Tom Thibodeau

The newer, younger New York Knicks are exciting, but it’s important to keep realistic expectations for them as the rebuild continues.

Josh Benjamin

Another trip around the NBA sun, another New York Knicks season on the horizon.

Though this is expected to be another rough season, something feels different at Madison Square Garden. These young Knicks aren’t a case of a front office throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if something sticks. No, there is a set plan in place and new president Leon Rose has tasked former Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau with developing this young squad.

And even if 2020-21 is another losing season, there’s a lot to look forward to this year. Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley are a pair of exciting rookies with high ceilings. The new blood that’s arrived is determined to change the culture around the Knicks locker room. One way or another, New York does genuinely seem to have a bright future.

But even if that is true, it’s important to not let going 3-1 in the preseason against two bad Pistons and Cavaliers teams go to our heads. In reality, here’s what fans can probably expect when things kick off on Dec. 23.

The usual growing pains

In case you didn’t hear me the first 56,783 times, the New York Knicks are a young team. Currently, there is no player on the roster older than 29. This is a blessing and a curse when trying to turn a bad team into a contender.

For the Knicks, this means tempering expectations on Toppin and Quickley. They’re both exciting first-round picks, yes, but aren’t anything close to immediate star players. They’re rookies and need to adjust to both the NBA and Thibodeau’s high standards.

Let’s start with Toppin, who averaged 7.2 points and six rebounds in the preseason. Those aren’t terrible, but he shot just 27.5% from the field. Toppin has an NBA body at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, but his preseason rust was a harsh reminder. Don’t expect him to be an immediate star.

Similarly, Quickley is also a rookie who’ll have some growing pains. He averaged 11 points and 4.3 assists in three games and made 42% of his attempts from the floor. We all know Quickley can shoot and defend, but can he develop into a reliable starting point guard?

The point is that just as they have been with RJ Barrett, the Knicks need to be patient with Toppin and Quickley. Both men have roles they can play well on this team as well as high development ceilings. Their first couple of months in the pros will just look a bit rusty.

RJ Barrett steps up

Speaking of RJ Barrett, he’s a year older at 20 and looks like a far different player than his rookie season. He averaged 17.7 points and five rebounds in the preseason and shot nearly 51% from the field. It seems his hot streak in March wasn’t just a hot streak!

Granted, Barrett still hasn’t shown marked improvement with his three-point game, but that could just be rust. Even if his work from beyond the arc leaves something to be desired, it’s obvious he’s taken a giant step forward in his development.

So far, Barrett looks more confident with the ball in his hands and ready to take over the scoring reins. Even with teammates like Julius Randle and a pair of exciting youngsters in Toppin and Quickley, he knows what’s expected of him in his second season.

The New York Knicks are his team. In a mixed bag of youth and experience, he’s the biggest dog in the yard. The difference is that now, he’s prepared to assume that role.

A stronger second unit

Last season, the Knicks bench’s performance was all over the place. Sometimes, it carried the team to victory. Then, in a New York minute, it was more rickety than Coney Island’s Cyclone on a rainy day. It didn’t help that multiple lineups were often used and, thus, some players’ roles on the team were never clearly defined.

Such is not the case this year. Thibodeau obviously hasn’t committed to one starting lineup through and through, but the whole bench is more focused now. Even if someone like Reggie Bullock draws a start, he knows his job first and foremost is to shoot threes and not necessarily take over the offense.

At the same time, Frank Ntilikina is perfect as a defensive pest off the bench. Nerlens Noel, be it as a starter or as a reserve, is a defensive anchor. Even Kevin Knox, who can’t play defense and has looked like a bust across two seasons, has drawn praise from the tough-to-please Thibodeau.

The season hasn’t started, but it’s clear the New York Knicks starters have bought into what Thibodeau and Rose are selling. If the bench has as well, it’s an even better sign for the team.

25-30 wins

Sorry to disappoint, folks. Yes, the New York Knicks and their fans should be excited for the future, but that doesn’t mean playoff contention happens immediately. The team, for all its talent and heart, is still very much the Bad News Bears and Thibodeau is their Morris Buttermaker. Beneath his rough exterior is someone who knows how to coach.

More importantly, nothing has changed at the top of the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors retained Fred VanVleet and are still a top contender, as are Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics. The reigning East champion Miami Heat aren’t going away anytime soon either.

Thus, this year’s New York Knicks aren’t making the playoffs. In fact, Action Network has their over/under for wins at 21.5. Even with New York likely tanking again, a minimum of 25 wins seems more realistic.

The good news is that even as a losing team, the New York Knicks will prove exciting to watch more often than not.

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