New York Knicks: Calipari explains Payne’s impact on Randle’s All-Star rise

The New York Knicks‘ status as a real playoff contender will be legitimized by a Julius Randle selection in the NBA All-Star Game.

Randle is knocking on the All-Star Game door after an impressive start to the season. He’s dragging a young Knicks team to the playoffs conversations in a season many analysts thought would be a lottery year.

Randle is in the midst of a career year in the NBA — 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 40.7 percent from deep, all career-highs. And more importantly, as Tom Thibodeau pointed out, Randle has impacted winning in New York.

With Randle leading the way, the Knicks have won 14 of their first 30 games, good for the seventh spot in the East. Barring any second-half meltdown, the Knicks are on pace to outplay ESPN‘s projections (24.7 average wins and 2% playoff chances).

Randle’s Herculean effort hasn’t gone unnoticed as he finished seventh in the Eastern Conference frontcourt starters voting — seventh in fans votes, eighth in players votes, and fifth in media votes.

The coaches are set to pick the seven reserves, which will be announced on Tuesday.

Comfortable being uncomfortable

Randle revealed in the Old Man and the Three podcast yesterday that the Knicks executive vice president William Wesley called him in the offseason and asked him what he needs to go to the next level.

His response foreshadowed what is happening right now: “I need a coach who will push me and hold me accountable.”

Tom Thibodeau is what Randle has ordered. But he got more than what he bargained.

Kenny Payne, the man responsible for whipping Randle and a slew of Kentucky big men into becoming an NBA lottery pick, also came on board.

“One of the things that I told the Knicks when they were considering Kenny is that: ‘Understand now, if you want to see what Julius can be — he’s a good guy because they have a great relationship and Kenny will push him and make him uncomfortable until he’s comfortable being uncomfortable.’ You know how it’s done,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told Empire Sports Media via zoom call.

Unlocking Knox

Calipari also sold Payne to the Knicks as the key to unlocking their other underwhelming Kentucky product.

“And I also told them Kevin Knox, who was playing really good early, you’re gonna find out what he is,” Calipari said.

For the early part of the season, when injuries ravaged the Knicks, Knox had his moments. At one point, he was leading the league in corner three-pointers. However, it was short-lived as the team got healthy and Knox got buried under the Knicks’ new-found depth.

“They’re not playing [Kevin] as much because they’re trying over guys to play snippets and trying to figure out who’s who. But I think it’s been great,” Calipari said.

Big man’s whisperer

At Kentucky, Payne was the good cop to Calipari’s bad cop. In New York, Payne does the dirty work for Thibodeau.

Payne is always on the ears of the Knicks’ big men. Clips of him personally training the Knicks’ frontcourt — from Randle to Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin — went viral in the offseason. Oftentimes, on the MSG broadcast, you catch him in the pregame, stretching out Randle and assisting in his shootaround. During the games, you see him barking instructions or explaining the game situations to players from the sidelines.

Randle’s reunion with Payne made his transformation under the very detailed and hard Thibodeau coaching more effective.

“Julius is having an All-Star year. And the Knicks, if they stay in this playoff hunt, and they’re in there, there’s no reason — Julius in the biggest market had averaged in double-double just dragging the team and motivating his team and doing what he’s doing — for that not to happen for him personally,” Calipari said.

If it does happen, thanks in large part to Payne.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks keep their faith in Knox: ‘I want to prove a lot of people wrong’

New York Knicks, Kevin Knox

Despite an underwhelming sophomore season for Kevin Knox, the New York Knicks have remained committed to the former lottery pick.

Knox, who shot a dreadful 36 percent overall last season, has been criticized for his low motor. The former Kentucky star is eager to turn the corner and finally break out in the NBA.

He’s brimming with confidence, which emanates from the full backing he’s been getting from the Knicks.

“The whole coaching staff, the whole organization really has a lot of faith in me. They’ve really been pushing me all summer. Coach has really been reaching out,” Knox said on his zoom call Tuesday.

This echoed former Knick Steve Novak’s sentiment earlier in the day on MSG A.M.

“I think the guy with the Knicks that you really need to watch this year, going into his third year, is Kevin Knox,” Novak said. “I know there are a lot of new names, a lot of new faces, and a lot of potentials, with a lot of the roster – Obi Toppin being picked, great selection. But to me, Kevin Knox is in his third year. Coach Thibs has been in Kevin Knox’s ear all summer long since he signed with the New York Knicks.

