RJ Barrett’s career night quiets doubters as Knicks improve to 5-1 start

rj barrett, knicks

RJ Barrett is a man on a mission.

Barrett, New York Knicks third-year wing, took his game to another level two nights after a solid offensive performance and a game-winning defensive stop.

Miffed by the seemingly never-ending disrespect about his game and career trajectory, Barrett put on the type of performance that should silence his doubters.

Barrett scored 16 of his new career-high 35 points in the fourth quarter, including nine in the final 99 seconds, as the Knicks repelled the injury-plagued New Orleans Pelicans, 123-117, Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center for their third straight win.

The Knicks improved to 5-1, catching the Washington Wizards at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Barrett took over down the stretch with his college running mate and friend Zion Williamson, the no.1 pick in their draft class, reduced to being a spectator due to a foot injury.

After a 9-0 Pelicans run trimmed the Knicks’ lead down to two, 111-109, with 1:51 left, Barrett started his takeover. He used a double screen by Taj Gibson and Kemba Walker to drill a three-pointer from the top of the key.

A Devonte Graham three-point play proved to be New Orleans’ final stand. In the next play, Barrett set up Gibson for a wide-open dunk off a pick and roll. With the Pelicans forcing him to go right after repeatedly killing them with his left, he gladly welcomed the challenge. Barrett used Gibson’s pick and went to his right, and calmly drilled a three-pointer.

The Knicks’ cushion pushed to seven, 119-112, with 43.9 seconds to go. Barrett scored three more free throws to put the game away.

“He was terrific. He had an all-around game from start to finish. Clutch shots. Great hustle. Great effort. Rebounding the ball. He made plays. He got downhill, shot it well. That’s what RJ is and we needed it,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau effusive in his praise of Barrett.

Indeed the Knicks needed Barrett’s offensive brilliance on the night when Randle was held down to a season-low 10 points. But Barrett, the 2019 third overall pick, returned the favor to Thibodeau for handing him the keys to the Knicks’ offense down the stretch.

“That was Thibs,” Barrett said. “Thibs was running plays for me at the end. It’s kind of reading the defense. I know I’m the type of player who can have nights like that and I’m just happy that I was able to show that today. But I’m just trying to win really and read what the defense was giving us.”

Barrett showed his complete offensive package tearing apart the Pelicans’ defense. His 12 makes from 18 attempts came from constantly putting the pressure on the rim, scoring off the bounce, drilling stepback 3s, and picking his spots on the floor. He was 6 for 8 from deep and added seven rebounds and a season-high six assists.

Pelicans guard Josh Hart got pinned down in the double screen that opened up Barrett for the three-pointer, which kickstarted the Knicks’ closing run. He was disappointed with their defensive execution.

“Everyone in the league knows RJ Barrett is going left. And in a game like that, it comes down to possessions, you can’t let that happen. You can’t allow him to go left constantly and he did. Obviously, he’s a good player but we have to make sure we’re going to execute our game plan a little bit better,” Hart said.

But even if they know Barrett was going left, it’s hard to stop him when he’s in rhythm, not now that he has learned to use his body and strength.

“[RJ] knows he’s good. He never questions himself. He’s playing an all-around game. When he goes downhill, I think people don’t realize how big and strong he is,” Thibodeau said. “He can take contact and so, he’s getting more comfortable with it. He works at it. You can’t say enough about him.”

His offseason work with his trainer Drew Hanlen, who focused on his off the bounce game after adding a catch and shoot 3 last season, is paying off.

Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant is also helping Barrett. Bryant, who worked with Jazz rising star Donovan Mitchell in Utah, has been teaching Barrett how to use his strength and angles, changing his old, ineffective way of playing bully ball. Barrett admitted he used to drive to the basket with his head down.

Despite his second straight big game, Barrett is still far from satisfied.

“It was definitely a good game offensively, but I was terrible defensively. That’s not good. But you know, we were able to get the win and that’s the most important thing,” Barrett said.

It almost felt like a trap game after New Orleans’ other go-to guy Brandon Ingram joined Williamson on the sidelines with a hip contusion. The Pelicans played on back-to-back nights following another tough loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday. They slid to a league-worst 1-6, tied with Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers.

In a game that brought back haunting memories of their upset loss to the Magic last week, the Knicks led by as many as 16. But the Pelicans kept answering every time they tried to pull away.

Randle had a sub-par game by his standards. The All-Star forward shot just four of nine from the floor, pulled down six rebounds, and handed out four assists in a game-high 38 minutes.

But unlike last season, when the Knicks could only win three of the eight games in which Randle put up less than 15 points, they had enough firepower this time.

Aside from Barrett, new additions Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier combined for nine triples and scored 19 points apiece.

