Dennis Smith Jr.
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale will be under pressure to show that his players have taken the next step. But who will show the most growth?

Geoffrey Campbell

During his introductory press conference, David Fizdale looked straight at Emmanuel Mudiay and told him, “We’re gonna get you right.

Eighty-two games later, and as Collin Lorring of ESNY correctly pointed out, Fiz made good on his promise. Mudiay was the starting point guard during most of the New York Knicks 2018-2019 season, and despite a nauseating barrage of mid-range shots, he had a decent season.

But going into 2019-2020, Fizdale has a new challenge ahead of him. Fans will largely forgive a 17-win season when it appeared as though the Knicks were committed to acquiring top-tier talent through the draft. At least some form of tanking was expected prior to the beginning of last season, however, after the trade of Kristaps Porzingis, it was clear that tanking and clearing cap space were both going to be priorities.

Yet, this time around, Fiz will need to show the front office and the garden faithful that he can walk the walk when comes to player development. All eyes will be on a young core that features players like Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Ignas Brazdeikis and RJ Barrett. At least two and maybe three of these players will need to be pieces that the Knicks can build around going forward.

An argument can also be made that free-agent acquisition Julius Randle is now a part of this core. Randle might be here for at least two seasons, and his development along with players like Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis Jr. will be paramount towards improving the Knicks’ win-loss record and showing the league that their version of the process is in full swing.

The good news is that there is at least some evidence that Fizdale can improve a player’s game, regardless of age. Parker Fleming of Beale street bears wrote about Fiz’s time with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite a poor ending to his coaching tenure, players like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and JaMycal Green enjoyed career-highs under a Fizdale free-flowing offense.

With that said, let’s take a look at the top candidates Fizdale will ‘get right’ for the Knicks.

Julius Randle

Analysts around the NBA will clown the Knicks for settling for Randle as their prized free-agent acquisition, however, make no mistake, Randle can ball. Fiz doesn’t necessarily need to get him right, but he can put him in a great position before his next contract.

A durable and versatile forward, Randle averaged career-highs in points per game (21.4), and rebounds per game (8.7), with the New Orleans Pelicans last season. Granted, this was production on a team without All-NBA forward Anthony Davis, nevertheless, Randle’s skill set still caught the eye of the Knicks.

New York Knicks

When Randle signed with the Knicks, he essentially received a $10 million annual salary raise when he inked his three-year $63-million contract. Randle will still be a young player, and in his prime when he enters the third year of that deal, thus Fizdale can help him receive that four-five year, big-money deal with the Knicks or another team.

In a Fizdale offense, if you’re a big, unless your Robinson, you have to shoot threes to stay on the court. In Memphis Gasol’s three-pointers attempted went from three to 268 during the 2016-2017 season. Last season, Noah Vonleh’s three-point attempts also increased from 66 (2017-2018) to 137 (2018-2019). Don’t be surprised to see Randle’s range extend during this upcoming season.

On the contrary, as Matt Brooks of ESNY points out, there may be some roadblocks in front of Randle’s development. Last season, Randle’s usage rate measured within the top-25 amongst players who played at least 40 games. The Pelicans didn’t have many ball-dominant guards, however, with Smith entering a pivotal year in his career, those driving lanes might get crowded.

Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith’s growth and development is almost as important as anyone’s on the Knicks when you’re thinking about wins and loses. Based on my evaluation of Randle’s projected production, you might be surprised to see him on this list. However, Fizdale is going to give both Randle and Smith the ball early and often; the likelihood that one of these players has a good season, even on a non-playoff team, is high, I just don’t think it’ll be both of them.

Much has been made about Smith’s improved shot. Unfortunately, everyone’s jump shot looks good in July and August, when workout videos flood everyone’s Twitter timeline. But if you’re looking for positives, that nagging hitch in Smith’s jump shot looks gone and his gather and release looks to be a much smoother process from start to finish.

Going back to Fiz’s days in Memphis, Conley increased his three-point attempts to 419, which was a career-high until this past season. Conley’s usage rate (26.3) was at it’s highest point during that point in his career. With Fizdale’s strong preference for guards who can break defenders off the dribble, Smith should get a fair chance to see if he can reach his potential with the Knicks.

According to Synergy Sports stats, the few play types where Smith was considered, either “Average” or “Very Good” when compared with his peers was like the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and in dribble hand-offs. However, if we can use Mudiay as a guide, his efficiency in-play types like being the pick-and-roll ball-handler, spot-ups, dribble hand-offs and isolation all increased under Fizdale.

Certainly, playing time had a lot to do with that, but with more talent, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Smith could be ready for a breakout year.

Allonzo Trier

I make no bones about it; I believe that Trier has the potential to the most important Knick on the squad not named Mitchell Robinson. There’s also a part of me that believes Fizdale will see it too. As reported by Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic, the Knicks coaching staff wants Trier to put up more threes. He shot a good percentage last year but didn’t put up enough attempts.

As the roster is currently constructed, Trier is likely to get most of his minutes in the second unit as a scorer. Iso Zo is incredibly adept at shooting off the dribble, off-balance, and in catch-and-shoot situations.

But as I wrote in early July, his emerging presence as a good defender leads me to believe that Fiz will use Trier a lot, and maybe as a starter. Using Synergy Sports stats, Trier ranked within the 91st percentile in defending all shots off the dribble and within the 70th percentile in defending iso pull-up jumpers.

The key will be Trier’s improving play-making ability and/or making sure that players in the second-unit complement his game. Currently, according to Synergy Sports stats, Trier ranked within the 28th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in pass out situations when the defense commits. Even as a reserve, Trier will improve if he can see minutes with Robinson in the pick and roll and have the option to kick out to versatile forwards like Portis and Knox who can shoot from distance.

With training camp around the corner, this new Knicks team will be engaged in plenty of position-battles and that will keep fans and writers on their seats for the early part of the season. These three players in Randle, Smith, and Trier will be ready to show off their summer work and prove their doubters wrong.

Yet, it will be Fizdale’s master touch or lack-there-of that will ultimately determine whether this Knicks season receives rave reviews or back-page headlines meant for a joke.

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