Kevin Knox’s unique skill set is perfect for the Utah uphill handoff action. David Fizdale and the New York Knicks must take advantage of it.
How can the New York Knicks add wrinkles to the offense to best utilize the players on the roster? Well, David Fizdale and company can start by finding ways to put the multi-talented Kevin Knox in position to attack the rim. A specific handoff action used by Quin Snyder in Utah is tailor-made for the rookie’s game.
Utah’s uphill handoff is very similar to the “Spain” pick-and-roll set in the sense that the primary goal is to create confusion in the middle of the court while allowing the ballhandler to get downhill and attack the disorganized defense. It’s also much more simple to set up and run than “Spain” pick-and-roll, making it perfect for the Knicks’ newcomer.
Take summer league performances with a grain of salt, but Knox showed an ability to score in transition by using his athleticism and an attacking mindset.
The highlight reel should excite fans, but the efficiency numbers leave something to be desired. He shot 35 percent from the floor in Las Vegas. Again, summer league statistics can be deceiving, but it’s clear that Knox is most comfortable when he’s aggressive.
So how can Utah’s uphill handoff play into Knox’s aggressiveness and attacking mindset? Let’s take a dive into the action itself.
Utah's Uphill Handoff
Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer does an excellent job explaining how this action worked for Quin Snyder and the Jazz during the 2016-17 season when they had Gordon Hayward at their disposal. (Sidenote: Don’t be shocked to see this often in Boston. The best coaches are always looking around the league for new actions and offensive sets to implement.)
Oftentimes, the ballhandler comes from the top of the key, the wing, or the corner to receive the ball in handoff plays. This action turns that idea upside down—almost literally. Instead of coming laterally from the wing or the corner, the ballhandler shoots up from the paint/low post area and loops around the big. Essentially, the ballhandler runs uphill to receive the ball, but immediately turns downhill and attacks the defense after the handoff occurs.
Using Gobert as the roll man is a tactical decision. His defender usually employs a drop coverage to defend the rim since he’s not worried about the possibility of Gobert stepping out for a jumper or pulling back the ball and attacking himself. The use of a drop coverage results in open space for Hayward to operate. Once his defender is on his hip, he can attack the big, pull up in the lane, or find the open man.
If the big tries to take away that open space and crowd the ballhandler, the roll man has a wide open lane to dive towards the rim. The three other players on the floor retreat to the three-point line to give the ballhandler and the roll man room to operate.
Synergizing With Kevin Knox
Kevin Knox is supposed to be one of the cornerstones for this Knicks team going forward. He’s young with mountains of upside. Scott Perry and Steve Mills believe that Knox is a franchise player in the making. It’s up to Fizdale to put him in positions that best utilize his abilities.
And while Kristaps Porzingis is out for a large portion of the season, give Knox the keys to the offense. Allow him to play as the team’s first option as much as possible. Obviously, the uphill handoff puts the ball in his hands and puts a ton of responsibility on his shoulders. But he needs to have a big that he can synergize with until Porzingis returns.
The obvious option is Enes Kanter. Knox and Kanter should be in the starting lineup on opening night and they’ll spend a lot of time on the court together. If there is a natural fit on the roster—who’s healthy—to play the roll man in this action, it’s Kanter.
First off, he played for Snyder’s Jazz during the 2014-15 season. There isn’t much footage of Kanter running this particular set in Utah, but he has experience running dribble handoff actions as all veteran bigs do. Familiarity and experience are key.
Second, Kanter is similar to Gobert in the sense that he’s not a threat from the outside. The resulting drop coverages will give Knox that space to attack once he turns the corner.
Lastly and most importantly, Knox is bound to make mistakes in this set. He’ll have his growing pains as all rookies do. As an aggressive and attacking player, Knox may fall victim to over penetrating and attacking the big when he should pull up in the lane. But with Kanter as the roll man, this isn’t the end of the world.
On his own team’s missed field goals, Kanter was in the 98th percentile for offensive rebounding percentage among bigs last season per Cleaning the Glass. If Knox is going to make mistakes by over attacking, Kanter is a fantastic safety net to have diving down the lane for any second chance opportunities.
Mitchell Robinson is another interesting option to pair with Knox in this action. But it’s unclear exactly how big of a role he’ll have to start the season. In terms of his physical tools, he has everything a player needs to be successful in this set. But for now, we’ll have to wait and see how he develops.
Of course, the options in the uphill handoff multiply when Porzingis is healthy enough to play. If teams decide to use a drop coverage, Porzingis is skilled enough to step out to the three-point line for a wide open look. If teams decide to hedge and crowd the ballhandler, KP can pull the ball back and attack the rim himself.
Kanter and Robinson can be effective in this set, but anytime you can have Porzingis and Knox running a two-man game, there are a myriad of ways to punish the defense. Obviously, this combination is still somewhere off in the distance, but it can’t hurt to dream about it, right?
Contrary to popular belief, there are other players on the team besides Kevin Knox and the bigs. So who are the other ballhandlers that can be effective in this set?
Trey Burke is gifted in the pick-and-roll. Handoff actions have a lot of the same concepts as the pick-and-roll so using Burke in this situation seems like it makes sense. A longer, more athletic player is probably the best fit in this set, but using Burke wouldn’t be unreasonable.
Tim Hardaway Jr. has this aura that he’s a knockdown shooter. But his shooting stroke can be very hot and cold. He had a nine-game stretch last season where he averaged 10.2 points per game on 30.3 percent shooting from the floor and 16.7 percent shooting from deep. He followed that up with a nine-game stretch where he averaged 22.1 points per game. This came on 48.3 percent from the floor and 33.8 percent from deep.
In short, he can be very streaky. Using him as the ballhandler in this uphill action could help him by putting him in a position to get good looks from in the paint and at the rim. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but Fizdale needs to figure out a way to pull some consistency out of THJ.
Frank Ntilikina is another option for Fizdale and his staff to contemplate. He’s long and athletic. But he lacks the aggressiveness displayed by some of his peers. Forcing Ntilikina to go downhill at the defense could coax the aggressiveness out of him that Knicks fans are clamoring for.
But regardless of personnel, this is a creative, yet simple offensive action that can open up a world of possibilities for the offense. It’s no secret. The Knicks must bring the offense into the modern era and utilizing Utah’s uphill handoff is another offensive set that can bring new life to an offense that has lacked creativity for far too long.