getting minutes is also very important. Right now, the French connection just isn’t quite there and I wouldn’t expect much more next season.
Trey Burke has proven that he belongs in the NBA. The only question is, where? Not only where, as in which franchise, but also where on the roster he should be. His ability to score in bunches and lead an offense for small spurts makes a bench role seem obvious for Burke. Being able to lead the second unit as someone who generates offense while the starters are on the bench is an extraordinarily vital role. J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton, Mario Chalmers, Cory Joseph, and Patty Mills have all recently thrived in the playoffs as backup point guards meant to lead second units while superstars rest. These guys are all known for being fearless. They always ready to take over a game if necessary.
All of them also have long histories of being overlooked or not viewed as the most essential piece for a championship. After three years with the Utah Jazz and 111 starts under his belt he was kicked out the back door. Burke is already familiar with the harsh realities of the NBA. After respectable averages in Utah (13 points and five assists), he slowly saw his playing time consistently decrease until he was traded to Washington for a 2021 second round pick. After under-performing with the Wizards, Burke was left with a G-league contract as the only way to get his career back on track. An amazing stint with the Westchester Knicks led to him being called up by the team for these last 32 games.
What Trey has done best
While on the Knicks, Burke has been averaging 12 points in 20 minutes on 51 percent shooting from the field. His shooting percentage is the highest it has been in his career and his 3-point shooting is the second best of his career. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages are both the highest they’ve ever been. The time and place for Burke seem to finally be aligning. He was always going to be a score-first point guard. He now has a place where he can do that.
Hopefully, the Knicks realize that he is not meant to carry the team. His ability to come off the bench or start but play sparingly are all very important. If you compare their career totals, Trey favorably measures up to Barea, Joseph and Mills. His per-36 minute totals and percentages suggest that his current career is following a similar path to those type of backup point guards. Trey has to be on the team next year and moving forward.
Is Mudiay good or bad? For whatever reason, there is no middle ground with Mudiay. At times, he has shown real brilliance on the court. His physical ability is not in question. His body is more than capable of handling the NBA. At times, it seems he is mentally committed and ready for the game. Then, there is the other side of Mudiay which is just not very good. Consistency becomes the question with Mudiay. Before that, he has to establish some kind of identity. Every year in the league, Mudiay has gotten less minutes and seems to have performed worse. It seems like there is even less known about him than there was before. That being said, the age excuse still applies. At just 21 years old, and someone who only started playing basketball relatively recently, there is definitely still some untapped potential there.
Not good at all
In 21 games with the Knicks this year, Mudiay put up 9.2 points, 4.0 assists, and a steal per game. His numbers per 36 minutes during this short stint were some of the worst of his career. His field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and 3-point percentage were either worse or just below the numbers from his rookie year. In the 63 games Mudiay played this year, he ended up with a net rating of -11.9 with a true shooting percentage of 47.6. Both those numbers are really bad and show how bad his offensive can be.
If Mudiay’s stats continue to take a dive like this and his consistency somehow gets worse, it would become impossible to justify giving him more and more minutes. The only hope is that if Mudiay figures it out somehow the same way Burke seems to have. Also, it has come time to accept that his high draft pick doesn’t mean he should necessarily be a star on the team. The best thing that can happen for Mudiay next year is for the Knicks to hire a coach that truly understands him and is capable of bringing out his best.