The Knicks continued their splendid outside shooting sinking 19 of 33 3s for a staggering 57.6 percent clip.

In the fourth quarter, Mitchell Robinson and Gibson held their ground against Jonas Valanciunas after the Pelicans big man torched them with 25 points three-fourth of the way. Their defense limited Valanciunas to two points on 1 of 3 shooting in the final quarter.

Gibson had a strong game off the bench, producing 13 points and seven boards, one assist, one steal, and one block as Nerlens Noel continues to be sidelined by a knee injury. Louisiana native Robinson delivered eight points and five rebounds in his hometown.

“We want to develop everyone,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that I like about both [RJ] and Mitch (Robinson) is their age and work ethic. RJ has great work capacity. He wants to be good. It’s important to him. He’s very coachable. He’s a great teammate. And when you see how he approaches things, he has toughness. He has basketball IQ and he has competitiveness. And when you have those three things to go along with your talent, you usually improve.

Barrett’s growth is a positive development for the Knicks, who are off to their best start since winning their first six games during their magical 54-win playoff push in 2013.

With the All-Rookie team and ESPN’s Top 25 under 25 list still on his mind, the 21-year old Barrett continues to play with those big chips on his shoulder.

Following his defensive leap that came to the fore in their win in Chicago the other night, Barrett was asked if he feels that he should be in the same conversation with his draft peers Ja Morant and Williamson.

“Everybody is different,” Barrett said. “Everybody’s journey is different. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says. I know who I am. This team believes in me so, that’s really all that matters.”

His supreme self-belief and the Knicks organization’s faith in him have fueled his surge. It became his mission to become a defensive stalwart in a Knicks team filled with certified bucket-getters. But when Thibodeau put the ball in his hands in the most crucial moments, he flashed his killer instincts and delivered like a superstar.

After one of his six three-pointers, Barrett brought his index finger to his lips to silence the Pelicans crowd and perhaps his doubters.

The usually timid Barrett showed rare emotions on the floor. Barrett has arrived.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Magic Johnson on Knicks: ‘Superstars are gonna want to play here now’

The days are gone that superstars would avoid the New York Knicks like a plague.

That’s how Magic Johnson views the current Knicks situation following a surprising turnaround this season.

Appearing as a guest on Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin radio show, Johnson said the Knicks have become a viable destination.

“Superstars are gonna want to play here now (in New York),” Johnson said.

The former Lakers executive explained how players think and play out a possible scenario.

“I think because they made the run and got to the playoffs. And the city is alive about the Knicks, right? I think guys are now looking at and say, ‘Hey man, if I put myself in that lineup with Julius (Randle), (Immanuel) Quickley, (RJ) Barrett and on, and on. Hey, man, we could do something special.’ Because that’s what guys wanna see,” Johnson said.

“If I put my talent with those guys, can we make a run for the championship? And that guy will talk to another guy and that’s how it’s gonna get started. And Julius Randle, I think guys would want to play with him because he plays hard, he’s a team player. He’s tough and rough,” he added.

Johnson said he’s glad that he had a hand in Randle’s development with the Lakers.

Randle, who left Los Angeles for New Orleans when LeBron James took his talent to Hollywood, finally found a home in New York. His hard work paid off with his first All-Star appearance, a spot in the All-NBA Second Team, and the Most Improved Player award on top of leading the Knicks to the first round of the playoffs.

While the Knicks, under former super-agent turned league executive Leon Rose, have finally found stability, the rest of the league is in a state of flux.

Some of the league’s stars enter the summer with their future in question.

Damian Lillard openly aired his frustrations in Portland following another first-round exit. Washington’s Bradley Beal has one year left in his extension with a new coach coming in. Luka Doncic just lost the executive who handed him the keys to the Mavericks’ franchise. Zion Williamson will be having his third coach in three seasons in New Orleans’ small market. Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers are reeling from a second-round upset, in large part, due to Ben Simmon’s broken jumper.

Seven teams are searching for a new coach. Established superstars fell one by one in the first two rounds, failing to survive the pandemic-condensed season. There’s a new order in the league. There will be a new champion this season.

Then there’s the Summer Olympics in Tokyo which could become another breeding ground for a future super team.

For the first time in decades, the Knicks have more to offer than just money and the bright lights of Broadway. They finally have a culture and a young playoff core to pair with their large cap space of more than $50 million.

Magic Johnson always tweets the obvious as a reaction to what’s happening around the league. This time, he’s manifesting the obvious direction of the Knicks’ franchise.

There’s a perfect storm waiting to happen in New York.

