New York Knicks Rookies Make Great First Impression at Summer League

New York Knicks fans’ dreams of finally bringing a championship back home to Madison Square Garden were dashed Thursday night, when the team was eliminated from the Summer League Playoffs in embarrassing fashion.

Now take a deep breathe Knicks fans, as I’m embellishing for the loathers of the group.

The Knicks first loss of the Kristaps Porzingis era was the most lifeless the team looked in its five Summer League contests, but the overwhelmingly good news is it appears that the organization acquired two guys that could really play in this past June’s draft, in Porzingis and point guard Jerian Grant.

After facing entirely too much controversy for selecting a player that scouts and GM’s unanimously loved heading into the draft, Knicks fans and team officials alike should feel fantastic moving forward with the 7-foot-3 Latvian prospect. Sure, averages of 10.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game don’t exactly jump off the page, but considering this was Zinger’s (Porzingis’s nickname is still being wildly debated on Knicks Twitter) first NBA action, there’s a lot of good that should be taken out of his four game sample.

With comparisons ranging from Andrea Bargnani and Darko Milicic to Dirk Nowitzki before stepping foot on an NBA court, Porzingis definitely showed off his silky smooth jumper and stretch-big range that led to those parallels. Fortunately for Knicks fans, it was the big mans defense that really stood out, which should probably kill any and all references to Bargnani.

Sure, we can sit here and complain about Porzingis strength on the low block, with his height and length it’s almost tragic that he only weighs 230 pounds (if that much), but it’s been widely speculated that he’s never lifted a weight in his life, and considering he isn’t even 22 yet I don’t think it’s fair to criticize his defense for that just yet.

But for all that he isn’t physically, it’s awfully short-sighted to not be amazed by how his length affects almost every facet of the opposition’s offense. Showing the knowledge to keep his broomsticks, excuse me, arms straight in the air when contesting shots, the rookie showed great ability to protect the rim, and gives great effort in putting a hand in the face of any and all shooters. Although he picked up quite a few ticky-tack fouls – he averaged 4.3 fouls per game – Porzingis showed great instincts and awareness on the defensive end, not falling for pump fakes, helping defend against penetration, and looking more than competent defending/switching on the pick and roll.

Check him out below using his length – and then his athleticism – in the passing lanes:

And just incredible coverage/ability to guard multiple players in the same play on this pick-and-roll:

Porzingis moves incredibly fluid for a guy taller than Shaquille O’Neal, and as much as his ability to stretch the floor with his range has been discussed, he’s got great touch around the basket. I was very impressed with the way he’s constantly moving when the ball isn’t in his hands, but most importantly, for a guy with his size he recognizes how much more of an impact he has playing around the basket than hanging around the perimeter.

Again, the big man didn’t play a ton of minutes so he really didn’t take a lot of shots, but Porzingis posted a shooting line of 48/20/71. There were two other Summer League stats that ESPN’s Ian Begley shared that really stuck out to me: the Knicks were +7.6 points per 48 minutes when Porzingis was on the court, and Porzingis wound up attempting 24 free throws on 25 field goal attempts, good for a .96 FTA/FGA. To put that number in perspective, DeAndre Jordan posted a .88 FTA/FGA last season, landing him in the top five.

With legitimate inside-outside game – the 20 percent from three was on just five attempts -Porzingis is already proving to be a handful for opposing defenders. Not only can the big man score from all over, but he’s shown great unselfishness and passing ability both on the perimeter and out of the post. He also already appears to be further ahead on the defensive end than expected, so once he starts to add muscle, this kid could really be a huge problem for the rest of the league.

While the Knicks took a chance on a relatively raw prospect in Porzingis with their fourth pick, they were also able to acquire Grant, a four year combo guard out of Notre Dame, after trading Tim Hardaway Jr. in a three-team deal that landed them the 19th pick in the draft.

For a franchise that hasn’t had a franchise point guard in entirely too long, a big chunk of Knicks fans had their sights set on landing one of D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay. While Grant lacks the “upside” of those two prospects, he showed immediately that he’d be able to bring similar tools, as he was one of the most impressive point guards of the last two weeks.

As much as Russell’s court vision and Mudiay’s facilitation are fawned over, some of Grant’s biggest strengths include his ability to protect the ball, his passing ability, and the way he creates shots for others through dribble penetration.

Grant is always playing with his head up, looking for the right shot for the team, and isn’t afraid of attacking the basket and initiating contact, which was best displayed in his first game, where he got to the free throw line ten times (he made nine).

The biggest knocks on the Knicks future point guard seem to be that he isn’t necessarily a great defender, and that he needs to adjust from playing with a 35-second shot clock to playing with a 24-second shot clock, but Grant appeared more comfortable as the Summer League progressed. He finished with a stat line of 11.8 points, 4.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds, with a shooting line of 39/50/90.

Sure it’s just Summer League, but the Knicks seem to have two very skilled, very smart players to move forward with. I really look forward to watching them in the second unit together, and think they could be unstoppable running the pick and roll for years to come.

Other note worthy observations from the Knicks Summer League:
-After Porzingis and Grant, the most impactful Knick was Maurice Ndour, a 6-foot-9, 200 pound energy player from Iowa. Ndour carried the Knicks down the stretch in their win against the Sixers, and as much as I loved his “dirty work” attitude, I don’t think he has the skills, or a definitive position to play a meaningful role in the NBA.

-Heading into the 2014 NBA Draft with just their second round pick, the Knicks managed to walk away with three exciting prospects in Cleanthony Early, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and French big Louis Labeyrie. We finally got to see all three play together this Summer, and I’m not sure that the Knicks will be able to claim any of three as rotation players anytime soon. Early played great in the first couple of games of the tournament, but isn’t a good enough passer or consistent enough three point shooter to be a wing, and really lacks the size to play the four. He’s still relatively young, but this should’ve been Early’s chance to shine through and prove that he can be a rotation player for the Knicks next season, I’m not buying it.

Mini Greek Freak (even though Thanasis is older than brother, and Milwaukee Bucks rising star Giannis) is a really fun player to watch, but it doesn’t seem he really does anything well besides fly around the court taking chances on blocks and steals. Like Early, Antetokounmpo had plenty of time in the D-League last season to be able to show out during Summer League, but made very little impact outside of the last game of the tournament, where he scored 17 points. Besides energy, I just don’t see what he brings to a good NBA team. I’ll save you the time on Labeyrie and say pretty much the same goes for him as Thanasis, except maybe he’s a more consistent defender. I’d love both of these players back playing for the Westchester Knicks, but neither are ready for the NBA.

-Speaking of players who look competent in the D-League but can’t take advantage of Summer League minutes, I’m about ready to give up on Ricky Ledo. Don’t get me wrong, he’s another player I’d be fine with trying to develop in Westchester, but he doesn’t do anything particularly well at a high level. He’s an inefficient scorer, doesn’t stretch the floor, can handle the ball but doesn’t necessarily do a good job creating shots for himself or for others. At what point do you stop buying a player from his high school reputation?

About Jared Mintz

Jared has worked in ESPN's Production Research and Stats and Analysis Departments, and has contributed to websites such as IamaGM, SBNation, FanSided, and Bro Jackson. He's a Knicks fan, so he's been forced to watch the NBA objectively for the last 15 (going on infinity) years. Follow him on Twitter at @JMintzHoops