The All-Star break is over. Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) is out for the season. The New York Knicks are 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 24-36 record. When you add all that together, what do you get? A youth movement.
The Knicks finally acknowledged Thursday night, in their first game since the All-Star break, that their primary focus should be on developing talent for the future and evaluating the young players on the roster. Interestingly, turning to younger, less experienced players resulted in a 120-113 win over the Orlando Magic, but the result of the game is somewhat irrelevant at this point in the Knicks' season. All the team wants to see now are signs that some of the pieces on this roster have the potential to be useful contributors in future seasons.
As a result, the team chopped the minutes of veterans Courtney Lee (32 years old) and Jarrett Jack (34), who are third and fifth on the team in minutes per game at 32.3 and 25.9, respectively. Lee played just 14 minutes while Jack didn't play at all.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek instead allocated those minutes to a trio of young point guards who are currently the most exciting part of this disappointing Knicks team. Rookie Frank Ntilikina (19 years old) and Trey Burke (25) each played 30 minutes, while trade-deadline acquisition Emmanuel Mudiay (21) played 23 minutes.
As mentioned, the result of this youth movement was a win on the road—something the Knicks accomplished just seven times in 31 tries prior to the All-Star break. Despite coming off the bench, Burke was the highlight of the evening, racking up 26 points, six assists, and four rebounds while also chipping in a steal and a block. Mudiay, who got the start at point guard, was less effective, but he still managed to stuff the stat sheet a bit with eight points, five rebounds, four assists, and a steal. Ntilikina came off the bench to add seven points, three rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and a steal.
What was encouraging was that despite just one of these three youngsters getting the starting nod, all three played extensively—that's how the rotation needs to work for the remainder of the season. It doesn't matter if the lineup is too small or if there's not enough shooting on the court—the only thing that matters is the players with the most room to grow getting experience in competitive NBA action, and that's exactly what happened Thursday. Burke and Ntilikina were second on the team with 30 minutes apiece, and Mudiay played 23 minutes, fifth-most on the team.
Tim Hardaway Jr. was the team leader in minutes with 35. Still just 25 years old and in the first year of a four-year, $71 million contract, Hardaway makes sense as a featured player for the Knicks down the stretch. He still has plenty of room to grow as a player, and the organization would be wise to see which players he is able to build a strong rapport with.
What was interesting regarding Hardaway on Thursday night was that he still managed 35 minutes despite the heavy usage of the young point guards. Hornacek gave Hardaway some run at small forward, freeing up more minutes at the guard spots for the youngsters (and subsequently decreasing Lee's playing time). Hardaway thrived in the role, racking up 23 points, six assists, three rebounds, a steal, and a block with just one turnover. Look for Hardaway to get a lot more minutes at small forward as Hornacek looks to put together the optimal developmental lineup.
The Knicks' playoff aspirations are a distant memory, and with their best player recovering from a serious injury, it's tough to say that the Knicks are in a strong position for a quick rebuild. But thanks to Hornacek's willingness to hand the reins to his young, high-ceiling players, fans do have a reason to watch Knicks games for the rest of the season. The growth of Ntilikina, Mudiay, and Burke—all of whom were top-10 draft picks within the past five years—should be fascinating to watch. It will be particularly interesting to see how Ntilikina, as a teenager with firehose-like arms, responds to more responsibility.
If a couple of these young players can develop into reliable weapons, then the return of Porzingis and a strong draft pick in June could have the Knicks looking at a bright future.