Can the Knicks capitalize?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

 

Knicks news, 6/19: Zion Williamson, Kemba Walker, Luca Doncic enter the realm of ‘possible’

Zion Williamson, knicks

August is going to be an extremely exciting and entertaining month for the New York Knicks as they look to bolster their team with plenty of resources to capitalize on. With upwards of $60+ million available in funds, they can target the cream of the crop in free agency, but there’s also a chance they consider executing a trade for a bonafide star.

Of course, using their available money and retaining their draft capital would be the most efficient move, but there are some players who have entered the realm of ‘possible’ recently with rumors indicating their displeasure and the overturning of front offices.

The New York Knicks enter the realm of “possibility:”

Zion Williamson:

Even before Williamson was drafted in 2019, he was heavily connected to New York. Unfortunately, he ended up in New Orleans with the Pelicans, where he has become one of the best players in basketball. However, according to The Athletic,” Zion Williamson and his family” are not entirely content with New Orleans’ management.

Even Williamson himself hopes that the Knicks would land him with the No. 1 overall pick, so there is undying interest between the two sides. Of course, the Pelicans would have to agree to part ways with a player going into his third season who averaged 27 points this past year on .611 shooting from the field. This is probably the most unlikely of the three scenarios presented, not that any of them have true grounds to stand on just yet.

Kemba Walker:

The most likely player out of the three to land with the Knicks is Kemba Walker, who was traded on Friday to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a blockbuster deal. The Boston Celtics were looking to rid themselves of Kemba and his contract, as he is set to earn $36 million next season and has a player option for the 2022-23 campaign.

Kemba is one of the premier point guards in the NBA, but he has struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons, missing out on the All-Star game in 2021. When at the peak of his game, though, Walker is undoubtedly an elusive PG who can run an offense at an elite level.

The Knicks will have to part ways with their first-round selections to acquire him from Oklahoma, just to take on his massive contract coming off an injury-riddled season where he played just 43 games (traditionally a Knicks move). The only way this occurs, in my opinion, is if Kemba is willing to restructure his contract considerably. At 31 years old, the Knicks will likely consider sticking on the younger side and going after Lonzo Ball alternatively.

Luca Doncic:

Another shot in the dark, the Dallas Mavericks turned over their entire front office this week, as they fired their general manager and watch their stoic head coach Rick Carlisle walk with two years left on his contract.

There is a slight possibility that Luka Doncic, one of the rising stars in the NBA, decides to force his way out of Dallas with the most recent transgressions going down.

In that case, the Knicks could look to unload the farm for Doncic, who would represent a shift in culture for New York. Doncic is currently eligible for a rookie Supermax extension, which constitutes five years and $201 million. It would be very difficult for him to turn that down and force his way out, but they are pictures of him in a Knicks jersey growing up, so there could be a clear-cut connection.

Knicks News: Alec Burks injury update, Zion Williamson stirring the ‘Melting Pot’

Zion Williamson, knicks, julius randle

The New York Knicks are gearing up for a contest against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday evening at 7:30 PM. With the Knicks coming off a victory against the New Orleans Pelicans, they have since extended their win streak to six games.

Thanks to a stellar performance from Julius Randle, who won the Eastern Conference player of the week award, the Knicks are rolling and actually cracked the top 10 power rankings in the NBA.

The last time the Knicks were considered a top 10 team, it must’ve been 2014, and they are sniffing the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They currently sit in sixth place, just .5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, but given their recent success, it is only a matter of time before they take hold of a higher seed.

The Knicks have been winning despite not having some of their more influential players, including Mitchell Robinson and Alec Burks against New Orleans. In fact, Burks will be again out on Tuesday against the Hornets. He’ll be unavailable due to the league’s health and safety protocols and could be available on Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, which could catapult the Knicks into fourth place.

The New York Knicks could end up courting Zion Williamson from New Orleans:

After the Knicks’ victory over the Pelicans, Williamson took to the media to express his love for playing at MSG and in New York. In fact, he was a bit ecstatic about the idea of playing in MSG regularly, suggesting to Knick fans he could end up with the squad at some point in the future.

“I mean, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Williamson said. “I love playing here. I played here in college. This is my first time playing in the pros. I mean, this atmosphere — whether they’re cheering for you, whether they’re booing for you, it’s amazing. Honestly, I think, outside of New Orleans obviously, I think this might be my favorite place to play. Outside of New Orleans. I can’t even lie to you. I can’t lie to you.”

Williamson is averaging 26.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game this season, and he’s becoming a dominant force in his second year in the NBA. While New Orleans fans probably didn’t want to hear this from their best player and the supposed future of their franchise, Knicks fans were excited and optimistic he could join the team later on.
Even ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski insisted that his comments are worth keeping an eye on down the road.

“He was pretty animated with it,” Wojnarowski said. “It’s certainly something, I think, down the road for people to keep their eye on. But right now, you know, he’s in New Orleans. He’s going to be in New Orleans and they have a window here with the young core that they have to improve, get better, and make him want to stay there.”

