By John Schmeelk
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Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has stuck to his guns since the All-Star break, gluing Jarrett Jack to the bench and splitting point guard duties between Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Frank Ntilikina. Courtney Lee has also had his playing time cut, with Ntilikina taking some of his minutes off the ball. Ironically, even though Hornacek made these moves because the team’s playoffs hopes were dashed after Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending knee injury, the team is playing better with youth in the backcourt.
This is not a criticism of Jack, who did everything the Knicks could have asked from him and more. Jack was brought in on a nonguaranteed contract, won the starting job and played far better than anyone thought possible at 34 years of age and coming off of serious knee surgery. He was a stabilizing force and willingly helped youngsters such as Ntilikina. He was understandably limited physically, especially on the defensive end.
Despite the additions of Burke and Ntilikina, who was especially good on the defensive end, Jack continued to play upwards of 30 minutes per game. Hornacek stubbornly stuck with his veteran because he thought Jack playing big-time minutes gave him the best chance to win. What we have seen the last two games — a win over Orlando and a nine-point loss to the talented Celtics — shows that Hornacek was probably wrong.
Burke has looked a lot like the player that dominated the G-League for the better part of two months. His shooting, especially from midrange, will certainly regress (59 percent on shots between 10 feet and the 3-point line), but he has also shown the ability to get to the rim and find his teammates. He knows what he is doing in the pick-and-roll and runs the team well. His size limits his upside on defense, but his effort on that end has been a positive. It’s hard to find things Jack does better than he does.
Mudiay has shown the athletic tools that made him the seventh pick in the 2015 draft, but also the issues that have plagued him throughout the early part of his NBA career. He is shooting under 40 percent from the field and has missed all 13 3-point shots he has taken as a Knick. He can get to the rim but many times you wonder if he knows what a good shot is. His defense, despite a couple of flashes here and there, has been very porous.
Ntilikina also seems to have a renewed confidence. He hasn’t put up big numbers in the last two games, but he has shown more of a willingness to be aggressive on offense. He has gotten to the rim a few times and has created separation with defenders off the dribble, even though he hasn’t hit many of his jump shots.
It’s impossible to know whether it has more to do with him playing off the ball more or getting more minutes that have helped him find a better rhythm. It is still important for the Knicks to get him reps as a point guard. He made a great pass on a pick-and-roll to Michael Beasley for a dunk in the second quarter Sunday and needs to get more of those opportunities.
Ntilikina’s defense continues to impress as well. He is incredibly advanced for a 19-year-old with his instincts on help defense. He has even shown the ability to guard small forwards in the last couple of games. It is very rare to see these types of defensive skills from a teenager in his rookie season, even if many fans refuse to appreciate it.
You have to wonder if the Knicks’ front office has taken notice how much better the team seems to be playing with the young point guards getting more time. Could that play into president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry’s evaluation of Hornacek this offseason when they decide if the team needs a new coach to take the next step? If the trend continues, it would be hard not to.
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