Photo credit: Tdorante10 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
In the times of a tank, a glimmer of hope can light up an entire fanbase. As a Knicks fan, I’m acutely aware of the kind of eyes you need to access that illogical spectrum. This season tested our patience and our intestinal fortitude; we look to free agency this year like a Marvel fan waiting for Avengers: Endgame. Yet, instead of a decade of intricate plotting and quality MCU films, we just had 20 Justice Leagues.
Somehow, Knicks fans still find joy in this sorrow. We’re writing think-pieces that claim Mitchell Robinson should be in rookie of the year conversation, we’re begging for one more year for Frank Ntilikina, and we’re photoshopping jerseys onto Kevin Durant. We’re unveiling some truly heinous takes.
It’s in that spirit that I wanted to try and capture those fleeting moments of hope in real-time. To do so, we need to turn back to the ever-reliable Basketball Reference and chart the game score performances for the collection of young Knicks talent.
I profiled Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Mario Hezonja, Dennis Smith, Noah Vonleh, and Emmanuel Mudiay. I felt that the combination of low playing time and games lost to injury made any Frank Ntilikina analysis a bit unfair, and I added Dennis Smith’s Mavericks games to represent his season as a whole.
Game score tries to generate one holistic number for a player’s total impact by combining a variety of stats. It provides a useful framework for charting performance over time. By aggregating these scores over a monthly basis, we can quickly see which young player inspired the most hope.
Let’s graph these out over time
A season of drama and misery hides within these peaks and valleys. In October, Noah Vonleh led the young cohort in average game score and inspired some Giannis-stopper takes. In November, we fell in love with the slithery scoring of Iso-Zo, Allonzo Trier, and marveled at the front office for snagging such a productive player as an undrafted rookie.
Emmanuel Mudiay took the reins in December and January. Mudiay’s body of work at the end of 2018 apparently made such an impact across the league that David Fizdale benched him in the end of the season, convinced he’d locked down a new contract.
That big, bright, rising orange line? That’s Mitchell Robinson announcing his presence to the world. Robinson enjoyed increased playing time after the trade deadline, and the man absolutely ran away with the title. He went from springy but foul-prone novice to a genuine candidate for All-Rookie first team.
Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith failed to jump to the top of the list at any point in the season. Unfortunately, both players struggled to find consistency in a difficult year, combining tantalizing promise and woeful inefficiency.
But wait, who snuck in at the end of the year?
Please refer to my earlier hot take, as the Most Improved Player (April only) could easily go to Super Mario Hezonja. After a series of injuries to an already thin backcourt left the Knicks strapped, Hezonja took over as the starting point guard and quickly showcased every tantalizing bit of potential that inspired Orlando to draft him in the top five.
I am not joking when I remind you that in an NBA season, and not in an NBA 2K19 simulation with the sliders up, Mario dropped a triple-double on the playoff-bound Orlando Magic.
In the span of three games, Mario did just enough to maybe talk the fanbase into a second one-year flier. His streak joins his “dunk” over Giannis and game-sealing block on LeBron to cap one of the most implausible, incoherent seasons in Knicks history.
We all hope that this tank is behind us. We hope that in October brings arguments over buying the Zion, Durant, or Kyrie jersey. Yet, even in this abysmal 17-65 season of misery, we found different beacons of hopes. In each month, a new young prospect shouldered all rebuilding aspirations.