Zion Williamson on Knicks horizon? Pelicans star after loss: ‘I love playing here’

Save for the loss, Zion Williamson put on a show in an impressive NBA debut at The Garden.

Williamson, last year’s top overall pick, tallied a game-high 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and two steals in the New Orleans Pelicans’ 122-112 overtime loss to the surging New York Knicks.

After absorbing his second straight loss to the Knicks in five days, Williamson couldn’t hide his affinity towards New York and the Madison Square Garden.

“I’m glad you asked that, actually. I mean, New York is the Mecca of basketball. I love playing here,” Williamson flashed a wide grin answering when asked about his pro debut in New York.

“I played here in college. It’s my first time to play here in the pros. I mean this atmosphere, whether they’re cheering for you, whether they’re booing you, it’s amazing! I think outside of New Orleans; this might be my favorite place to play. I can’t lie to you.”

The Knicks were tied for the best lottery odds of landing Williamson in the 2019 Rookie Draft. But they settled for the third pick instead and got Williamson’s running partner and roommate at Duke RJ Barrett.

Williamson bolting out of New Orleans and forcing his way to New York down the road isn’t as crazy idea as before.

The Pelicans fans had seen this nightmare two years ago when a disgruntled Anthony Davis sought a trade after seven fruitless years in New Orleans.

Davis won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers the next season after he got his trade wish.

The Knicks are in the biggest market in the East. With a playoff quality team, a $50 million cap space, and deep draft capital, the Knicks have positioned themselves as a promising destination for the next disgruntled star.

Following their sixth straight win over Williamson’s Pelicans, the Knicks are sitting tightly on the sixth seat in the East, one-and-a-half-game ahead of the Miami Heat and seven games clear of the 10th place Chicago Bulls.

The Knicks’ future had never been brighter in the last seven years.

But Williamson is highly unlikely to get traded anytime soon unless he wishes. And even if he does, it will take a king’s ransom like the Davis trade to acquire him.

It will be interesting to watch how the Pelicans front office can build a winning team around Williamson and keep him in the Big Easy. 

Not an easy task. 

So until then, the prospect of Williamson reuniting with Barrett in New York will always be a tempting idea down the road.

Follow this writer: @alderalmo

Rose, Bullock’s heroics keep Knicks’ hot streak alive

new york knicks, derrick rose

Derrick Rose and Reggie Bullock refused to let the New York Knicks‘ feel-good win streak to end.

Not just yet.

The two veterans teamed up in the clutch to save the Knicks from the jaws of defeat as New York overcame a seven-point deficit late to stun the New Orleans Pelicans, 122-112, in overtime.

The 1,981 crowd at The Garden roared to life on Sunday afternoon when Bullock drained a corner three off a Rose assists with 2.3 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.

“I thought about shooting it at first, but I saw Reggie in the corner,” Rose told Knicks courtside reporter Rebecca Haarlow in his postgame interview. “I delivered it on the spot, and Reg is a great shooter.”

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy was miffed of his team’s inability to close out the game.

Lonzo Ball, who made the defensive blunder on that Bullock game-tying triple, was benched in the overtime.

Rose and Bullock continued their stellar play in the extra time while Julius Randle hit the dagger three to beat the shot clock and extended the Knicks’ lead to eight with 54.3 seconds remaining.

Rose scored a season-high 23 points and had five assists in 35 minutes while Bullock added 15 and three triples—the last two came at the perfect time when the Knicks needed it.

The veteran duo picked up the slack for RJ Barrett, who fouled out with still four minutes left in regulation. The sophomore wing had 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting before he left the floor.

Randle matched Pelicans’ bull-strong Zion Williamson basket for basket. But unlike Williamson, Randle had plenty of help.

Randle overcame a scoreless first quarter and still wound up with 33 points, becoming the first Knicks player since Carmelo Anthony in 2014 to log in four straight 30-point game. He added five rebounds and a game-high 10 assists, and five steals.

Williamson came away with 34 points, nine boards, and five dimes, but it wasn’t enough.

The Knicks blew a 13-point first half lead, with Eric Bledsoe dropping 13 of his 22 points in the third quarter.

In the fourth frame, the Pelicans went on a 7-0 run to break from a 92 deadlock. A Ball reverse layup capped off that run to make it 99-92 for the Pelicans with 3:44 left.

Then Rose took over, firing six of the next Knicks’ eight points that kept the Knicks within three, 101-98, and setting up Bullock’s heroics.

In a typical Knicks fashion this season, their collective effort proved to be they key to pulling out another gut-wrenching win.