“And it sounds like they’ve made him a priority. So he is a guy who has the potential to make that leap and improve and help this New York Knicks team. I think if he can have a solid year, he can really help the Knicks.”

Training camp star

Thibodeau has been effusive in his praise for the third-year forward when he mentioned that Knox had been impressive in the first two days of the training camp.

“I hope he can sustain that over a long period of time. Looking at the shots that he had taken last year, the ones that he took which I would quantify as good shots, he made those,” Thibodeau said.

“When Kevin Knox takes good shots, he’s going to make them. He’s put a lot of time into his shooting. I think he’s gotten stronger. But he’s got to continue to work. And if he does that, Kevin Knox will be fine.”

Aside from focusing on his conditioning, Knox has trained with sought-after shooting coach Chris Matthews. Known as Lethal Shooter on social media, Matthews has helped improve the shooting mechanics of the likes of NBA big men Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and WNBA stars Candace Parker and Skylar-Diggins Smith, among others.

Shot of confidence

Knox got a shot of confidence when the Knicks brought in Kenny Payne as an assistant coach. Payne has always been in his corner since his one-and-done season with the Wildcats.

Aside from Payne, the Knicks have added a slew of coaches who have a strong background in player development.

“As much as possible, I’m really getting a lot of work with different coaches that we have on our staff,” Knox said.

“It definitely feels great to have the organization behind my back. I just really want to go out there this year and prove a lot of people wrong. Just go out there and play hard and just really win games.”

The Knicks’ reluctance to include Knox in a package that would’ve gotten them All-Star point guard Chris Paul was the first sign that they are fully invested in the 2018 ninth overall pick.

Knox likes the makeup of this Knicks team better than last year, when Steve Mills signed a glut of veteran forwards that buried Knox on the bench.

“Last year, we brought in a lot of new guys. So it was kind of stuff adjusting to the new players. But I think this year, we really did a good job of bringing some veteran guys who will really help the young guys,” Knox said.

Run and gun Knicks

Knox already saw a glimpse of what the future holds for him and the Knicks at practice, with Thibodeau imploring them to run and take advantage of their athleticism.

“I think the way that coach really wants us to play this year is really fast. We’re so young, and we got a lot of athleticism, so he really wants us to fly up and down the court, which is really different than last year,” Knox said.

Thibodeau has yet to settle with his rotation opting to dedicate the first part of the training camp to fundamentals before moving to team schemes. But Knox said they already have a sense of how Thibodeau will roll them out this season.

“Everyone on the team knows their role. We had a couple of days of good practice. Just the flow of practice, everyone really knows how they gonna play this year,” he said.

Knox said Thibodeau has already told him what he needs to do to make great strides this season.

“He just really wants me to be aggressive, rebound the ball defensively, push the ball on the break, make plays knock the open shots, be aggressive, and get to the basket,” Knox said. 

Thibodeau’s message to him was obvious.

Play with a high motor.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Obi Toppin enrolls at ‘House of Payne’

Much has been said about the lore of the big man’s whisperer Kenny Payne out of Kentucky.

Payne, who has helped produce some of today’s finest big men in the NBA, from Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns to Bam Adebayo, has taken New York Knicks‘ rookie Obi Toppin as his next most important project.

Uncle Kenny

Toppin has been in the “House of Payne” every day as he prepares for his much-awaited NBA debut.

“I feel like the moment I stepped on this facility, Kenny Payne has been preparing me,” Toppin said on his zoom call with reporters on Thursday.

Toppin has been impressive in the training camp so far. He confirmed the earlier report of Ian Begley of SNY that he’s delivered franchise-level records in the agility and conditioning drills and measurements.

“I always put in the work. I’m automatically ready for it. I always asked what’s the highest score so I could beat it,” said Toppin showing this early his competitive spirit.

Payne is a drillmaster on the court but has been described as an “uncle figure” off it. He can become stone-hearted during training, but he’s a light-hearted guy who hangs out with you after all, is said and done.

“Me working out with Kenny Payne, he’s been teaching me a lot on and off the court. He tells me to stay the course, be who I am because he knows I love to grind, and he knows I love to work. He pushes me every single day to get better and to be great. And I appreciate that,” Toppin said.

‘I’m home’

Toppin has become the talk of the town ever since he fell on the Knicks’ lap at No. 8 in the draft. The hometown kid has been dreaming of this since he was young, tagging along with his father Obadiah (popularly known as Dunker’s Delight) in the parks around New York.

