What drives Julius Randle: Winning NBA MVP and ending Knicks’ title drought

new york knicks, julius randle

Julius Randle had been counted out several times in his career.

Just last year, most Knicks fans wanted him out of New York. But he used the disappointing 2019-20 as his motivation to bring out the best in him.

With the backing of a new front office led by Leon Rose and a new coach in Tom Thibodeau, Randle did exactly that and carried the Knicks to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

It was a dramatic improvement, a rarity in the NBA for players like Randle, who had drifted from team to team trying to find his footing in the league. He found a home in New York.

It was a season of many firsts for Randle: first NBA All-Star, first NBA playoffs, first individual award with the Most Improved Player, and the first selection in any All-NBA team.

“People really thought I had a great year last year. What continues to drive me is knowing that I have so much room to improve,” Randle said in the Mobil 1 Series “Behind the Drive”.

“Things like the Most Improved Player of the Year award show you my dedication and hard work. I think I’m just scratching the surface. This was the culmination of years and years of dedication and hard work.”

After a breakthrough season in the NBA, Randle has no plans of slowing down. Even after locking up a $117 million, four-year extension with the Knicks.

He has set lofty goals for himself during the duration of that deal.

“The next accolade would be the MVP, man,” Randle boldly declared. “I think that would be fitting. I think the ultimate goal is bringing a championship to the city of New York. So that’s what really drives me every day.”

The Knicks haven’t won an NBA championship since 1973. After their last NBA Finals appearance in 1999, what followed next was a long stretch of mediocrity and futility.

Randle vowed to change that.

The 26-year old forward learned life lessons at an early age that made him driven and ambitious.

“I felt like I always had that drive whether it comes from people that I look up to or my idols growing up like my mom seeing how hard she worked on a daily basis to provide for me and my sister,” Randle said.

Carolyn Kyles was a single mother who raised Julius and his older sister Nastassia to become tough and resilient. Kyles, a 6-foot-2 former basketball player for the University of Texas Arlington, schooled him on the court when he was young.

“My mom was definitely hard on me,” Randle said.

His mother and his sister would always beat him that make him cry.

“She would always kick my butt and it would truly upset me and I would be in tears. Honestly, it was a great lesson about determination and just pure will,” Randle said.

Those moments toughened up Randle, who grew up into a 6-foot-9 bully on the court in Kentucky that led him to become the Los Angeles Lakers’ lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He was thrilled to have played with the late Kobe Bryant, who was his idol growing up.

“I studied everything about Kobe growing up. When I got to L.A. as a rookie, I was really excited just to practice with him,” Randle said. “He called me up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. bringing me all the way out to Orange County to work out. And just to have that example and be able to ask questions to a basketball genius was like ‘what more could I ask for?’

If Randle learned toughness and determination from his mother, he learned how to channel that to productivity on the court and improve every summer from Kobe.

“One of the things that I really learned from Kobe was when going to the summer, you list the things that you want to improve on — focus on one or two things. That’s what I did last summer. I was very specific about how I wanted to get better. And I’m doing the same thing this year focusing on footwork and finishing at the rim. Those little things could make the biggest difference,” Randle said.

Last summer, Randle focused on sharpening his shooting after a down year in 2019. The result was a dramatic 13-percent jump, leading to a career-high 41.1 percent shooting clip from long range last season. With the work he put in this summer coupled with the talent and shooting that the Knicks brought in, it’s safe to say that Randle will play more bully ball this season.

Thibodeau was also a big part of Randles’ success last season. The reigning two-time Coach of the Year empowered Randle to become the team’s leader after seeing how sharp he was during their bubble workouts that preceded training camp.

Many raised their eyebrows when Thibodeau declared that he saw a leader in Randle in their training camp. But he was right all along. Thibodeau knows one when he sees one.

“Thibs is absolutely amazing. Who he is as a coach, who he is as a person to his core, all he cares about is putting players in the best spot to win the game. I’ve never seen a coach works harder than him,” Randle said.

“There were times when I go to the gym at 9 o’clock at night and Thibs is still there studying, watching films. He always tells me the best form of leadership that you can give is the example that you set for others.”

Randle fully embraced that role. And the whole Knicks’ team followed him. He brought with him the work ethic that Kobe taught him.

In every city they played, Randle would have the team arrange a gym for himself to get some extra shots. He said that routine kept him in constant rhythm and kept him locked in. During his first year with the Knicks, not everybody on the team put in the extra work on the road as he did. That changed when Thibodeau took over as the coach as he established a culture of accountability.

“This is the first time that I have a team that they all came with me,” Randle said. “Now we have the whole team bus taking us to the gym because everybody on the team wants to go and get extra shots and extra work. And I think that just became a part of the identity of our team that we just don’t want to be outworked.”

Thibodeau would always tell Randle that “true leadership is not only bringing the best out of yourself but also bringing the best out of others.” 

Randle exemplified that last season, whether it was playing hard on the court or being early and staying late in the gym to put in extra work. He was the Knicks’ alpha. He was their leader on and off the court. 

But after a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs where his performance dipped, Randle is being counted out again by some people who view his breakout year as a fluke.