Nerlens Noel and the 35-year old veteran Taj Gibson continued to hold the fort for the injured Mitchell Robinson.

Noel contributed 12 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks in starting role while Gibson hauled down 14 rebounds that went with six points, two assists, and two swats in 24 minutes off the bench.

Rookie Immanuel Quickley also came up with heady plays and was a game-high plus-24. He put up eight points and three assists off the bench.

The six-game winning streak, the franchise’s longest since 2014, has kept the Knicks (31-27) firmly at sixth place in the East.

They will have their next five games at home, where they are 18-10 this season.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Julius Randle outduels Zion Williamson as Knicks win season-high 4 in a row

Julius Randle outdueled Zion Williamson in the showdown between All-Star forwards.

Randle hit three triples in the opening quarter that set the tone for the New York Knicks‘ 116-106 win over Williamson and the Pelicans Wednesday night at the Smoothie Center in New Orleans.

The Knicks notched their season-high fourth straight victory leaning on Randle’s seventh 30-point performance of the season and Alec Burks’ fourth-quarter explosion on offense. But it was their collective effort on defense that propelled them to improve to 29-27 and move up to sixth in the bunched-up Eastern Conference.

Williamson still got away with 25 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists but only had four points in the final 19 minutes. He went 1-of-4 from the field in the pivotal fourth quarter, where the Knicks completely took control of the game.

Williamson didn’t score his first basket until the final 2:36 of the first quarter.

Randle drew help from Taj Gibson, who started for late scratch Nerlens Noel (sore right ankle), and Norvel Pelle in packing the paint and made life hard for Williamson.

Pelle skied high to block Williamson in the second quarter, but the sophomore forward built like a tank quickly returned the favor in the next play. Williamson was in the zone in the middle quarters.

But come crunch time, the last year’s top overall pick couldn’t deliver in the face of the Knicks’ physical and swarming defense.

“You know Zion is a handful. So, we had to throw as many bodies as we can and get out and recover to the shooters,” Randle said.

“My teammates did a great job showing up, throwing bodies, and giving me help. And then just made the extra effort— the second effort plays—in getting out to the shooters and making it hard for him.”

New Orleans struggled with only six three-pointers out of 28 tries as the Pelicans saw their three-game win streak came to an end.

Brandon Ingram paced the Pelicans with 28 points on 22 shots.

The Knicks, led by Randle’s five threes, shot 51.5 percent (17-33) from the outside. They are undefeated (9-0) when they shot at least 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Randle had his second straight 30-point game—curiously against his former team’s—with 32 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. Then Burks’ 14-point outburst in the fourth quarter put the game beyond reach.

Burks finished with 21 points to pick up the slack, with RJ Barrett struggling for the second straight game. Barrett had a quiet six points on 2-of-10 shooting.

Randle and Burks combined for 21 points in the decisive fourth quarter, where the Knicks pulled away from a tight four-point game. They built several double-digit leads, but the Pelicans kept on fighting.

New Orleans cut a New York dozen lead into half, 109-103.

Burks then buried a clutch three with 2:05 left that sucked the life out of the Pelicans and gave a jolt of energy to Knicks owner James Dolan, who cheered from the sideline beside team president Leon Rose and senior advisor William Wesley in his first road trip this season.

The 35-year old Gibson turned in an inspiring performance in an emergency start with eight points, 10 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks. Pelle played solid in 13 spot-up minutes contributing four points, three boards, a steal, and a swat.

Randle is looking to continue his hot-shooting and extend the Knicks’ winning streak as he heads home to Dallas. They will face the Mavericks, who tripped Memphis Grizzlies on Luka Doncic’s game-winner.

Randle is eager to redeem himself from his lackluster 14-point performance, his lowest scoring output this month, during their 99-86 loss to the Mavericks last April 2. His big game tonight against Williamson should give him the much-needed confidence.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Obi Toppin reminds RJ Barrett of Zion Williamson

New York KnicksRJ Barrett and New Orlean Pelicans’ Zion Williamson were the first freshman teammates in college to average 20-plus points per game. The dynamic pair wound up their one-and-done season in Duke with an identical 22.6-point average.

This is the scenario that Barrett has been envisioning with the arrival of Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ lottery pick this year.

“I feel like it’s gonna work well. You’ve seen me play next to [that type of player] and how it worked well with Mitch (Robinson), worked well with Zion (Williamson) in the past. He (Toppin) is very versatile. He can pick and roll, pick and pop, you can put him on the deck, he can shoot it. I’m excited to have him. He gives us another dimension,” Barrett said on his zoom call with reporters on Monday.

Barrett has struggled to find his footing in the NBA during his rookie season without a running mate like Williamson.

