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In a year of misery, which Knicks players inspired hope, and when?

Who did we irrationally love as the season dragged on

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, but instead of a decade of intricate plotting and quality MCU films, we just had 20 Justice Leagues.

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. Hell, I’m no one to talk, as my coworkers still remind of this fuego 2018 take, my personal Flat Earth moment:

It’s in that spirit that I wanted to rework some of my prior analysis for the Trae Young resurgence piece and try and capture those fleeting moments in real-time, finding the apple of the fanbases’ eye at each point in the season. 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: 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.

As a reminder, game score essentially tries to generate one holistic number for a player’s total impact by combining and weighting a variety of stats. It provides a useful framework for charting performance over time, and by aggregating these scores over a monthly basis, we can quickly see which young player inspired the most hope in the franchise.

Let’s graph these out over time

A season of drama and misery hides within these peaks and valleys. In October, Noah Vonleh looked like the steal of the century, leading the young cohort in average game score and inspiring 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, reminding the world that there’s a time and place for meandering drives under the rim that end with ten pivots and pump fakes. 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 and potentially the most valuable rookie on the team.

You’ll notice that Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith failed to jump to the top of the list at any point in the season. 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 what has to be one of the most implausible, incoherent seasons in Knicks history.

We all hope that this tank is behind us, and that in October we’ll be arguing if we should get the Zion, Durant, or Kyrie jersey first. But in this abysmal 17-65 season of misery, we found different beacons of hopes in each month, pinning rebuilding aspirations on these young prospects.