It’s hard to count out somebody who has that drive to become one of the greatest in the game.

The Mobil 1 Behind the Drive campaign, a unique offseason NBA content series and sweepstakes to reward fans with unique gifts and experiences, has partnered with prominent sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache to create custom, hand-painted sneakers inspired by the Mobil 1™ brand. These extremely rare kicks are now available as Behind the Drive prizes.

Watch Mobil 1 partners Randle and Karl Anthony Towns unbox the custom sneakers, with Mache describing the making-of process and going behind the scenes on his design motivation. 

Fans can join the Behind the Drive sweepstakes at gobehindthedrive.com.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

No Shortcuts: Ex-Knick Pete Mickeal owes legendary Euroleague career to Tom Thibodeau

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Pete Mickeal was dejected. Even after a solid showing in the NBA Shaw Summer Pro League in Boston, Mickeal still couldn’t make the cut.

Jeff Van Gundy, then New York Knicks head coach, told him to wait for his turn. The Knicks, coming off an NBA Finals appearance in the previous season, were loaded at the wings with Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, and Glen Rice.

Mickeal, an All-American honorable mention in his senior year, already felt embarrassed when he ended up as the last pick of the 2000 NBA Draft after a productive two-year stint with the Cincinnati Bearcats, one of the best teams in the country at that time.

The Dallas Mavericks used the 58th pick on him but quickly shipped him to New York along with Erick Strickland for John Wallace and Donnell Harvey.

So the news of being relegated to the reserve list was another dampener.

It was Tom Thibodeau, a Van Gundy assistant at that time, who kept his spirits up.

“I was disappointed, and Thibs was always positive, and he said, ‘Listen, man! Just keep working.’ And I would work with Thibs that year,” Mickeal told Empire Sports Media on the phone.

Thibodeau and Mickeal forged a good relationship as they were inseparable that year. Mickeal became Thibodeau’s project. They hit the weight room early in the morning before other Knicks players showed up in their old practice facility in SUNY-Purchase.

“Then he takes me to the court and worked me out hard. So once practice comes, I’m really, really ready to go. And after the two-hour practice, Thibs will work me out again. He was always positive. He said, ‘Keep the right mentality. Don’t worry about not playing. Just work your ass off.’ That’s all I remember him saying,” Mickeal recalled.

That laid the groundwork for Mickeal to flourish in a legendary career overseas. His NBA career never took off, but thanks to another Summer League stint under Thibodeau, other doors opened for him.

“You always take a little piece of every coach you had during your career, and you take that mentality as a player, so I was fortunate to have a coach like Thibs,” Mickeal said. “I played for Thibs in the Summer League for two years. Those games helped me get attention in Europe. I was averaging 18 pts per game, and Thibs played me for 30-35 mins per game. So I had a chance to show what I can really do.”

Mickeal spent 15 years overseas playing in the Philippines, Korea, Greece, Spain, and Argentina, where at the tail end of his career, he faced a young Luca Vildoza.

“I knew Vildoza was good. I know his agent very well. And he’s played for the coach that’s most similar to Thibs in Europe. His name is Dusko Ivanovic,” Mickeal said.

Ivanovic, a multi-titled Euroleague, and Liga ACB champion coach, was Vildoza’s mentor in Baskonia.

“He and Thibs have the same mentality when it comes to coaching,” Mickael said. “They are coaches who you have to play defense, or you won’t play. So (Vildoza) played for tough coaches. He can play. If he’s healthy and he gets a chance, let’s see what happens.”

Mickeal won a dozen Liga ACB crowns and a Euroleague title, making him the winningest American player in Europe.

When his legendary overseas career was over, Thibodeau again gave him the opportunity to return to the NBA.

Mickeal reached out to Thibodeau, the head coach and Minnesota Timberwolves team president at that time.

“Right now, we don’t have a coaching opening, but we got something that you might like it better,” Mickeal said, recalling his conversation with Thibodeau. “It turned out to be true. I love being in the front office. I love scouting.”

It was like 2000 all over again, albeit the coaching and the development were off the court. Mickeal absorbed everything like a sponge as he got his feet wet into the NBA front office.

“Working for Thibs is great being your first job coming out of playing. It will really teach you the work ethic you need to be a great scout. Because the type of work you do when Thibs is your boss is tripled compared to any other team,” Mickeal said.

His familiarity with Euroleague players and NBA players playing overseas helped him seal the deal. The job taught him to become innovative and go the extra mile to get the intel on the players. He scouted not only in Europe but also players in the NBA, G League, and even in Asia. He was in meetings with coaches and other front office staff that made him appreciate how rosters are constructed in the NBA.

Nerlens Noel was one of the players he scouted extensively when the beanpole center was still playing in Oklahoma City Thunder. The former lottery pick has been on Thibodeau’s radar as far back as 2018. So he was not surprised the Knicks targeted Noel last summer.

“Obviously, I’ve been in the front office, so I can appreciate why teams are put together the way they are, like Nerlens Noel, for example. When I scouted him when he was with OKC, I’ve always liked him. I’ve always thought he’s a really good backup center,” Mickeal said.