As a result, Barrett’s solid all-around production (14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.0 steal) which was better than some of the freshmen named in the NBA All-Rookie teams was trumped by his inefficiency (40.2% FG and 61.4% FT).

Barrett wasn’t an analytics darling last season, but eye test suggests that the Knick’s poor spacing and outside shooting have a hand in his struggles.

Can Toppin generate a Zion effect?

Toppin isn’t a mountain of muscle like Williamson, whose imposing presence has generated open looks for Barrett in college. But Toppin has the combination of freakish athleticism, hops, length, and shooting that is expected to have the same effect that could make Barrett more efficient.

Like Williamson, Toppin has a big personality and the highlight reels that may overshadow Barrett. But the Canadian wingman has thrived before, taking a backseat in college next to Williamson. Not a tinge of jealousy has broken their bond.

And Barrett looks genuinely happy to have Toppin and bonded with him right away.

“We work out at the same time every day. So I’ve really been connecting with him. Great dude,” Barrett said of his early impression of Toppin. “He’s a hard worker for sure. Very talented, very athletic, very versatile. I’m excited to have him on our team, and I feel like we’ll play well together.”

While Toppin could become New York’s new apple of the eye, the hometown kid isn’t the kind who steals the spotlight.

“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 in his zoom call with reporters on Thursday.

“I love to compete. I love to grind. I like to get better every single day and I like to push everybody around me to get better. I’m a very cool person to be around,” he added.

It looks like the Knicks’ new 1-2 punch is having a smooth start to their partnership. That’s good news to the Knicks’ fans and could be bad news to the other teams.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York State of Mind: NBA trainer David Zenon is a man on a mission

The New York Knicks are reportedly still looking to fill out their already stacked coaching staff with more player development coaches. The Knicks’ head hunters don’t have to look far.

New York has been dubbed as the concrete jungle. Not everyone has the right temperament to survive, let alone shine amidst the bright lights in the city that never sleeps.

Its allure has captivated a lot of dreamers but has also sunk a thousand ships of failure.

New York-bred NCAA and NBA skills trainer David Zenon could have been one of them. But he has the heart of a real New Yorker. A fighter and a grinder.

This is a story that he must have been told a hundred times but it always hits home every time. It’s a story of how far you’re willing to go to chase after your dream.

“I was on the border of quitting. The story was very, very real. I only had 4 dollars and 75 cents to my name. I was just like, damn, I don’t’ think I’m gonna be able to do this. I can’t make any headway. I’m not catching breaks and it felt like a dead-end,” Zenon told Empire Sports Media in a phone interview.

Zenon had been chasing his dreams since he learned to play the game. At first, he wanted to become a basketball player. Then a basketball TV analyst. He eventually settled with a dream he became so passionate about during his junior year in college.

Growing up in the Bronx, he watched his dad playing competitive games around New York.

“I’ve played my entire life. My dad played ball. I was introduced to basketball very early. Once I got to college, I was a practice player. I wasn’t even a player on scholarship,” said Zenon who started as Communications Major before switching to Sports Management with a minor in Kinesiology.

With his basketball dreams seemingly slipping out of his reach, he turned his attention to the other facets of the game he loves most. His internship program with their women’s basketball team at Liberty University in Virginia paved the way for him to develop a passion for coaching and teaching.

“I had to learn the offenses and defenses of various teams just because that’s what the scouting guys would normally do and you know, it turned into a passion. It’s part of developing guys and that’s part of what you have to do as a coach, but also as a player just to get better,” Zenon said.

“I figured I could get into coaching or training right out of college.”

But it wasn’t easy breaking into the industry that has evolved from training with no one watching to having large clout on social media.

Zenon had to start from the ground up.

He trained random kids in nondescript courts and empty gyms just to make ends meet.

It was far from lucrative. Everyday was a fight for survival.

He wasn’t even living paycheck to paycheck. It was training kid to waiting-who-knows-when-there’s-another kid willing to pay to be coached.

The emotions at the other end of the line can be felt in his voice.

Here’s an NBA trainer who has been to the highest of highs training an NBA champion in Serge Ibaka and a slew of NBA players showing raw emotions recalling his humble beginnings.

It’s the story of the underdog who was almost on the verge of defeat but remained defiant. If this was a boxing match against fate, Zenon was already on the ropes, trapped in the corner and agonizingly waiting to be saved by the bell.

During his darkest hour, that’s when the opportunity came along with serendipity.

Down to his last money, Zenon received a message that would soon change his life forever.

“I was lucky enough to get contacted by a young man who’s trying to make it to his varsity basketball team and he just said ‘I heard you’re a good trainer, you work well with kids. Do you mind training me so I can make it to our varsity team?’,” Zenon recalled.

At the back of his head, Zenon was like: “Yeah I need the money!”

