The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls played a relatively meaningless game on Monday, but for the guys on the floor, it means the world.
It wasn’t Michael Jordan battling with Patrick Ewing in Madison Square Garden on Monday night. Instead, names like Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet, Walt Lemon Jr. and Shaquille Harrison took the floor when the New York Knicks hosted the Chicago Bulls.
Both the Knicks and Bulls are at the awkward point in the season where they are out of playoff contention but have games left on the schedule. Although these games lack playoff implications, they mean the world to many of the players on the floor.
Young players looking to establish themselves as legitimate NBA talents use these minutes to secure their future in the league. The veterans who are staring down free agency are playing for that next contract, wherever that may be.
“I just think for all of the guys in general especially both of these teams,” head coach David Fizdale told ESNY in his pregame press conference. “You’ve got a lot of young players, and like you said, you’ve got some guys that are free agents. These are important minutes for either their growth or for their future. Like I told our guys, don’t take any of it light. We have to play the game according to who we are and where we are and what we need to get out of it. We really stress to the guys to play the game the right way.”
In terms of growth, look no further than rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. Knox has the potential to become a dominant scorer and his head coach likes the way he’s improving around the rim. Furthermore, Fizdale loves the way Knox is starting to find the open man.
“He’s more patient around the rim and finishing more stuff around the rim and he’s starting to make plays for other people…He had three assists and they were nice plays that he made for other people,” Fizdale said. “He had his head up and he made the easy play. That something we’ve been stressing down the stretch.”
First, let’s take a look at Knox’s finishing at the rim. Against the Bulls on Monday, the Knicks rookie attacked the rim from the opening tip. He had three nice finishes with the right hand through traffic. He faded after his strong opening quarter, but he’s showing encouraging signs of progress.
On the season, Knox is shooting 48 percent from the restricted area per NBA.com. Post-All-Star break, he’s shooting 43.5 percent from that area. But before we jump down Fizdale’s throat, Knox has made improvements in this area of his game recently. In February, he shot 35.6 percent from the restricted area and in March (and one April game) that percentage jumps to 50.
Knox’s progression has not been linear, but there have been improvements in his game regardless of what narrative is being pushed.
Let’s move onto Mitchell Robinson. We already know he can impact the game with high-flying finishes and jaw-dropping blocks. But the Knicks are excited about how he is adding different layers to his game.
“The thing I liked tonight is he had four assists and one turnover,” Fizdale said. “That’s pretty good for a young five-man.”
Four assists set a new career-high for Robinson, on his 21st birthday no less. Although the raw rookie can develop into a big that dishes out a few assists each night, he’s no Nikola Jokic.
He won’t dice teams up with crisp passes and x-ray vision, but he can use his roll gravity to draw attention, opening up opportunities for his teammates. Fizdale is fond of using dribble handoff sets to free up space for guys like Knox.
Knox and Robinson have spent all season establishing themselves. Their rookie seasons have been, in part, about proving they belong in the NBA. Eventually, the two will look to reach even greater heights. Perhaps All-Star appearances and Defensive Player of the Year awards are in the future for the pair of rookies.
While these “meaningless” games at the end of the season can be building blocks for young players, they can also serve as an audition for lesser-known names. With all the injuries facing the Bulls, head coach Jim Boylen turned to G Leaguer and Chicago native Walt Lemon Jr. in the starting lineup.
“I think it’s what the league is about,” Boylen told ESNY prior to Monday’s game. “You know, an opportunity to step up, an opportunity to prove that you belong in the league. I talked to our guys about establishing yourself in the league when the opportunity comes. Whatever level you’re at in the league, you’re always trying to establish yourself. If you’re a starter, you wanna be an All-Star…If you’re a sub, you wanna be a starter. We got guys that played in the G League and now they wanna be NBA players so any opportunity they get to establish themselves I think is great and they gotta make the most of it.”
Monday marked Lemon’s first career start in The Association. He finished his disappointing night with six points on 3-for-12 shooting. He added five assists and three steals, but it wasn’t the best showing for the undrafted 26-year-old.
But just two nights earlier, he exploded for 19 points, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals. In his only two games of the year, Lemon has turned in one excellent game and one dud. He still has a long way to go to secure his place in the league, but he still has four games left to prove himself.
While these games seem meaningless at first glance—other than for lottery positioning—the players on the floor are trying to use these minutes as building blocks for the future. Whether it’s a top-10 pick like Knox or a G Leaguer like Lemon, everyone is fighting for their NBA life at this point in the season.