“It’s very difficult to find a backup center that can give you rebounds and points every game and can switch screens who can move his feet well on the perimeter. It isn’t easy with all the switching the NBA does. And his body type fits today’s NBA. He’s got the long, slender body type, but he’s got a huge wingspan. So that really helps in deflection and playing straight-up defense with your hands in the air, showing your length. That’s difficult to find in the NBA — a mobile backup center,” Mickeal said. “I thought they did a great job in finding a guy like that. And the contract they got him for, I thought that was great.”

After Noel’s solid play last season, the Knicks locked him up to a $32 million, three-year contract this summer, with the last year as a club option making it a team-friendly deal.

Noel’s scouting report was just one of the hundreds Thibodeau received each week when Mickeal was scouting for the Timberwolves.

“We write all these (scouting) reports each game, and a hundred reports are coming in each week, and the guys in the office told me that I make this list, and Thibs read every single report every week. And I was like, okay, he’s the coach, and he’s reading all these reports? That story sums him up,” Mickeal said.

”He reads the reports every scout has written, and he was also in the meetings that I was in, and he’s coaching at the same time. That’s a level of commitment that’s unearthly. It’s not normal. But that’s a great tribute to him because everything he got in his career was through hard work.”

Thibodeau has made a career transforming losing teams into playoff contenders. He made solid rotation pieces out of fringe players. He developed All-Stars and All-NBA players at every stop. Derrick Rose became the league’s youngest MVP under his helm and resurrected his career in Minnesota.

“Thibs’ player development is underrated. They’re not giving him the credit he deserves. They always say Thibs plays his guys too many minutes,” Mickeal said. “But the truth is he’s developing players.”

Mickeal himself largely benefited from Thibodeau’s developmental coaching on and off the court. He parlayed Thibodeau’s teachings into a successful overseas career and later on as a scout and now as a sports agent.

After two years with the Timberwolves, Mickeal moved on to scout for the Washington Wizards until he decided not to return last year and bet on himself. He put up the Miami-based Mickeal Sports Group, a sports agency specializing in sending American players to Euroleague and identifying young NBA prospects around Europe.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to get into the sports agent business,” Mickael said.

Mickeal prepared himself for his post-playing career by getting directly involved in all negotiations of his playing contracts from 2008 until he retired. While he thought coaching would have been great, he was grateful Thibodeau steered him towards the front office, which equipped him with the additional skill set and network necessary to set up his dream sports agency.

“Thibs gave me that opportunity to start with. Then I branched out from there. It worked out really well. It’s a really good business which I want to do for the rest of my career. I work with a lot of smart, analytics people. We got a marketing firm behind me, and we’ve hired some really, really experienced agents. After one year, it’s already exceeded expectations,” Mickeal said.

Mickeal is a Thibodeau lifer who, unlike the Derrick Roses, Jimmy Butlers, Taj Gibsons, never found success in the NBA. But he’s earned a seat at Thibodeau’s table because of his motto: being the hardest working guy in the room.

“I didn’t have long experience with him like other players have, but the short time that I’ve been with him, I can honestly say he doesn’t take shortcuts. If you work the way he works, he’ll give you the respect,” Mickeal said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks have one of the toughest schedules according to Positive Residual

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The odds are stacked again against the New York Knicks.

The Knicks have the 19th best odds overall and the 11th best odds in the East to make the playoffs at -135, according to DraftKing Sportsbook.

Crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets are an odds-on favorite to make the playoffs at -20000, followed by reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks (-8000) and the revamped Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, tied at -3500.

Despite the Knicks retaining much of their core that finished as fourth seed last season and upgrading their backcourt with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, teams that didn’t make the playoffs were listed as favorites above them. 

Toronto Raptors (-300), Charlotte Hornets (-215), Indiana Pacers (-170), and Chicago Bulls (-155) have better odds to make the playoffs and the play-in tournament.

It doesn’t help that the Knicks have one of the toughest schedules in the upcoming season. They have the seventh toughest schedule based on Positive Residual’s metrics.

The Los Angeles-based sports analytics service provider said on their website that they measure the strength of schedule (SOS) by estimating how difficult a game or slate of games is based on the opponent’s quality, which is often defined by win percentage, net rating, or points above or below average and other variables such as home team strength, away team strength, rest and altitude at which home team plays. 

Positive Residual SOS chart

The Knicks’ schedule will feature 11 back-to-back games where Walker’s balky knee will be a question mark and two back-breaking road trips in February (5-game road swing in West Coast against playoff contenders) and March (7-game road trip: 5 in West Coast sandwiched by road games in Philadelphia and Brooklyn). But the Knicks front office has prioritized depth to mitigate these factors.

This could be arguably the most stacked team Tom Thibodeau will handle since the MVP Derrick Rose-led 2011 Chicago Bulls team he guided to 62-20 en route to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Thibodeau’s projected starting five this season will feature Walker and Fournier at the backcourt and Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson in the frontcourt with a deep bench led by Rose, who should be an early favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year, and veteran Alec Burks.