“But I’ve always wanted to teach the game. It doesn’t matter who he is,” he said.

He went to a nearby gas station and emptied the last $4.75 on his debit card to fill up his tank. Luckily, he found an additional quarter in his compartment.

“I asked him (gas attendant) if he could please put in a quarter worth of gas. I needed everything I could get,” Zenon recalled.

He ended up impressing the kid and his parents who watched on.

“And they asked me if is this is what I do full-time, ‘Is this how you make your money?’

And I’m like, yes sir, it is,” Zenon recalling that life-changing moment.

“My main source is this but I would like to work for an NBA franchise.”

Unknown to Zenon, the kid’s family is well-connected in the Madison Square Garden.

Zenon hit two birds in one stone as he became the kid’s full-time personal coach and his family’s connections helped him knock on the NBA door.

“His parents told me: ‘Well, we’ll introduce you to somebody who, hopefully, will open some doors for you’,” Zenon said.

He landed a gig with New York’s G League team. It wasn’t in the coaching staff, but he took it nonetheless.

“I was hired as a shot clock operator for the Westchester Knicks. I was doing just shot clock and statistics and I don’t even care if it was G League, I’d do it,” Zenon said.

Once his foot was halfway the NBA door, he didn’t let go of the opportunity. He networked like a young Mark Zuckerberg, handing out his card, resume, his number every time there was an opportunity.

Soon he was starting to vibe with the players such as former Knicks’ guard Langston Galloway.

“That was big for me,” Zenon said.

One opportunity led to another.

“Things really blew up for me when the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis. I became cool with the brothers just because of a Tweet, ironically, and I had a gym where they can get shots at night at a local Westchester area,” Zenon said. “So we developed that rapport just I always do.”

Porzingis’ agent at that time was also managing Ibaka’s career. They were looking for a trainer for the summer. His connection with the Porzingis led to a tryout with Ibaka.

“‘We heard that your workout is good. We’ll gonna give you a tryout with Serge. I have one legit tryout for you to see if he likes it’,” Ibaka’s agent told Zenon.

In the two days leading to the make-or-break tryout, Zenon maniacally prepared for what was the biggest moment of his career. He watched and broke down films like he’s never done before.

“It was nerve-wracking because if Serge didn’t like it then it’s on to the next guy. He was a perfectionist,” Zenon said.

 

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His hard work and attention to detail paid off. He officially became an NBA personal trainer and hasn’t looked back since that summer of 2017.

His portfolio grew from Ibaka to the Plumlee brothers, Detroit Pistons’ Thon Maker, Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jacob Evans, and several NBA players whom he did not name due to the confidential nature of his arrangement with their agents.

His consummate body of work has landed him a gig in an ESPN commercial featuring last year’s top pick Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ third overall pick.

Zenon also had a hand in Common’s 2020 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game MVP performance.

The Chicago-based rapper, actor and writer was introduced to him by a common friend.

“He hit me up one day and said ‘I have Common in town, he wants to workout’,”Zenon recalled.

”I said The rapper?!”

He replied: “Yes, the rapper.”

Common was so impressed that he wanted another one which led to several more workouts. Common even flew him to Chicago for the All-Star Weekend to personally witness the fruit of their hard work at the gym.

A part of his ultimate bucket list has also been ticked off, sort of. He can proudly say that he has played a part in the development of the Knicks’ second-round steal Mitchell Robinson.

He’s been helping Robinson with his personal workouts in New York since he was drafted thanks to the rapport he’s built with the third-year center’s New Orleans-based trainer Marcel Scott. Zenon, though, still dreams of someday making it to his hometown team’s staff as a player development coach.

So how exactly did he pull it off and charm his way to Ibaka and the rest of his clients’ hearts?

“I want my players to know that I care about them first. When you develop a certain delivery, you need to have power in your voice, you have to have that belief in your voice. Players would like to see that confidence in what knowledge you’re giving them and vice-versa. As much as I would love to teach everything that I know, I’m learning from them too. You have to have that back-and-forth, collaborative process,” Zenon said.

Built like a rock, the 6-foot-3 and 230-lb trainer has exhibited a combination of grace and power on the court.

As student of the game, Zenon’s thirst hasn’t been quenched. He always loves to seek out opportunities to collaborate and pick the brains of the best trainers in the industry.

With Ibaka, he’s been grateful for the opportunity to team up with veteran Spanish coach Hugo Lopez. The 45-year old Spaniard had coaching stints in the Spanish league, Euroleague, Angola, and most notably NBL Canada where he was named Coach of the Year in 2016.

“I always mention that I also learn from other guys. And Serge has been working with Hugo Lopez too, from Spain. A great guy, great teacher. It’s really great to work with somebody who knows so much about the game as well and when you worked with a guy like that and brainstorm with the player and do the right way, you’ll be able to see the fruits of his labor,” Zenon said.

