Mario Hezonja is playing his best basketball in a New York Knicks jersey as the team travels to London to take on the Washington Wizards.
“Starting 5” is a semi-weekly column that dives into five different New York Knicks topics. We’ll discuss one positive, one negative, dive into some film, preview the road ahead, and touch on one national story. Plus, we’ll drop some links to great Knicks stories as well.
Positive: Mario Hezonja
There aren’t too many positives around the Knicks right now, but Mario Hezonja, surprisingly, is one of them. Hezonja is playing his best basketball as a Knick of late and he’s playing well on both ends of the floor.
Over his last five games, Hezonja is averaging 12.4 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor. His three-point shooting during that span (25 percent), is somewhat concerning, but he’s showing signs of progress.
Furthermore, the 23-year-old is impacting the game in different ways. In his last five games, the Croatian has 26 rebounds and 14 steals.
Of course, it’s not perfect, but Hezonja is showing some positive signs. If he can keep up his steady play off the bench, he won’t have many DNPs in his future. It’s still unclear whether or not Hezonja will be back in New York next season. He’s only on a one-year deal and the Knicks could ultimately decide to move on from him.
But the Croatian is keeping a positive attitude and trying to stay focused. When he fell victim to the dreaded “DNP — Coach’s Decision,” he didn’t let his emotions get the better of him.
“I’m supposed to want to kill [Fizdale]. Like, ‘Fiz, what the f— are you doing? I’m here for one year,'” Hezonja told ESPN’s Ian Begley with a laugh. “But no, I come to the next practice [after a DNP], and we’re hugging, we’re best friends.”
Yes, it was common knowledge that the Knicks would lose a lot of games this season. But the Knicks have lost 17 of their last 19 and there appears to be no end in sight. The most optimistic of fans are counting up the moral victories from this year, but for everyone else, the Knicks can be difficult to watch.
At 10-33, the Knicks are the second-worst team in the league with only the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-35 as of Jan. 15) posting a worse record. Furthermore, in the months of January and December, the Knicks only have three wins to show for themselves.
In a year that is all about player development, there are some positive signs — mainly Kevin Knox. But with that said, what free agent is going to want to sign with a team that could finish the season with 65 losses when all is said and done?
Mini-Film Breakdown: After Time Out
The Knicks have had a hard time handling pressure at times this season. With the point guard triad of Emmanuel Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina, and Trey Burke, teams have keyed in on this weakness. The Indiana Pacers are one of the best teams in the league at causing havoc on defense and they did so on Friday night in Madison Square Garden.
On one particular play in the first quarter, Knicks head coach David Fizdale called a timeout to set something up and hopefully, kickstart his team after a slow start. Pacers head coach Nate McMillan countered with full-court pressure and New York looked completely out of sync as a result of that pressure.
Before the Knicks can even inbound the ball, the Pacers amp up the pressure. The full-court double on Mudiay forces the ball back to Hezonja and the swingman never gets the ball to Mudiay to start the play.
Hezonja waves off Mudiay and initiates the offense. Tim Hardaway Jr. is supposed to run off two screens to free himself up by the three-point line. Mudiay makes no contact with Hardaway’s defender and Victor Oladipo fights through the Noah Vonleh screen.
Look at how high Hardaway catches. That’s not where Fizdale wants his guys catching. The aggressive show from Domantas Sabonis forces Hardaway to give it up.
Mudiay catches and has Vonleh cutting down the lane, but they botch the pass and turn it over. Had Vonleh caught Mudiay’s pass, this play would have finished with a bucket inside.
But it’s impossible to understate how much Indiana’s pressure took the Knicks out of their rhythm. From the inbounds, the Pacers didn’t give the Knicks any breathing room and it ultimately resulted in an ugly possession and a turnover.
Around The League: All-Star Voting
Obviously, All-Star voting is not something anyone should ever get worked up about. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to when Dwyane Wade, Luka Doncic, and Derrick Rose are top vote-getters in the fan voting.
Wade has the best case of the three and his case is more of a lifetime achievement award rather than a selection based on his play this season. Personally, I dislike farewell tours for players. Maybe I’m a grouch, but I don’t care for the season-long farewell.
That being said, Wade fits the bill for a farewell tour. Once guys like Paul Pierce start getting farewell tours then we can cancel them entirely. I can live with the fans voting him into the All-Star Game as a starter, but the other two should not be in the conversation.
What Luka Doncic is doing should not be understated. He’s having a remarkable rookie season and he may even be deserving of an All-Star nod. But not as a starter. Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Paul George, and Kevin Durant all fall below Doncic in voting.
But Derrick Rose is the most damning indictment of the system. The former MVP is having a decent year. Decent year. His numbers are actually quite similar to his one season with the New York Knicks. He’s shooting the ball much better from deep this season, but the numbers are similar.
His 50-point night against the Utah Jazz and his return to Chicago to serenades of “MVP” are spurring his run to a potential All-Star appearance. He hasn’t had the season to warrant an All-Star nod and he’s not exactly a story of redemption that one might think. Rose is ahead of James Harden in the voting. Enough said.
The fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game is always ridiculous and this year did not disappoint. Obviously, it’s not going away anytime soon, but maybe the NBA could dial the fan vote back to 25 percent of the vote for the 10 starters. Give players 50 percent and media 25 percent. That seems like a better way to distribute things.
Look Ahead: Big Ben & Bradley Beal
The Knicks are off to play the Washington Wizards and Bradley Beal in London on Thursday. The Knicks have had a hard time containing Beal over the years and London could be more of the same.
When John Wall decided to opt for heel surgery and end his season, Beal has found his rhythm. Over his last nine games, Beal is averaging 30.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.
Washington is 5-4 during that nine-game stretch, but they have wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Milwaukee Bucks during that span. The Wiz have looked inept all year, but the Knicks may be running into Washington and Beal at the wrong time.
- Luke Kornet took his Twitter followers on a hilarious tour of London on Tuesday.
- The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov takes an in-depth look at Kevin Knox and how he’s handling his role as a focal point of the offense.
- Enes Kanter penned an op-ed for the Washington Post. A vocal critic of the Turkish government, Kanter didn’t travel with the team to London out of fear for his own safety.