Knicks Projected Depth Chart:

PG Walker, Rose, Quickley, McBride

SG Fournier, Burks, Quickley, Grimes, Vildoza/Bacon

SF Barrett, Burks, Knox

PF Randle, Toppin, Knox, Gibson

C Robinson, Noel, Gibson

The Knicks were never given a chance last season to enter the playoffs, but they defied the 22.5 win odds in the pandemic-condensed 72-game schedule and finished at 41-31. They are pegged as a 42.5-win team this year, with the NBA returning to the regular 82-game schedule.

But with a roster that deep and with Thibodeau, a two-time NBA Coach of the Year, at the helm, it’s hard to bet against the Knicks.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

How Kemba Walker can help take the Knicks’ offense to the next level

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This offseason, the Knicks went out and signed 4-time All-Star Kemba Walker, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who was against this move. Getting such a high-volume scorer for just $9 million per year couldn’t possibly go wrong, right? In hindsight, yes. However, as the starting point guard the Knicks so desperately needed, there is added pressure for Walker to perform well. Coupled in with his recurring knee issues, and there’s real concern that Walker could hamper the play of the hard-nosed Knicks.

Will His Knee Continue to Affect Him?

Despite being the lowest-risk signing the Knicks made all offseason, Kemba Walker has the most boom or bust potential on the roster. The reason for this is due to the fact that no one truly knows how Walker’s knee will continue to hold up. According to him, there’s little reason to worry, as he has continued to downplay the seriousness of his injury:

“I was feeling pretty good. I just had a little hiccup in the playoffs, which sucked obviously. Nobody likes to be injured, especially at that moment. But I felt pretty good all year, to be honest.”

Kemba Walker via Forbes

If his two seasons in Boston are any indication as to how the knee will impact him in New York, we could reasonably see more regression in the 31-year-old’s play. In these past two years, he saw consecutive decreases in his FG % and points per game, the latter by over 5 points from 2018-19 to 2019-20. With the Celtics, his injury problems effectively relegated him from the status of a bonafide star to simply an offensive threat. This, combined with the large contract Walker had, lowered his value so much that the Celtics needed to additionally send a first and second-rounder to Oklahoma City to offload him.

Now, no one’s saying that the Knicks need Walker to return to his Charlotte form to be successful. However, if they plan on making a deep playoff run in a much-improved Eastern Conference, he will need to be more efficient than he ever was on the Celtics. He won’t have to go out and score 20+ every night, but he will have to covert a higher percentage of his shots.

Will the Knicks’ Depth Help Kemba?

There is one big difference between Walker’s situation last season and the one he finds himself in now. The Celtics lacked depth, whereas the Knicks may be one of the deepest teams in the league. Boston relied heavily on their stars and didn’t have many spark plugs that could pick up the scoring load. New York, on the other hand, could potentially have multiple 10+ PPG scorers off the bench. There’s certainly hope that this could lead to a much more productive season from Walker with having to shoulder less of the scoring than he ever has.

It’s still without saying that Kemba will be the key piece to this Knicks team. They wanted their replacement for the disastrous Elfrid Payton era, and they got it for a very low price. Last year’s team had it all besides consistent scoring outside of Julius Randle. Now, with the additions of Walker and Evan Fournier, they finally have enough players who can create their own offense. Depending on how each player fits in with this team, this team can be really good.

How Good Can the Knicks Be?

If Kemba is able to somehow return to what he was before his injury, this could be the best Knicks team we’ve seen since the 1990s. Yes, even better than the 2012-13 team. A healthy Kemba along with RJ Barrett, Fournier, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson backed by a solid bench could lead to the franchise’s first 2nd round appearance since that aforementioned Carmelo Anthony-led squad.

The possibilities are boundless, and the expectations are high but not too high, so this season could turn out to be another very fun one for the New York Knicks.

Despite what happens this season, the Knicks aren’t risking much by putting all this trust in Walker. The positive behind all of this is that no matter what happens, the Knicks are not bound to him long-term. He’s only under contract for 2 years and a reasonable amount of money. If this doesn’t work out, the future of the team will still be perfectly intact. This is certainly something to be relieved about going forward if you’re a Knicks fan.

Former NBA star Monta Ellis to conduct private workout with 3 NBA teams in Las Vegas

Former NBA star Monta Ellis is set to camp out in Joe Abunassar’s Impact Basketball this week as he ramps up his training in his latest comeback bid.

The 35-year old Ellis will fly to Las Vegas on Tuesday and is scheduled to conduct private workouts in front of at least three NBA teams until Saturday, according to his business manager Derrius Nelson of Dagger Basketball agency.

“I have reunited Tae and Joe. They have come a long way since Tae’s early years in the NBA,” Nelson told Empire Sports Media.

Ellis is rekindling his partnership with Abunassar that started when the former McDonald’s All-American player went into the NBA straight from high school.

Since his pre-draft workout, Ellis had been a regular at Impact Basketball during the offseason, including the year when he became the league’s Most Improved Player in 2007 that set him off to NBA stardom.

There are still about 17 roster spots left to be filled in the NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers leading the way with three. Other playoff contenders with open roster spots are the Chicago Bulls, Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns. Young teams that may need veteran leadership like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder also have roster openings.