With Zenon and Lopez at the helm of things, Ibaka flourished and was able to expand his game and adapt to the constantly evolving NBA. In just his second year co-training Ibaka, the Spanish international became a vital cog of the Toronto Raptors’ championship run in the 2018-19 season.

It wasn’t just a combination of grace and power. His cerebral work has also been integral in his success as a trainer.

“I would always want to study the offense that they’re part of. I do a lot of diligent work to look at a lot of things like the ability to look at their schedule and see the tendencies of the opposing teams on how they play defense on him,” Zenon explained.

“That’s how I based my training with my guys.”

Aside from Lopez and Scott, Zenon has two more player development coaches who have greatly influenced him.

“I’ve been able to learn from Phil Handy. He’s a great man. He knows so much obviously. He does a great job developing his guys,” Zenon said.

Handy, of course, is the renowned player development coach who’s tight with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The current Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant coach has now won three rings with three different teams out of six consecutive Finals appearances including four with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one each with the Raptors and the Lakers. Handy is on the radar of the Brooklyn Nets to join Steve Nash’s coaching staff.

How he met Handy is another proof of Zenon’s hunger and willingness to go the extra mile.

“I just reached out in DM (Direct Message on Twitter) and I was honest to him that I want really to learn,” Zenon said. “This is what I’m doing to get better in my craft but what can I do to get a lot better consistently,” he asked Handy.

When Handy was still with the Cavaliers and was visiting the Philadelphia 76ers, Zenon had to drive from New York to meet him in person for the first time.

“If I had the opportunity to talk to him even for 10 minutes, the two-and-a-half-hour drive was worth it. I was able to pick his brain, the thought process on how they prepare for the game,” Zenon said.

He would always seek Handy’s wisdom on zoom calls thereafter as well as other coaches.

The other guy in his corner is James Clark, the Philadelphia-based trainer of 76ers’ Ben Simmons and San Antonio Spurs’ Dejounte Murray and several more NBA players.

“We’ve worked together, we’ve done clinics and workout together. There’s a mutual respect there. It’s always been something so beneficial for me to be able to have those two guys in my corner. Phil and James are good friends too,” Zenon said.

“It’s been a total blast to have those two guys in my corner.”

While the pandemic had slowed down everything, Zenon refused to get stagnant. He read books and coaching resources. He watched and broke down films and at the height of the quarantine, he had to be creative and imaginative in the digital space to connect with his players.

“It’s tough because you’re not hands-on. So we just gotta do it by distance. It’s crazy because I’m always the kind of guy who moves a lot and shows them what to do,” he said.

On top of his NBA and NCAA gigs, Zenon is still routinely coaching kids. He is also a current assistant coach at The Patrick School in New Jersey, the venerable high school program that produced Samuel Dalembert, Al Harrington, and Irving.

The young man who opened up the doors for Zenon made it to his varsity team.

“He actually became a starter, not that year but the following year. They won a section championship and I’m still very close to him to this day. He’s like a little brother to me,” Zenon said.

Zenon’s $4.75 has gone a long way.

And the best is yet to come as his journey hasn’t even reached halfway.

Is it almost time to root for a New York Knicks tank?

New York Knicks

New York Knicks fans might be getting to their breaking point, if they haven’t already.  The Knicks are 4-13 and currently dead last in the Eastern Conference.

Any regular basketball team wouldn’t even begin to think about next year’s draft or tanking 17 games into the season, but the Knicks are.  After all the talk players did this off-season, their play hasn’t backed it up.  All the optimism the players and fans had for this season has quickly vanished.

Is it time to root for a tank?

Last season, the Knicks did their best to tank to Zion Williamson without saying they were actually tanking.  Look how that turned out.  However, RJ Barrett has been a great consolation prize and shows that he could be someone special.

Knicks players will say that they’re going to continue to battle and there will be no talk about a tank.  Coach David Fizdale addressed the tanking last season and should be ready for those questions again as the season is getting to that point already.

Wayne Ellington and Taj Gibson also spoke on trying to turn the season around.  Players will say all the necessary stuff to please the media but let’s be realistic.  This team seems like they get down on themselves too much.  The idea of ‘tanking’ will be in the back of some players mind.  It will definitely be in the minds of Knicks fans.

Yes, it’s way-too-early to talk about tanking.  But with the New York Knicks, it’s constantly brought up each season.  This feels like it was brought up extremely early as compared to last season.  The Knicks aren’t a team that can turn around despite what the players say.  They’re a team that will give fans a few exciting victories in front of the Garden faithful to appease them and that’s about it.  The way it’s looking currently, the Knicks might lose 60+ games again.