NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 29: Mitchell Robinson #23 of the New York Knicks smiles as the game ends against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2020 in New York City.The New York Knicks defeated the Chicago Bulls 125-115.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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A trio of guys age 21 or younger led the New York Knicks to a gratifying win over the scuffling Chicago Bulls.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—Why aren’t the New York Knicks prioritizing the development of the young players on the roster? Mitchell Robinson isn’t starting, RJ Barrett can disappear from the offense at times, and Kevin Knox is struggling to play consistent minutes.

All of these concerns were addressed in New York’s near wire-to-wire victory over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday evening. With the exception of a short stretch in the second quarter, the Knicks were the aggressors against Chicago from start to finish.

NBA teams will take wins any way they can get them, but for a rebuilding team like the Knicks, a win is far sweeter when it’s the young guys leading the way.

Barrett, 19 paced the Knicks in the first half with 17 points (7-for-8 FG, 3-for-3 3PT). The cherry on top of his spectacular half came in the form of a step-back three-pointer to give the Knicks a 13-point halftime lead.

If there’s one thing to nitpick about Barrett’s night, it’s that he only took two shots in the second half. But again, that’s nitpicking considering his teammates were there to pick up the slack.

Robinson, 21, was a menace on both ends of the floor, continuing his recent stretch of dominance. His 23 points led the Knicks, but it was more about his ability to do everything else well. He scooped up 10 boards, sent two shots back from whence they came, and racked up two assists—although he believes he had three.

“Yeah, I’m dropping dimes,” Robinson said. “They’re trying to say I had two. I had three, but alright. I could name them out to you, but I’m not going to do that right now.”

Statistical errors aside, Robinson is starting to blossom into the dominant end-to-end big that can change the complexion of a game. He’s still coming off the bench behind veteran center Taj Gibson. For some, that rotation is puzzling, but it’s working for Robinson.

He says he knew he needs to play well when he comes into games because Gibson is “old” and he needs extra time on the bench to recover. Gibson had already left the locker room so he wasn’t around to respond to the razzing.

Jokes aside, the Gibson and Robinson tandem is working like a charm. Gibson finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, helping the Knicks jump out to an early lead with a flurry of buckets in the first few minutes. The veteran knows his role and he excels in this capacity.

“I’m just doing my job…try to get us a good lead early and let Mitch come in and do his job,” Gibson told ESNY during a practice in late January. “I’m just knowing my role, trying to be a good veteran, and bring the energy.”

There might not be a better mentor for the youthful Robinson than the clearheaded Gibson.

While Robinson and Barrett were the big stars of the night, don’t let Knox’s performance fly under the radar. The 20-year-old poured in 12 points on 4-for-9 shooting, but much like Robinson, he was active in plenty of other ways. Saturday marks one of Knox’s most impressive defensive games of the season. He was active, engaged, and used his length to bother Chicago.

“He’s making the energy plays, putting us back in it,” interim head coach Mike Miller said after the game. “He hits a big shot, he’s defending multiple positions. It was an outstanding game for him, he greatly impacted the second half as well.”

Knox’s sophomore season has been one to forget. After spending his rookie season playing major minutes no matter what, he has struggled to maintain a consistent role in the rotation this year. His up-and-down play is definitely concerning, but nights like Saturday put some of those fears to rest.

“We’ve been seeing the build up to it,” Miller later added. “Everybody wants to see it immediately. We’re seeing the small steps.”

It’s important to remember that development is rarely linear and only the select few guys make the leap to stardom before their 21st birthday. After all, Knox can’t even stop in a bar to celebrate his night with an adult beverage. It’s probably a good idea to stay patient with the high-upside forward.

“These last 20 games I’m trying to end on a good note,” Knox said. “I just want to end on a high note. I just want to be aggressive from here on out and get to the basket and get to the free-throw line. Really just trying to improve my defense. That’s my mentality going forward.”

No matter what the circumstance, wins will make a team feel good for a little while. However, when the victory is led by three players age 21 or younger, that will make an organization feel good about the future.

And make no mistake about it, the rest of the season is about the future. The Knicks will try to build on this win on Monday against the Houston Rockets, a team that recently routed New York. But even with the vaunted Rockets coming to town, a five-game homestand is off to a 1-0 start thanks to the kids.

That’s a step in the right direction.

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