Time for Leon Rose to find his diamond in the rough for needy Knicks
The Knicks pick eighth Wednesday night when the NBA returns to our lives for an evening, when the draft — usually a staple of our June calendar — joins this remarkable November sporting buffet. Absent will be the in-person, eager-to-weep, camera-ready Knicks fans who are a favorite of draft-night cameramen every summer.
They’ll be doing their fretting in private this time around.
Unless Leon Rose and his crew can get this right.
Even then, of course, it is unlikely that this selection will be met with universal approval. That’s the burden of picking eighth in a draft that has been described in various circles as “boring” and “routine” and “thin.” But it’s also a nice — and critical — early challenge for Rose and for his staff.
The Knicks have had exactly one thing to get right since they disappeared at the start of March and they did: hiring Tom Thibodeau as coach. They have made no trades, yet. They have bulked up infrastructure and support staffs, but that’s not going to steal anyone’s back page away from James Harden or Steve Cohen.
And maybe the kid they pick eighth Wednesday night won’t do that, either.
But if the Knicks are ever to escape the circle of misery in which they’ve found themselves trapped these last 20 years, it would really help if they could get this right. It won’t be easy — but, then, nobody ever said that drafting impact NBA players was supposed to be easy?
You know what’s easy?
Drafting Patrick Ewing. Drafting Lew Alcindor. Drafting LeBron James. Drafting Zion Williamson. In those years when the No. 1 pick is a universe-altering player, and you have that pick, you bet it’s easy to do.
This isn’t such a year, and even if it was, the Knicks don’t have that pick. This takes a little something else. This takes a little something extra.
This takes whatever inspiration moved the Denver Nuggets to take Jamal Murray with the seventh pick of the 2016 draft — and Michael Porter Jr. at 14 two years later. This takes whatever intelligence moved Utah to take Donovan Mitchell with the 13th pick in 2017. This takes whatever karma allowed Miami to use its 13th pick last year on Tyler Herro.
Jimmy Butler? He went 30th in 2011.
Kemba Walker? He went ninth that year.
Kawhi Leonard? He went 15th.
Yes. We can dwell on all the things that can go wrong once you pick outside the top three or four, and we do that a lot around here because things so often do go wrong. But the truth is you can find foundational picks — and more — picking eighth. You just need to have an idea what you’re doing. And for too long the Knicks have been run by people who have had no idea what they’re doing, saving their very best malpractice for draft night.
Rose? The folks who run the media Gulag on 33rd Street haven’t seen fit to make him available much during his time on the job, so it’s not possible to even remotely know what might move him Wednesday night. We can guess. We can speculate. If you liked the hire, you probably think he can nail this solid. If you didn’t, you’re strictly wait-and-see.
Rose needs to hit this one. Maybe he doesn’t need to find Leonard or Butler or Mitchell here. But this has to be a player who can immediately come under Thibodeau’s tutelage, respond to it, and join the Knicks’ other young pieces, the ones that range from fascinating (Mitchell Robinson) to intriguing (RJ Barrett) to enigmatic (Kevin Knox) to relying-on-Thibodeau-to-reach-him-before-it’s-too-late (Frank Ntilikina, the last player the Knicks got at No. 8 in the draft).
Rose has proceeded cautiously, and thus far wisely. He got himself an elite coach. He has so far warded off the temptation to import a big-ticket star who might bring short-term impact but blunt long-term progress (though Russell Westbrook is still sitting in Houston as a teasing temptress). He has said he’s committed to building this the right way. So far he’s been true to that.
Now he must make the leap from platitudes to players. It starts Wednesday. It’s easy for any of us to throw out names — Devin Vassell! Obi Toppin! Killian Hayes! Isaac Okoro! — especially since we have no idea who’ll be available when the time comes. It’s harder for Rose. But it should be hard. Drafting well has always been hard.
If it was easy, the Knicks wouldn’t be the proud owners of permanent courtside seats in basketball hell.
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