Nelson believes that Ellis can provide veteran leadership to a young team or a complementary piece — another shot creator and playmaker — to a playoff team.

“Tae is still a reliable source and a dominant factor to any NBA team organization,” Nelson told Empire Sports Media.

“When you talk about how can he fit in on any NBA team right now, he can play the pick and roll game, and he can add playmaking, score in transition, run lanes without the ball. He’s defensively fast and dangerous offensively if he gets going. He can still light up the scoreboard just as well any of them, like when he had 38 against the late Kobe Bryant in a dog fight battle back when he was playing with Golden State and had 48 points against Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. He still can do the same damage as he did before.”

Ellis has career averages of 17.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.7 steals. He has recorded nine 40-plus points games building a reputation as one of the premier shotmakers and playmakers throughout his career.

“So he’s definitely will be a reliable source for anybody. He’s hit game-winners with Golden State, Dallas, Milwaukee, so he’s definitely clutch. Just think about him with the Nets, Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, or even with the Warriors. How much — offensively and defensively — will open up for them with Tae’s experience, abilities, and leverage that will lead to at least the conference finals.

The playoff-tested Ellis has 38 games in the postseason under his belt, averaging 13.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 steals.

During his NBA hiatus, Ellis kept himself fit by coaching kids under his AAU club, Ellis Elite, and training with Dallas-based NBA trainer Djamel Jackson. Jackson will stay in Dallas to attend to Ellis’ AAU club while Ellis pursues his NBA comeback.

In Las Vegas, Nelson said Ellis would conduct a workout simulating live game situations to show how ready and serious he is about this comeback bid.

Ellis said in a previous interview with Empire Sports Media when he announced his NBA comeback bid that he could still play for five years.

At this point, money is no longer a motivation for Ellis, who turned down a lucrative offer to play in China last season and is still set to earn $2.25 million this season from the Indiana Pacers, the last year of his salary stretch provision when he was waived in 2017.

“My main thing is, just bring me in and give me a look. Like you could make the decision on me. I just want a shot. I ain’t asking for a contract to get $5 million, $10 million, or even $1 million. All I’m asking is, give me a look. That’s all and let my game speak for itself. I just want an opportunity, a workout, and that’s not the end of the world, that’s not gonna hurt anybody,” Ellis said. “I will pay my own plane ticket and hotel to go to a workout.”

Now, Ellis is finally getting his shot. And he doesn’t want to miss it.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

The Knicks Are Back! Knicks make big jump in nationally televised games

You know the New York Knicks are back when they have a significant share of the nationally televised games.

From just three games on national TV two seasons ago, the have made the biggest jump of any NBA team gaining 22 nationally televised games next season excluding seven on NBA TV. They had six in the previous pandemic-condensed season.

The Knicks have reloaded this summer with four-time All-Star Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier joining their Julius Randle-led core that finished fourth seed in the East and made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Leon Rose’s regime has pushed all the right buttons since taking over from Steve Mills last year.

The Knicks will open their season with Walker’s revenge game against his former team, Boston Celtics, at the Garden on Oct. 20 in a nationally televised game on ESPN. Their national TV schedule will be followed by two intriguing matchups against Eastern Conference’s powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers (Oct. 26 on TNT) and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks (Nov. 5 on ESPN).

The first salvo of the gripping Battle of New York will be nationally televised on TNT with the Knicks visiting the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 30 after LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Garden earlier that week (Nov. 23 on TNT).

The Golden State Warriors’ Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — visit at the Garden will also be nationally televised on TNT on Dec. 14. The much-anticipated Knicks-Atlanta Hawks showdown on Christmas is on ESPN.

Overall, the Knicks will have 12 marquee games on ESPN, seven on TNT, and three games on ABC.

The Lakers continue to lead the league with 30 national TV games, followed by the Warriors’ 29, Nets’ 26, Bucks’ 24, and Phoenix Suns’ 23. The Knicks and the Celtics are tied with 22 games each.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks: What position maximizes Immanuel Quickley’s impact moving forward?

immanuel quickley, knicks

Through two games in the NBA Summer League thus far, the New York Knicks have given Immanuel Quickley the ability to shine as a point guard. He may have not had the best outing in their first contest, but he turned it around with an impressive performance against the Pacers on Tuesday with 32 points and 8 assists. Just take a look at some of these highlights:

What he’s proven in these two games is that he thrives as the primary ballhandler on the court, and most certainly equips the playmaking skills necessary to play the 1 in the NBA.  However, it’s simply not the capacity in which the Knicks will need him the most this upcoming season.

Looking at the Knicks Roster

If Immanuel Quickley was to be listed as a point guard for 2021-2022, he’d be the 3rd option, behind Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose. The Knicks would also need to move on from Luca Vildoza, who has a non-guaranteed contract.

As of right now, the most likely role for the 22-year-old from Kentucky would be the backup SG with Evan Fournier starting. This would ensure him the most playing time, and the opportunity to fill in for either Rose or Walker if they were to get injured.

This is probably the most ideal situation for Quickley going forward. No matter how good he is at facilitating and handling the ball, he most naturally fits into the role of shooting guard. Keeping him at his regular position while occasionally giving him reps at PG will allow him to continue to grow as a valuable combo guard.

