It’s a strange time for NBA fans. Ever since basketball was abruptly put on halt for roughly two months, so many big questions have yet to be answered regarding not only the season finale, but also the NBA Draft. With both the draft lottery and combine postponed earlier this month, it’s still unclear when Commissioner Adam Silver will choose to restart the season and schedule the draft. Despite leaving NBA fans in limbo, this extra time does grant teams like the New York Knicks, the opportunity to reevaluate their first-round pick options and further scout the next generational talent to invest in. It’s become quite clear that the Knicks desperately need an elite point guard who’s not only a natural scorer but also a playmaker. With appealing options like LaMelo Ball, Cole Anthony and Tyrese Haliburton up for grabs, this draft is really important and has the potential to transform the Knicks into a better team next season.
However, if the Knicks do decide to select a point guard, they would have four on their active roster, not leaving a lot of minutes to go around for everyone. The Knicks still have Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, and Frank Ntilikina, all young point guards that individually bring a very different range of skills to the table. Smith Jr. possesses an array of scoring weapons and good court vision, allowing him to choose between sniping a shot from behind the arc or finding the open man in the paint. Payton on the other hand, has always been a pass-first point guard with the complimentary ability of being able to do a little bit of everything, be it grabbing rebounds to bagging steals or sinking close-range shots. And then there’s Ntilikina with his big 6’4” frame, who brings creativity, strong defense around the perimeter, and can score from anywhere on the floor.
This presents the Knicks with plenty of versatility and a young, talented group of point guards that provides a lot of depth in their backcourt. But because they are all still quite young (Smith Jr. is 22, Payton is 26, and Ntilikina is 21), they all need playing time and a lot of it to capitalize on their potential (ESPN). Furthermore, if the Knicks wind up going after phenom talents like Ball or Anthony in the draft, one of these other three point guards won’t have the opportunity to play and put their skills to good use. As a result, the Knicks need to establish what roles and system they want in place for their new-look franchise that will not only make for the best fit with their first-round picks, but will also be cost-efficient at the same time. And unfortunately, having three backup point guards simply does not meet the criteria.
Since the Knicks need an offensively-gifted scorer and playmaker at the helm of their lineup, the smartest decision would be to trade Smith Jr. and hold onto Payton and Ntilikina. First and foremost, Smith Jr. has not had an easy transition ever since the Knicks traded for him during the 2018-19 season. After an impressive showing in 21 games for the Knicks last season, dropping 14.7 ppg, with 5.4 apg and 1.3 spg, a handful of nagging injuries got the best of Smith this season, limiting him to only 34 games played on the year (ESPN). In addition, out of those 34 games, he only started 3 of them, frequently losing out on starts to Payton or Ntilikina (ESPN). Moreover, Smith Jr.’s playing style doesn’t complement the new point guard role the Knicks are in need for. Smith Jr.’s best skill, even during his time at NC State, is scoring the ball and making plays for his team, and that’s a backup role the Knicks don’t need if they draft Ball or Anthony (ESPN). Even if the Knicks want him to stay, Smith Jr. won’t capitalize on his potential if he gets 15 minutes a game or less. As was evident last season and during his time with the Dallas Mavericks, Smith Jr. requires a lot of playing time to be effective and that’s something the Knicks won’t grant him with both Payton and Ntilikina in the mix as well (ESPN). The harsh reality here is that if the Knicks wanted to make him their new starting point guard, they would have done so a long time ago. And after seeing how he was handled this season, the Knicks lack of interest to invest in him as a key part of their lineup, became abundantly clear. As a result, it’s only fair to trade him to a team that will actually benefit from his skillset and in return, allow the Knicks to get something of value, be it draft picks or a different bench player.
That being said, the Knicks did choose to invest in both Payton and Ntilikina, and for good reason. Unlike Smith Jr., Payton is a facilitator; he’s a point guard that sees the floor quite well and uses that skill to maximize his role as a passer. Just to give you an idea, Payton’s assists per game has risen steadily almost every year, averaging over seven per game during the last two seasons after only putting up six plus for the previous four (ESPN). Having a facilitator like Payton coming off the bench, is an important role that complements the scoring dominance that Ball or Anthony would bring along with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle. Furthermore, Payton has been in the league for six years now, possessing experience that is really helpful to have around such a young group of point guards (ESPN). His insight and skill with passing the rock, is something that both Ball and Anthony could learn from and cultivate under his guidance. Although this might not be the most glamorous role, Payton makes for a great fit with the Knicks and in his first season with them, showed why he’s a valuable asset.
With Ntilikina, the Knicks have found something quite special. At only 21 years old, Ntilikina has displayed excellent upside. Since the Knicks drafted him in 2017-18, Ntilikina has gradually improved and had his best season to date this year, posting career high averages in points, steals, free throw and field goal percentage, as well as 3-pt shooting (ESPN). The kid is as complete as it gets for his age, carrying good ball-handling skills and court vision with the strength to post up or slash inside the paint at will. His shot has gotten much better and so has his confidence, allowing him to score with ease all over the floor. But what remains to be the cherry on top for Ntilikina, is that his talent can adapt to any type of player the Knicks decide to draft. Not only can he be another backup point guard, but he can also play at the two as well, which he did throughout this season. Simply put, his skillset isn’t limited to just one style of play, which is why he has made for such a good fit in New York. With that being said, the Knicks are aware that Ntilikina may take time to mature and develop. But the growth has been there and it really came to life this season, highlighting why he continues to be a much-needed role player for the Knicks backcourt.
When all is said and done, the Knicks have to be really calculated and smart about the future of their lineup if they ever want to be a playoff team again. During this process, it’s very important to remember that structure is key and that to win basketball games, you need players that not only embrace their role, but who are also willing to adapt their talent for the sake of winning. The key part to remember here is that not every player can do this; some just know how to play one way of basketball and that’s it. And in Smith Jr.’s case, a smaller bench role doesn’t fit his specific skillset. In addition, the Knicks just really need a player who can drop 20-25 points a game, something that hasn’t been seen at the Garden since Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis were in New York. And their best bet to get that type of player, is by going after one of the best point guards in the draft, a starting position that they’ve tried to fill since Raymond Felton was on the team six years ago. With enticing options in Ball, Anthony and even Haliburton, the Knicks have to figure out which role players will work best with their new standout stud in order to win games, beginning with their group of point guards. Investing in Payton and Ntilikina was the right choice, but as a result, it’s in the Knicks best interest to move on from Smith Jr. and create room for their rookie starlet.