New York Knicks: Projecting the starting five to open the 2020-21 season

New York Knicks, Elfrid Payton
Dec 7, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) dribbles to the basket against the Indiana Pacers during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks are saturated with players that represent average talent, so figuring out their starting rotation could be tumultuous. However, we can project several promising players with more upside to be included in the starting roster as well as veterans at several key positions the Knicks lack star talent at.

For new head coach Tom Thibodeau, winning is the ultimate goal, and while he will work to develop some of the younger players on the roster, the goal is to put wins in the column and not sacrifice games for the betterment of their youth.

Projecting the New York Knicks’ starting five:

1.) PG: Elfrid Payton

The Knicks resigned Elfrid Payton to a one year, $5 million deal, and he had already envisioned staying in New York. This was an easy contract for the Knicks to sort out, allocating a small amount of money on a stopgap point guard like Payton.

“From the beginning we always had intentions of me coming back so I wasn’t really I guess worried,’’ Payton said on a Zoom call Wednesday.

The Knicks have undoubtedly been counted out for the 2021 season, simply based on their lack of star talent and inability to lure max-contract level players to MSG. Nonetheless, they have several exciting young players with immense potential. Payton believes that they shouldn’t be counted out, and they’re capable of much more than what they offered in 2020.

“I feel like we’ve been counted out,’’ Payton said. “So just go out there and compete and show what we can do. That’s definitely something we want to use as motivation, as if we didn’t already have enough. But that’s definitely something we’ve spoken about in the locker room even in these short days that we’ve been together.”

Last season, Payton finished with 10 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game, over 27.7 minutes. Elfrid is not a scoring maestro by any means, but he can get the ball moving and play well in transition, which is where Thibodeau intends to bring this team.

2.) Center: Mitchell Robinson

One player, the Knicks, are expecting to improve is Mitchell Robinson, who averaged 9.7 points and 7.0 total rebounds in 2019. He earned a career-high .742 field-goal percentage, showing an increase in offensive efficiency. He is one of the best shot blockers in the entire NBA, and at 7-foot, 240 pounds, he’s looking to take his game to the next level.

Many believe the signing of Nerlens Noel should help Robinson shine in the future. At 26 years old, Noel played at the University of Kentucky his freshman year before making his way to the NBA.

Noel has been a productive center in the NBA so far and expects to be a “big brother” type of figure for Robinson, who is capable of being a dominant player at the professional level. A majority of the first two seasons have seen Robinson come off the bench, but I believe it will be his first year he will be considered a starter. He has a problem with committing too many fouls and is a bit raw, but with good coaching and developmental pieces around him, he can be an integral part of this team.

3.) Power Forward: Obi Toppin

The Knicks landed Obi Toppin with the 8th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and they knew exactly what they were getting in the New York native.

“Obi Toppin is beyond a freak athlete, like beyond a freak athlete,” Austin Rivers said on Wednesday. “He’s going to be really good. I obviously didn’t get to play against him last year but just seeing him in here, my God.”

4.) Small Forward: RJ Barrett

The Knicks had elevated aspirations for RJ Barrett when he was drafted in 2019. As a small forward, Barrett averaged 14.3 points, 2.6 assists, 5.0 total rebounds, and a .402 field goal percentage in his rookie campaign. At just 19 years old, he showed he could ball with the big dogs, and with a year of experience under his belt, the hope is that he can take a significant leap in 2020.

“It bothered me a lot,” Barrett said Tuesday regarding his excluding from the first or second All-Rookie NBA teams. “Not going to lie. It bothered me a lot. I really don’t understand why I wasn’t on it. But it was motivation, motivation for next season. It was good to have an extra chip on my shoulder and just prove myself even more.”

Sometimes being neglected spurs motivation, and that is exactly what Barrett is hoping to embody this upcoming season. He has something to prove. With the Knicks looking to win while rebuilding, he will play an integral part in their process.

5.) Shotting Guard: Austin Rivers

Rivers has already been enamored by Obi Toppin’s athleticism, and hopefully, it has motivated him to play alongside the rookie. Coming from the Houston Rockets, a team saturated with shooting talent, he is hoping to find his groove in New York. He averaged 23.4 minutes with Houston last season, putting up 8.8 points, 1.7 assists, and a .421 field goal percentage per game. He took four attempts per game from beyond the arc, hitting on .356 of those attempts.

Rivers’ talents were masked by players like James Harden in Houston. He is a solid offensive and defensive player who can offer value on both sides of the ball for the Knicks. As a decent perimeter shooter, Rivers holds the ability to spread the floor while players like RJ Barrett and Toppin drive to the rim with their aggressiveness. Rivers is essentially a stop-gap until they can find a better option, considering he was depth on a better team.

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