What Quickley’s Summer League Performance Means

As we saw all last season, Quickley is most effective when he’s shooting the ball well. This allows him to penetrate more efficiently and thus collapse the defense and find the open man or rise up for his patented floater. All this was evident in the first two summer league games for the Knicks.

Against the Pacers Tuesday, Quickley played with fearlessness and aggressiveness that came from increased confidence in his shot. Once he saw the ball go in a few times, he began attacking the rim, which forced defenders to commit. This not only gave players on the Knicks wide-open looks, but it also got him to the free-throw line, where he went 6-6. After the game, he displayed a heightened sense of maturity when discussing his role at the Summer League.

“I’ve been around a year… I’ve been in playoff games. Just continuing to spread my knowledge to the new guys, the young guys. Obi and I are doing a great job understanding we have to help these guys and communicate.” – Immanuel Quickley via NYPost

Quickley seems to be a player who understands what he needs to do to help the team win. No matter what it is you ask of him, he performs to the best of his abilities. As for this upcoming season, he will understand that the best way to help the Knicks will be at the shooting guard position. From a long-term perspective, Quickley could be the team’s solution at PG after Rose and Walkers’ contracts expire in two years. Rose is on a three-year deal, but the final season is not guaranteed.

For The Love Of Basketball: Former star Monta Ellis pursues NBA comeback

It’s been four years since Monta Ellis stepped on an NBA court.

The Indiana Pacers still owe him $2.25 million this coming season, the last of the stretch provision they applied when they waived him and his $11.2 million salary in 2017.

“I believe I still have a lot in my tank. I can still play five years,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media on a zoom call.

Ellis was under the heat in a soccer field somewhere in Dallas, Texas, the entire zoom call. He was at the sidelines cheering for his kid in a soccer game last weekend.

Not long ago, his weekend schedule is focused on him — either practicing with his team or playing in an NBA city.

These days, it’s no longer about himself. Away from the spotlight and the dizzying NBA lifestyle, Ellis has grown as a man, a husband, a father, and a coach. But deep inside, he still yearns to be in the middle of the action watching how the NBA spacing could cater to his uptempo game.

At his prime, Ellis was a wrecking ball who blitzed his opponents with blazing speed and athleticism. A former McDonald’s All-American, he entered the NBA straight from high school as the 40th pick in 2005. He spent his first six and a half years with the Golden State Warriors improving each year. Soon after, the 2007 Most Improved Player became their franchise player. He was until he got traded to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline in the 2012-13 season to make way for rising shooting star Stephen Curry.

That broke his heart, and he lost himself in the process.

Ellis still led the Bucks to a playoff appearance — his first since 2007 — but got swept in the first round. He went to Dallas, where he found a home and became the first player other than Dirk Nowitzki to lead the team in scoring during his time there. He was instrumental in the Mavericks’ two playoff runs, averaging 26.0 points in a first-round loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets in 2015. But ultimately, Ellis left the Mavericks for financial security after not picking up his $8.7 million player option.

Larry Bird and Frank Vogel convinced Ellis to sign a four-year, $44 million contract despite Sacramento Kings offering four million more. The Pacers sold him the vision of becoming Paul George’s running mate.

“For him to get one last really big deal, to me, was a no-brainer,” Dirk Nowitzki said when he left. “I would’ve liked to kept him [in Dallas], but you know how it is in this league. Once people hit free agency, it’s tough to call.”

It proved to be Ellis’ undoing as his career started to go downhill. And when the Pacers traded away George and started a rebuild, the writings were on the wall.

Ellis tried to work out a buyout with Pacers. But when they couldn’t agree, the Pacers waived him.

“The 2017 Monta Ellis had a lot of things going on mentally that started to affect me physically. That’s one of the reasons why I walked away from the game. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play the game anymore,” Ellis told Empire Sports Media.

“It’s just felt like that my mental health was way more important. I felt like my family and kids needed me more. There’s a lot of things that affected me off the court. I haven’t had a father in my life and I have to balance fatherhood with my NBA professional life. It was challenging.”

Ellis took care of his battle off the court because he felt that held him back on the court.

“So, my family was the most important to me. I had to get my household, my family in order and get my mind back. So once my mind got back, I started lifting and running and my body started to feel good. I was able to release that mental pressure and really get back and re-focused,” Ellis said.

“So, the 2017 Monta Ellis, he was balancing a lot of things. I didn’t feel like it was healthy for me and for the team as well. If they couldn’t get into the Monta Ellis flow, I had to get away from it. I did that and it was a good decision because I’m in a better mindset. My wife and kids, they were happy to get to see me more, be around more. That was the blessing.”

It was indeed a blessing. But it was also a curse.

When Ellis felt he’s ready for an NBA comeback, the league has moved on from him.

But he’s not yet losing hope. Ellis is determined to find his way back to the NBA as he did with his life.

These days, he keeps himself in shape by working out four days a week, coaching his kids and other kids in his AAU program, Ellis Elite. He still trains with an NBA trainer while waiting for the right opportunity.

“We’ve been training four days a week. We take Fridays off. He works out in Michael Johnson Performance – the top athlete’s performance institution here in Dallas. So he does that two-hour workout every Monday, Wednesday Friday, the whole four years he was out of the league. You could check Michael Johnson’s record,” long-time NBA trainer Djamel Jackson told Empire Sports Media.

Jackson, who has trained Mo Williams, Julius Randle, Draymond Green, Jeremy Lin, Emmanuel Mudiay, Isiah Austin, Rashad Butler, Terrance Ferguson, Malik Newman, saw up close how Ellis had grown a lot as a person during his NBA hiatus.

“I have been working with kids all my life. There’s certain patience that you develop, you become compassionate. Once you get a little older, some of the things that you love or you walked away from, you kinda appreciate a little bit more. He got young kids. He got young sons that are really good basketball players. Being able to watch their pops in the league a couple of more years will help lift them up. He definitely has grown as a friend, as a father, as a player. Once you get a little older, you kinda get to mature,” Jackson said.

Derrius Nelson, a FIBA-certified agent and an NBA scout from Serbia-based DaggerBasket Agency, is now Ellis current business manager. They have spent many nights talking about what-ifs and mapping out a way back to the league. Nelson got Ellis a $2 million offer to play in China, but Ellis turned it down because he wanted to be with his family during the pandemic and stay closer to the NBA.

Ellis acknowledged the mistakes of his youth, and he had made amends. He’s been working hard for that elusive second chance.

“I’ve been trying for a couple of years. I just got nobody take a chance on me, bringing me for the training camp to show what I can still do. The way how I walked away from it kind of hinder that a little bit because they didn’t know the mindset I was in, the things that were going on,” Ellis said. “But it is what it is. If I have an opportunity to do it, it is what it is. If I don’t, I’ll still be a husband and a father and I have an AAU program. I’m good either way. But to come back, to be able challenge myself and do the thing that I haven’t done in a while, that will be a big challenge that I am willing to accept if it comes.”

While the NBA is getting younger, the league’s older guys and Ellis’ contemporaries are still killing it and milking money. Kyle Lowry, 35, just signed a new $90 million deal with the Miami Heat. The Phoenix Suns locked up Chris Paul, 36, to a whopping four-year, $120 million. And then there are minimum veterans like Carmelo Anthony, now set to chase a ring with his old buddy LeBron James.

Ellis wants to come back for the challenge, not the money, at this point in his life. After all, he’s earned more than $100 million throughout his career.

“I don’t play the game of basketball for the money. Like, it’s good to get the money. I wanted to make a better life for my family and the NBA allowed me to do that. My focus is, my thing is just do what I can do, control what I can control and put everything in God’s hands,” Ellis said.

All Ellis wanted is an opportunity to show that he still has it and can help a team win.

“My main thing is, just bring me in and give me a look. Like you could make the decision on me. I just want a shot. I ain’t asking for a contract to get $5 million, $10 million, or even $1 million. All I’m asking is give me a look. That’s all and let my game speak for itself. I just want an opportunity, a workout, and that’s not the end of the world, that’s not gonna hurt anybody,” Ellis said.

Ellis built a reputation as a shotmaker and playmaker. Though he was knocked for his defense, the numbers and some eye tests suggest otherwise.

Ellis knows his days as a go-to guy are over. He’s willing to accept whatever role a team has for him to win.

“That’s a team decision if that was to happen. Whatever role that was. Whatever the coach asks me to do. I can’t control that situation. Being at the age that I am, I haven’t played in a while so being the time I was away from the game, I can’t come in and play the role that I want. It’s all about the team giving me an opportunity and what’s the best fit for them. And I gotta play that role the best way possible,” Ellis said.

Ellis played with pace in the NBA. But there wasn’t so much space during his prime. While his athleticism has started to fade with age, his wisdom grew with experience.

“It’s still basketball. It’s all about defending and putting the ball on the hoop and making plays for others,” Ellis said. “The NBA is very, very young now. So, it’s more athletic, faster, and I have always played a fast game.”

Ellis was just a 31 percent three-point shooter throughout his career, but he will not be jacking up shots as he used to be. His ideal role in a potential NBA return is to break down the second unit’s defenses to score or make plays for his teammates in sporadic minutes. But Jackson revealed how Ellis has worked on his shot not just to prepare for a potential NBA comeback.

“That’s the one that has definitely gotten better. As he aged, he’s gotten better. And he’s working with kids. So, when you’re teaching kids how to shoot, it matters that you learn how to shoot better. It could go around the low 40s, and you know, with the spacing, the new rules, and his knowledge of the game, as you get older, you get better,” Jackson said.

“The NBA tells us, the system tells us that as you get older, you get better and smarter because you know how to beat younger guys.”

Jackson believes playoff teams could use someone like Ellis on their bench to provide leadership and scoring.

“Any team right now — the league is now so young — the (Los Angeles) Lakers or Brooklyn (Nets) but aside from those teams, every team needs some veteran help. Every team I think needs at least 4-5 veterans. The league is just too young right now,” Jackson said.

The Lakers have been stacking up on veterans. The Nets could pair him with Patty Mills in their backcourt off the bench. A Mavericks homecoming could also be a perfect marriage with him as another shotmaker and playmaker to come off the bench when Luka Doncic takes a breather. The Portland Trail Blazers, who are at a crossroads with Damian Lillard’s future hanging in the balance, could use Ellis as a scoring punch and a veteran leader off the bench.

“That would be a role that I am willing to accept. I could do a lot within that role to help a playoff team. I still got a lot of gas in my tank. My body is healthy. My mind is focused. I could definitely help a playoff team with the skills and the knowledge of the game I have right now,” Ellis said.

It’s been four years since Ellis last played an NBA game. A lot has happened since. But the most important thing is he found himself again and the joy of playing basketball. He found his way back to his life. Now, he wants to find a way back to the NBA.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Vildoza, Jokubaitis make Knicks debut as last guaranteed spot still up for grabs

With rookies Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride signing their rookie contracts Friday, the New York Knicks have now filled 14 guaranteed spots in their roster.

The NBA Summer League in Las Vegas could prove to be the battleground for the last remaining roster spot between two Euroleague guards.

Luca Vildoza arrived in Sin City Friday night, still feeling the effects of jetlag. While Rokas Jokubaitis, the Lithuanian guard, who models his game after Goran Dragic, reportedly looked impressive in practice.

Both Euroleague players will be essentially fighting for that 15th spot in the Knicks roster.

“I’m trying to work hard. I’m trying to show myself. I’m trying to get better every day. I just want to show who I am,” Vildoza told reporters Saturday in his first media availability since the Knicks brought him for a partially guaranteed four-year deal last May. “If after that, I can’t get with the team, that’s okay. At least I gave everything.”

The Knicks have until the opening night of next season to guarantee Vildoza’s salary.

Vildoza is coming off a lackluster play in the Tokyo Olympics, where Argentina could only show one win in four games and got trashed in the quarterfinals.

“To be honest, we didn’t play as we know it. We played terrible. To be honest, I was missing a lot of shots I usually don’t miss. I was without confidence. Now, I’m trying to get back to where it was,” Vildoza said.

The 25-year old Argentine guard averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.3 steal playing behind Facundo Campazzo and Nico Laprovíttola. His shot looked shaky, converting only 31 percent from the floor and just 3 of 18 3s.

On the other hand, Jokubaitis has recently signed a four-year deal with Barcelona with an NBA escape clause. He was initially expected to be a draft-and-stash prospect. But the 36th overall pick isn’t discounting the possibility that he could come right away if he plays outstanding basketball in the NBA Summer League.

“Right now the plan is to go to Europe, but you never know in basketball because basketball is a sport where anything can happen,” Jokubaitis said during his zoom call Thursday in Las Vegas.

The 6-foot-4 Jokubaitis has secured clearance from Barcelona to play three Summer League games. He averaged 7.0 points and 2.5 assists in 31 Euroleague games last season for his Lithuanian club Zalgiris.

Vildoza joined his first practice with the Knicks Summer League team Saturday. He said he will be ready if ever he gets playing time when the Knicks open their campaign against fourth overall pick Scottie Barnes and the Toronto Raptors Sunday at 4:30 pm ET (ESPN2).

“It was actually very tough. I was trying to figure out the sets. In Europe, I usually play similar sets. I think I’m gonna get into the team as I know. But I was tired, to be honest. I didn’t sleep very well last night. The jetlag was very tough,” Vildoza said of his first practice with the Knicks. “But I am okay today (Saturday). I’m really happy to be here. That’s the only thing that matters.”

Vildoza is the flashy guard who is a streaky shooter, while Jokubaitis said he brings calmness and acts like a second coach on the floor.

Both Euroleague players are eager to prove themselves worthy of a spot. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Las Vegas.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Brooklyn Nets V Milwaukee Bucks Game 5 ticket prices down with Kyrie Irving OUT

kyrie irving, brooklyn nets

The Brooklyn Nets are preparing to take on the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening, but star point guard Kyrie Irving will sit out with an ankle injury.

With the series tied at two apiece, Brooklyn will have to rely on  Kevin Durant to carry the load, a player who has proven his excellence over the past decade. Durant is more than capable of carrying the team in the absence of Irving and Harden, but any more injuries could stir a bit of trouble for a team that lost a two-win lead in the series over the weekend.

Reserve PGs, Mike James, and Tyler Johnson, will supplement the loss of Irving, with an expected healthy dose of Landry Shamet. Of course, losing a player like Irving, who averaged 26.9 points, 6.0 assists, and shot .506 from the field during the regular season is significant.


Game 5 Ticketmaster pricing data:
  • Tickets in the 200’s level start at $80.
  • Tickets in the 100’s level start at $189.
  • Tickets in the lower level start at $256.
  • VIP Seats start at $818
  • Floor Seats start at $3,579

Non-vaccinated section ONLY AVAILABLE HERE!

The prices for the game have plummeted since the beginning of last week, dropping to below $80 for the 200 levels. To enjoy the game from the lower level, tickets start at $256, and VIP seats are under $1000.