“During the Draft Night, I knew there was a chance that I might get picked up by anybody. Like me getting picked by New York is a blessing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love where I am right now. I’m home. I’m with a good group of guys, a good group of teammates. Everybody who’s in the office, everybody here is amazing. I’m glad where I am at,” Toppin said.

His early indoctrination to New York basketball, he said, has prepared him for the big moments where heavy pressure can weigh down a player of less caliber.

“I feel like I don’t have to be worried at all. All that outside stuff that’s gonna happen. I feel like me having grown up in New York, me having the opportunity to play in the Rucker Park, Dyckman, West 4th (street), and all those amazing parks in the city I feel like, they were crazy fans out there if you can play in there, you can play anywhere,” Toppin said.

Change the culture

Toppin’s singular focus is not the Rookie of the Year or any individual award. He knows that will come if the Knicks play meaningful games in June and July.

“I’m a big team-guy. I’m never gonna say my expectations only for myself. Me, coming into a new brotherhood, new family, I feel like I wanna change the culture, I wanna win a lot of games. I wanna get to the playoffs,” Toppin said.

Toppin has done that in Dayton, helping the Flyers finish third in the A-10 conference after a 14-17 record during his redshirt year. Last season, Toppin led the Flyers to greater heights finishing with a 29-2 record, 18-0 in Atlantic conference play, and a no. 3 ranking in the nation before the global pandemic shut down the college season.

Toppin dreams the same for his home team, who hasn’t been to the playoffs in the last seven years. He knows there’s pressure to deliver, but he’s also been prepared by the New York playgrounds to block off the noise.

“I feel like we have a great fan base, but at the end of the day, they’re not in between those lines like we are. We have teammates who work and grind every day and coaching staff, pushing us every day to be great. At the end of the day, we just gotta worry ourselves and worry about our team and do everything we can to help the team win,” Toppin said.

Defensive mindset

Toppin has heard all the criticisms about his defense or lack thereof. But he has so much faith in his work ethic and coach Tom Thibodeau that he doesn’t worry about that part.

“He’s known for being a defensive coach. And I feel like, what everyone is saying like I have to work on defense, he’s gonna make sure that I’m good at defense. He’s gonna make sure that I’m doing what I have to do to help the team win and if that’s me being better at defense, he’s gonna make sure I’d do that,” Toppin said.

Thibodeau is excited to have Toppin. And this early, he’s been thinking of schemes to not expose Toppin into situations where the opposing teams can exploit his weaknesses.

“We’re really excited about him. He got in immediately. We sort of followed him in his draft preparation,” Thibodeau said.

A big asset in today’s NBA

Toppin, along with undrafted Knicks rookie Myles Powell and third-year wingman Kevin Knox, has worked under Thibodeau’s former assistant coach in Minnesota, Rick Brunson, in South Jersey ahead of the draft. The Knicks have the intel on him all this time.

“His energy, skillset, his ability to shoot, I think offensively he’s about as ready as a young guy can be coming into the league. Defensively, he’s gotta learn, he’s gotta grow as most young guys do. But we think he’s a great fit for what we’re looking to do,” Thibodeau said.

“We liked his overall talent. We liked the fact that we felt he’d be ready to play right away. I think the big thing with him is his shooting ability. The way he can stretch the floor, that will be a big plus for us. Of course, the defensive part is something we have to work on and we have to do that as a team. But I think his ability to play multiple positions, his ability to put the ball on the floor, make plays. That’s a big asset in today’s NBA,” he added.

Locked in to be great

Most scouts believe that if Toppin can develop into an average defender in the NBA, he’ll have a solid career. But Toppin isn’t contented with just having a solid career. He wants to be great, a Hall-of-Famer, to leave a legacy behind.

“With my athletic ability, my speed, the way I move. I understand my body, and I understand what I need to do to get better and take my game to another level. I’m locked in. I’m at another level. I’m not in college anymore. I’m locked into what I have to do to be great,” Toppin said.

“With the coaching staff and the players that we have, they’re gonna push me as well as I am going to push them to do everything we can to be successful.”

Punishing himself in the “House of Payne” every day is the start of his journey to his goal. Payne has a magical touch. Toppin has the work ethic to match it.

“Me, doing the conditioning test like I’m ready because he’s been preparing me. And I felt like when the games come, everything he’s been teaching me like I’m going to be ready to use those tools on the court,” Toppin said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Kevin Knox enters make-or-break season

New York Knicks, Kevin Knox

Kevin Knox must have heaved a sigh of relief after Gordon Hayward decided to go to the Charlotte Hornets rather than to the New York Knicks.

Knox dodged a bullet there.

With no Hayward, Knox has a clearer path to earning a significant role under new head coach Tom Thibodeau with only veterans Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, and 2019 second-round pick Ignas Brazdeikis crowding him for minutes in the small forward position.

But Knox has to earn and work for it, according to Tom Thibodeau, whose win-now mentality doesn’t bode well for a young and inconsistent player like the version of Knox we have seen in his first two seasons in the league.

Knox hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations after he was picked ahead of the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter, Jr. — two players who have exceeded their draft positions — in the 2018 NBA Draft.

After he was showcased in his rookie year, averaging 12.8 points in 28.8 minutes per game, Knox’s minutes and consequently his performance dropped to 6.9 points in just 17.9 minutes as David Fizdale coached for his job last season.

Knox’s confidence hit rock-bottom.

Knocking on Thib’s door

Despite Knox’s lackluster sophomore year, the Knicks’ new front office hasn’t given up on the former lottery pick and wanted to give him his fair shake.

They brought Kenny Payne, Knox’s biggest supporter in his corner during his lone season at Kentucky.

“Kevin Knox, let’s see how good he can be and that’s why you want a Kenny Payne with you,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said recently.

Before Payne came to the Knicks as one of their new assistant coaches, Knox has also worked out with renowned shooting coach Chris Matthews, known as Lethal Shooter on social media.

Add Camden High School coach Rick Brunson to the list of player development coaches who have worked out Knox.

Brunson, Thibodeau’s assistant during his brief stop at Minnesota and Leon Rose’s first client as an NBA agent, has worked out Knox in South Jersey along with Knicks’ rookies Obi Toppin and Myles Powell ahead of this year’s draft.

All signs point to Knox making a leap next season. Whether that will be big enough to keep him in New York or be sent somewhere else is up to him.

The Knicks still view him as a valuable piece of their young core.

For instance, take their reluctance to send Knox to Oklahoma City Thunder in a package that could have netted them All-Star point guard Chris Paul as another sign.

But this doesn’t mean Knox is completely off the hook.

Next season, his team option will be crucial to the Knicks’ plan of opening up a $70 million cap space, which is good for two max slots. 

If Knox finally breaks out, then the Knicks won’t have a hard time picking up his team option.

But if not, it’s time to pack up.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Nerlens Noel poised for breakthrough season with New York Knicks

karl anthony-towns, knicks

The New York Knicks have made the signing of Nerlens Noel official on Wednesday.

Noel, who last played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, signed a one-year, $5 million deal to fortify the Knicks frontcourt with third-year center Mitchell Robinson.

Noel averaged 7.4 points on 68.4 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 18.5 minutes of play last season, primarily serving as Steven Adams’ backup.

He joined Robinson and Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert as the only three NBA players to appear in at least 50 games and record a field goal percentage of 68-percent or greater and average at least 1.5 blocks.

Noel, the sixth overall pick in 2013, has yet to live up to the hype after entering the league as the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in his lone season in college with the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

Wildcats coach John Calipari believes his former player is poised for a big season with the Knicks.

“Nerlens was a great pickup, and let me tell you why,” Calipari said recently. “It’s time to break through for him. Now, what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it, they’re not trying to do it in a hurry. They have a terrific coach, a proven coach, a playoff coach.”

Noel will be reunited with Kenny Payne, the Knicks’ new assistant coach plucked from Kentucky. Noel will be the fourth former Wildcat in the Knicks roster, joining Julius Randle, Kevin Knox, and rookie Immanuel Quickley.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks open up $40 million cap space, add undrafted rookie Myles Powell

New York Knicks, Myles Powell, Big East, Seton Hall Pirates

The New York Knicks have started cleaning the house to create cap flexibility as they aim to continue reshaping their roster via free agency and trades.

The Knicks have declined the team options of Bobby Portis ($15.7 million) and Theo Pinson ($1.7 million). The team has also waived Taj Gibson ($10.29 million), Elfrid Payton ($8 million), and Wayne Ellington ($8 million).

There’s some mutual interest for Gibson and Portis to return on a new discounted deal, per Ian Begley of SNY.

The Knicks have also not extended a qualifying offer to Damyean Dotson ($2.02 million). They have also waived two-way player Kenny Wooten, Jr., whose spot should go to undrafted rookie Myles Powell of Seton Hall, who will sign with the Knicks as first reported by Adam Zagoria of NJ.com.

Wooten thanked the Knicks on Twitter after learning their decision.

Only Reggie Bullock, who has a value contract of $4.2 million, will be retained.

The series of the Knicks moves were first reported by Marc Berman of The NY Post and Newsday’s Steve Popper.

Big player in Free Agency

All in all, the Knicks have opened up a $40 million cap space as they go into the market as one of the big players when free agency begins on Friday.

The Knicks have 10 players with guaranteed contracts, including their rookies Obi Toppin, selected at No. 8, and Immanuel Quickley, the 25th pick.

The Knicks have maintained their ability to absorb a large contract in anticipation of a possible trade with the Houston Rockets’ disgruntled star point guard Russell Westbrook.

They are also looking at free agents to shore up their young roster with Fred Van Vleet, DJ Augustin, Jeff Teague, Goran Dragic as candidates for the point guard spot.

They have also been linked to Boston’s forward Gordon Hayward and Washington Wizards’ sharpshooter Davis Bertans.

On the Knicks’ radar are big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein and defensive specialist Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, all Kenny Payne’s projects in Kentucky.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

House of Payne: Knicks assistant Kenny Payne prepared his son for life without him in Kentucky

New York Knicks, Kenny Payne

Kenny Payne left not only his heart at Kentucky but also his son when he jumped on the opportunity to become one of Tom Thibodeau‘s assistant coaches in the New York Knicks.

Kenny will no longer be around when his son, Zan Payne, makes his college debut next season for the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

“It was hard at first because he’s always been here right by my side,” Zan told Empire Sports Media during his media availability on Wednesday. “Everybody in my family, we were all happy for him. We were happy he’s going to work for the New York Knicks. That was — one of his dream jobs was working in the NBA, so we were all happy for him.”

Perhaps it’s time for Zan to spread his wings like what his father has decided to do next in his coaching career. And so far, Zan is adjusting to his college life sans his father.

“It’s definitely different not having him around. The practice is way different. But we’re still doing good. We’re all on track. I still talk to him every day,” Zan said.

“My dad used to like, I guess, yell at everybody and make us run a lot. If you knew him, he’s hard on everybody. He likes things the way he wants it. It’s definitely different in that way.”

Under Kenny’s guidance, Zan grew up as a local basketball star in Lexington.

Zan was a first-team All-City and All-Region selection as a junior and senior at Lexington Catholic High School. His 1,282 points were the 14th most in program history. He also finished as the school’s fourth-leading rebounder with 934 career boards.

Zan’s initial success can be traced to Kenny’s knack for player development.

“He influences [my game] a lot. Every day when I was little, we used to work out together, like every single day. He would teach me everything that he would do. When he left, it was all good because he went to go work with the New York Knicks, obviously,” Zan said.

Kenny’s arrival in New York should augur well for the Knicks’ young core, especially the likes of former Wildcats Kevin Knox and Julius Randle. While Zan will no longer enjoy Kenny’s presence at Kentucky, he’s excited for his father and what he can bring to the Knicks.

“He’s just never going to give up on any of the guys that are on the team,” Zan told Ian Begley of SNY during the media roundtable.

“He’s just going to keep working with them until they perfect whatever he wants them to perfect or whatever he needs them to do. He’s just going to keep working until they’re at where they need to be at.”

As for him, Zan said he’s still been getting fatherly and coaching advice from Kenny every now and then. Kenny always reminds him to keep his high motor and play hard at all times, a signature trait that has become synonymous with Payne, and to rest his knees and work on his conditioning.

Zan, a 6-foot-4 forward, is joining a star-studded Wildcats team as a walk-on. While he’s eager to prove that he can step out of his father’s large shadow in Kentucky, he wants to do it the right way.

“In high school, I was the captain of the team. The coach always wanted me just to go score and stuff like that. But, here, I’m just probably going to play like defense. Go out there and play hard and play to win. Just do what the game tells me to do. That’s what coach always tells me, Coach Cal (John Calipari). Just do what the game tells you to do,” Zan said.

Kenny must have left his heart and his son in Kentucky, but he’s also left him with the best preparation only one can get from the “House of Payne.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks Draft Watch: John Calipari views Tyrese Maxey as smaller version of Jamal Murray

In the 2016 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks missed out on a big-time scoring guard from the University of Kentucky, the leading producer of NBA stars.

The Knicks’ lottery pick that year was earlier sent to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster trade. The Nuggets used the Knicks’ original pick (seventh overall) to select former Wildcat Jamal Murray.

Murray, as it turned out, is the real deal and he quickly became one of the league’s rising stars. The Denver Nuggets guard’s sensational play in the NBA Bubble has left team executives who passed on him scratching their heads.

This year, another big-time scorer under John Calipari’s program has entered the NBA Draft. One-and-done freshman Tyrese Maxey could be the answer to the Knicks’ backcourt riddle with his dynamic scoring and moxie.

“I’m trying to tell everybody when you look at Tyrese, he’s a smaller version, but he’s still 6’2”, of Jamal Murray who is 6’5”. They both have that lower release. Everybody said Jamal would never get it off,” Calipari told Empire Sports Media during his Zoom call with select media on Monday.

Murray though came into the Draft as a projected top-five Lottery pick but somehow slipped a couple of notches down because of doubts whether he was athletic enough to thrive in the league.

He proved all the skeptics wrong as his game and his low released shot translated well in the NBA.

Maxey isn’t viewed as highly as Murray was. Most boards have Maxey as a late lottery pick in a Draft that has become as unpredictable as it hasn’t been in recent years. Aside from his apparent lack of size (6’1″ without shoes and with only 6’6″ wingspan), Maxey is facing the same questions Murray had in 2016.

“Jamal played with Tyler Ulis so [people] said, is he a point guard? They’re point guards. We’re teaching them to play with the ball and without the ball. And now it becomes: do they make game-winning shots? Are they that guy? Tyrese is,” said Calipari.

With the NBA heading into positionless basketball, Calipari believes Maxey’s switchability as a combo guard could work well to his advantage. He has the skills and speed to run the point and he has the moxie and court smarts to play off the ball.

Maxey proved early on that he has the chops of Calipari’s typical dynamic guard when he dropped 26 points in his college debut at the Madison Square Garden against Michigan State.

He went on to average 14.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game before the college season was cut short. He shot 42.7% from the field, 29.2% from three, and 83.3% from the stripes.

It wasn’t fancy particularly his shooting percentage from deep but the eye test suggests his impact on the game was way bigger than those numbers. Another reason for that, Calipari explained, is because Maxey played within the system just like the way Murray, and earlier, Devin Booker did that made them somewhat underrated ahead of the Draft. 

While Maxey is two inches shorter than those two former Kentucky guards, he possesses the same characteristics that make him such an intriguing prospect with a high ceiling.

Calipari pointed those out but also acknowledged the area where Maxey should focus on to reach his ceiling.

“Tyrese, physically, athletically and you know he’s a guy who’s blocking shots, rebounding the ball, has played dribble-drive and a downhill runner his whole life,” Calipari said. “He has to be more consistent with his shooting so did Jamal. But they played similar (roles) here.”

While it’s a pity that Maxey was robbed of the opportunity to show more of his wares on the big stage when the SEC and NCAA were scrapped, his body of work from high school, AAU to Team USA would be enough to tell you he’s got a chance to be special.

Before he went to Kentucky, he teamed up with Draft classmate Cole Anthony in the Team USA that obliterated the 2018 FIBA U18 Americas Championship.

Maxey averaged 8.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists against 0.5 turnovers, and 1.3 steals in 18 minutes. Anthony, who was named to the All-Tournament Team, averaged 14.3 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists against 2.7 turnovers, and 1.2 steals in 21 minutes.

During his short-lived stay at Kentucky, Maxey was on a tear late in the season, scoring 20 or more points five times before the stoppage.

“There are gonna be people who’ll pass on Tyrese that will regret liked how they passed on PJ (Washington) like how they passed on Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), Jamal (Murray) and we can keep going,” Calipari said. “He’s gonna be that (type of player).”

Mike Schmitz, ESPN’s resident NBA Draft Analyst, shared the same view with Calipari when he appeared on Sports Center with Scott Van Pelt last week.

“He didn’t have eye-popping numbers at Kentucky. He was under 50 percent from 2, under 30 percent from 3, but you have to play a role there. You have to fit in. Coach Cal does a tremendous job of forcing these guys to buy into a role. It’s about winning for the team and you sacrifice there and that’s exactly what Maxey did,” Schmitz said.

But the one thing that stuck out on Schmitz is that Maxey is a big-time scorer.

“This kid is a bucket. I saw him at the high school level, I saw him with USA Basketball, and I think he’s a perfect fit in today’s NBA. You can try to poke holes in him. You can try to say, ‘He’s a 6-3 combo guard. He’s a scorer or he’s out of control.’ But it’s worked pretty well for Tyler Herro, for Jamal Murray, for Devin Booker.”

That type of dynamic scoring has been sorely lacking on the Knicks backcourt for the longest time now.

Calipari didn’t go into specifics about the Knicks’ interest in Maxey. But a  highly-placed source in Kentucky said that Calipari has been constantly talking to the Knicks.

During the course of Calipari’s interview, the well-decorated coach revealed that his travel was limited by the pandemic but noted that his only out-of-town trip so far was to New Jersey.

Knicks’ team president Leon Rose is from Cherry Hills, New Jersey while his good friend and senior advisor William “World Wide Wes” Wesley hails from Camden, New Jersey.

Calipari has strong ties with the Knicks front office, and more so with his former top deputy and key recruiter Kenny Payne who is now one of Tom Thibodeau’s assistant coaches.

Maxey should be available by the time the Knicks would pick at No. 8 based on most Mock Drafts. But he’s also a trade-down candidate as reported by Marc Berman of the New York Post.

NBA Draft analyst Matt Babcock of Babcock Hoops, meanwhile, views Maxey in a different light.

“I see (Tyrese) Maxey being a solid complementary role player at the next level, whereas (Jamal) Murray is a dynamic player and one of the NBA’s rising young stars,” Babcock told Empire Sports Media. “Murray is just in an entirely different category altogether.”

Babcock Hoops has Maxey at No. 28 in their Mock Draft. It’s going to be a big surprise if Maxey gets picked inside the Top 10.

“I do not think the Knicks should consider Maxey with the 8th pick. It would be too high in the draft for him, in my opinion. I actually think Maxey would be a more appropriate option for the Knicks with the 27th pick, if he were there, of course,” Babcock said.

Maxey has shades of Murray in his game. But there are also glaring questions that he must address.

Only time will tell if Maxey can hold up to Murray’s comparisons.

But as Murray’s game became bigger and louder in the recent NBA Bubble, it’s hard to imagine that this new front office given their link to Kentucky and Calipari would pass up on the opportunity to get a player of the same caliber.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Kevin Knox will have to earn playing time

New York Knicks, Kevin Knox

Nothing is given.  Everything is earned.

That’s how Kevin Knox‘s life under new head coach Tom Thibodeau.

The former lottery pick has started to come along in the New York Knicks‘ Bubble-like organized team activity thanks to the culture of accountability that Thibodeau has set.

“I think the first step is preparation.  That’s where you get your confidence from.  How he practices every day that will allow him to continue to develop.  He’s played very well here. He shot the ball very well.  He’s put a lot of time into that,” Thibodeau said of Knox’s performance in the Knicks’ Bubble.

Knox was oozing with potential when he was selected as the ninth pick in the 2018 Draft ahead of the likes of his Kentucky teammate Shia Gilgeous-Alexander, and Michael Porter, Jr.

Those three players who were picked after him have made great strides, while Knox has yet to pan out after a promising rookie season. The 21-year old Knox was hounded by inconsistencies and got buried on the bench in his sophomore year. That killed whatever momentum he has built in his rookie year as his confidence dipped.

“I think it’s the same thing.  I think there’s been ups and downs for him.  Hopefully, he continues to learn from those experiences,” Thibodeau said.

With the new Knicks front office zeroing in on player development, Knox has been rejuvenated, especially with the arrival of former Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne. But even with Payne now on his corner, Thibodeau has made it clear that Knox has to earn his minutes.

“Everything will be based on performance.  It’s how you practice first.  You have to practice well with the team before you can begin to talk about playing time.  And when you’re playing in the game, everything will be based on performance,” Thibodeau said.

It’s a make-or-break year for Knox, who has been the subject of trade rumors. Thibodeau’s message is clear: shape up or get shipped out.

‘We have great teachers’: How the Knicks are laying the foundation of a rebuild

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks are back in the gym. But it feels more like they’re back to school.

After a week of individual workouts, the Knicks have advanced to voluntary team sessions that consist of drills, team practice, and intra-squad scrimmages sprinkled with sitdown, class-style sessions in between.

Tom Thibodeau, a basketball lifer, doesn’t look like the gruff taskmaster, which every naysayer depicted him to be.  The photos on the Knicks’ social media accounts project him more of a teacher, just like how he wanted it.

During his zoom call with reporters earlier this week, Thibodeau expressed how pleased he is to have been surrounded by a “group of teachers.”

Thibodeau regaled the media with a story on how he came away left impressed with associate head coach Johnnie Bryant during his visit to Utah. He also noted his close relationship with Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari that led him to get to know Kenny Payne.

“For us to have the opportunity to hire both of those guys (Bryant and Payne) I think adds a lot to the staff,” Thibodeau said.

While he doesn’t have a prior working relationship with the returning Mike Woodson (Knicks coach in 2012-14), he’s heard a lot from their circle.

“I’ve known Woody for a long time,” Thibodeau said. We have a lot of mutual friends. Getting a chance to be around him on a day to day basis has been great and I love the experience that he’s bringing to our staff. Having Woody and Andy Greer, I’m very pleased. I think we have great teachers on our staff.”

This is how Thibodeau has envisioned it.

In the months leading to his appointment as the Knicks head coach, Thibodeau had a revealing interview in The Platform podcast. He talked about how critical is the coaching staff to help him build a winning culture.

For the first time in so many years, the Knicks have synergy from top to bottom.  From Leon Rose and William Wesley down to Thibodeau and his staff, they share the vision of culture setting and player development.

“The best leaders bring out the best in everyone they’re around. That’s what you want, a team of leaders. It’s like a team when you put a staff together. You have to have chemistry. You don’t want to be all the same,” Thibodeau said in the podcast.

Bryant, Payne, and Woodson fit Thibodeau’s criteria.

“Also, who they have been around. It’s different for different people like when you played in the league, you are a great player so let’s start there: have you been around with great coaches? Who is your high school coach? Who is your college coach? What pro coaches have you played for? If you are currently an assistant coach, what great coaches have you been around, and have you won at a high level? At least these things factor into it.”

Bryant is the young up-and-coming coach who has been associated with a perennial playoff team in Utah. Payne has been Calipari’s right-hand man and the acknowledged best assistant coach in college before he came aboard. Woodson has led his past teams to the playoffs and has won an NBA championship with Larry Brown in Detroit.

Thibodeau wants his staff to mirror his team — full of diversity and versatility.

“Just like in a team, you wouldn’t want all older veterans…You’re trying to get different opinions in guys who see things like maybe you want the experience of a long-time assistant, you want the experience of a guy who played in the league maybe in the last three to four years, you want to get a lot of different thoughts.”

With such a young roster and no star in the foreseeable future, the Knicks have finally figured out. The past regime was right when they started to build through the Draft.  But what they seemingly forgot is that it’s only half of the equation.  Player development was neglected.  So when they started to pivot to star-chasing, their empty chest of talent couldn’t draw the stars to come to New York.

It feels like ages ago since the Knicks were relevant, having a playoff team built around stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. But it was also around that time when their long-time conference rival Miami Heat were entering the peak of the Heatles (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh).

The Knicks were never the same again after Anthony and Stoudemire left. In contrast, the Heat are now in the last phase of their rebuild.

How have the Heat done it? By having a culture that has been as steady as a rock, and through player development.

The steadying influence of former Knicks coach-turned executive Pat Riley has empowered Erik Spoelstra to stay afloat during the rebuilding years.

It was that culture that led them to attract a proven star in Jimmy Butler.  It was that solid scouting and player development that enabled them: to have late lottery pick Bam Adebayo rise as an emerging NBA star; to have pushed last year’s 13th pick Tyler Herro to perform like a veteran and to unearth undrafted players Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn.

The Heat found luck in finding players. But certainly, their stunning development wasn’t out of pure luck.  They have adapted to the cards they’ve been dealt with, and now they are on the cusp of reaping the reward — a return trip to the NBA Finals.

The Knicks, on the other hand, are currently back to the drawing board. They have long ways to go before having a playoff team like the Heat. But if it’s any consolation, they are now laying the foundation of what looks like a real culture.

“I think that’s a big challenge in the NBA — how quickly can you adapt? — because things always change in the league, whether it’s trade, free agency, an injury,” Thibodeau said during the zoom call. “You have to adapt quickly. So for us, the focus has to be on the guys who are here. And that’s what we’re doing.

“So everyday we’re thinking about how we can improve as a team and how we can improve individually. And we want that to be our focus. We want to stack days together. We know it starts with fundamentals. We have to build that base and then we’ll take it from there.”

Going back to school is what the Knicks should have done a long time ago.  But it’s better late than never.  Just ask their two-way player Kenny Wooten, Jr.