By John Schmeelk
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As the Knicks wrap up their season on Wednesday, no matter where they end up in the draft lottery, their future is not completely bereft of hope. They have a group of younger players who could eventually become a part of a successful future.
The two main cogs for the Knicks’ future are Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez. The two could comprise the Knicks frontcourt for a decade. They are a product of Phil Jackson’s 2015 draft, a shining light in an otherwise dismal tenure as Knicks president.
Porzingis has the more raw talent of the two. Despite a narrative that Porzingis took a step backward in his sophomore season, the numbers say otherwise. He played four more minutes per game, scored four more points per game, shot 3 percent better from the field and 2.5 percent better from behind the arc. His rebounding, passing and blocking numbers remained about the same.
It isn’t to say his season was perfect. He is going to end up having missed 16 games due to injury when the season is all said and done, six more than last year. His numbers and consistency dropped precipitously after a midseason Achilles tendon injury. He fouled too much and was often exposed when put in one-on-one defensive situations against quicker opponents. All of that will improve with age.
Porzingis realizes what he needs to do to take the next step into superstardom.
“Getting stronger — that’s going to be a major key for me,’’ Porzingis told reporters Saturday. “And staying low offensively and defensively. It’s going to be leg strength. Driving to the hoop is going to be big for me. I’m going to work so hard this summer. It’s going to be a huge summer for me.”
Offensively, Porzingis needs to be able to create his own shot more consistently. He does fine utilizing his quickness and jump shot against bigger and slower defenders, but he struggles against smaller players because of a lack of a post-up game. There were many times this season when opponents would put 6-foot-7 small forwards on Porzingis and he couldn’t score on them.
When he posted them up, the smaller defenders would body him up, out-leverage him by getting into his lower body and eventually forcing him into an off-balance turnaround or fade-away jump shot. If Porzingis can get stronger and play lower, he’ll make guarding him with players 6 to 8 inches smaller than him a losing proposition. Once he figures out how to do that, he will be the matchup nightmare everyone projects him to be at 7-foot-3 with his athletic ability.
Added strength will also help Porzingis on the boards, where he still too easily gets pushed around and moved out of position by more physical players. It still might take a couple of years, but it’s a positive that Porzingis knows what he needs to do to get there.
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Meanwhile, Hernangomez is closing his season strong with 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals in Sunday’s loss to the Raptors. He has also talked about playing with and learning from one of his idols, Marc Gasol, in a European basketball tournament over the summer.
Hernangomez already has good post moves, great footwork and soft hands. He can isolate and score in the post, as well as finish around the basket in the pick-and-roll. He has a very polished offensive game inside of 10 feet. Hernangomez is also a willing and capable passer, even though he can sometimes be careless with the ball.
There are a few things Gasol should be in great position to teach Hernangomez that the Knicks center still needs to improve. It starts on the defensive end, where Hernangomez needs to work on his fundamentals along with his instincts and anticipation. Despite his size and willingness to be physical, he is not an intimidating rim defender.
Offensively, Gasol can teach him to extend the range on his jump shot. Hernangomez can hit from the mid-range, but he needs to get more consistent and gain more confidence outside of 15 feet. It could bring his offensive game to the next level.
It’s a shame the Knicks’ second most promising young player plays the position Porzingis will eventually transition to, but that’s a problem for another day. In the meantime, the Knicks should be concerned with both players continuing to advance their games to the point where the can become All-Stars one day.
They could be a big part of an eventual Knicks playoff team if they continue to improve.
The Knicks did what they had to do and lost to the Raptors on Sunday. Unfortunately for them, both the Kings and Timberwolves also lost their games, keeping them within a game and a half of the Knicks in the race more pinpong balls in the draft lottery. Right now, the Knicks control their own destiny in terms of finishing with the sixth-worst record. If they lose out, they can’t finish any worse than sixth.
The Knicks’ final game of the season, however, comes against the 76ers at home. Philadelphia is playing awful, and it would be surprising if the Knicks lost to them. If the New York beats Philly on Wednesday and the Wolves (vs. Thunder, at Rockets) and Kings (vs. Suns, at Clippers) both lose out, the Knicks could finish in a three-way tie for sixth. That would lower their chance at a top-three pick by more than 5 percent. It’s not disastrous, but it would be disappointing.
Even if the Knicks lose to the Sixers on Wednesday, their chance of catching the Magic or Philadelphia is slim. The Sixers would have to beat the Pacers at home on Monday night, and Orlando would have to beat both the Bulls and Pistons. That’s probably not going to happen.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk