At his press conference in early August, Brandon Knight wanted to clear something up.
“I’m definitely a point guard,” Knight said. “There’s no question in my mind.”
Knight, the centerpiece of the Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade, believes he is a point guard who is capable of playing off the ball — not the other way around. At Media Day, however, his defense of being a point guard revolved more around his peers than his own play.
“If you look around the league,” Knight said, “most of the point guards — quote-unquote point guards — on NBA teams are scorers. At this day and age, to be a point guard in this game, you have to be able to score the basketball. There are few point guards who dominate the game solely by passing the ball.”
He’s right. The air quotes are appropriate, too. “True” point guards (perhaps better described as ”traditional” or “pass-first” point guards) are few and far between in the current NBA landscape. The new point guard model is embodied by the likes of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. With increased athleticism and scoring ability, the position’s priorities are shifting from distributing and spot-up shooting to playmaking and scoring.
But here’s the problem: Knight, at least to this point in his young career, isn’t a quality score-first point guard. If you’re not an effective score-first point guard, you better be an effective pass-first one — and vice-versa. Right now, Knight is neither.
“If we were to look at stats, per se, most of the quote-unquote true point guards in the league shoot more than I shoot in the game anyway,” Knight said. “If you look at the amount of shots per game, most of them average more shot attempts than I do.”
Again, he’s not wrong, but Knight still took the 14th most field goal attempts per game (11.7) out of all qualified point guards (70+ games or 1,400+ points). The point guards who shot more are as follows: Jennings, Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Deron Williams, Ty Lawson, Greivis Vasquez, Chris Paul, Jeff Teague, Goran Dragic and Mike Conley. With a couple of exceptions, those players should be taking a lot of shots. Knight? Perhaps not so much.
Out of the 70 qualified guards (point guards and shooting guards) last season, Knight ranked …
- 35th in assist percentage (21.3 percent)
- Jennings: 19th (29.1 percent)
- 60th in turnover percentage (17.3 percent)
- Jennings: 28th (12.9 percent)
- 54th in true shooting percentage (51.1 percent)
- Jennings: 56th (51.0 percent)
- 55th in PER (12.0)
- Jennings 26th (16.1)
Knight also posted the 13th-highest usage percentage among qualified point guards. So, in essence, he’s a high-volume shooter who doesn’t score — or pass — efficiently. Sound familiar?
The most alarming statistics come from his pick-and-roll game. According to Synergy Sports, pick and rolls accounted for 27.4 percent of all possessions in which Knight was involved (highest of any play). As a ball handler, he committed turnovers on 20.6 percent, or one-fifth, of pick-and-roll opportunities (Jennings turned it over on just 14.5 percent). When Knight managed to keep the ball, the results weren’t much better. His .69 points per possession on pick and rolls, in which he shot 36.4 percent, ranked 133 in the NBA.
Transition offense proved to be just as frustrating for Knight. His .94 points per possession in transition opportunities ranked 276th in the NBA (Jennings ranked 200th). Knight, a respectable three-point shooter, was a bit more effective in spot-up opportunities, converting .99 points per possession (153rd in the NBA).
Does all of this mean Knight is a better fit at shooting guard than point guard? Not really. Knight shifted over to shooting guard at times toward the end of last season, following the Pistons’ acquisition of Jose Calderon, but his splits by position are quite a bit more favorable at point guard, according to 82games:
Like his predecessor, Knight may be better suited coming off the bench in the NBA as a spark plug combo guard. Even by “pure” point guard standards, Jennings is better — at least on the offensive end. Defensively, and on effort alone, Knight should be a vast improvement from the undersized guards of last year. Knight, who is listed at 6-3, 189, was noticeably bulked up at Media Day and said he added a “good amount” of weight over the summer.
Knight is also regarded as an intelligent and hard-working player. He is equally confident in his intangible qualities, including what he refers to as “instinctive” leadership.
“I don’t have a problem being vocal,” Knight said, “but I’m also a guy who can lead by example.”
At 21, Knight, the eighth overall pick in 2011, is still plenty young enough to make a significant jump. He also admits there is still work to be done — a refreshing contrast to Jennings, who was convinced he played at an All-Star level the past two seasons.
“I think I’m a pretty decent defender,” Knight said. “I think I can shoot the basketball pretty well. But like I said, I know I can improve as an offensive player all around.”
For what it’s worth, Knight has head coach Larry Drew, who helped develop Jeff Teague in Atlanta, in his corner. At Media Day, Drew reiterated that Knight is a point guard, noting that he always viewed Knight as such when Atlanta faced Detroit the past two seasons. However, it sounds like Drew will experiment with moving Knight off the ball, too.
“Coach Drew has already said he’s going to have me off the ball a little bit – not just solely on the ball, because you don’t want to be too predictable,” Knight said.
But from general manger John Hammond to Drew to the player himself, the vibe is consistent: Knight will be the starting point guard heading into this season — and for the foreseeable future.
When the Bucks were ready to deal Jennings, they clearly felt the need fill his shoes with a comparable player. Maybe it was to convince their fans to move on, maybe it was to assure themselves it was the right step, or maybe it was simply to fill a subsequent need. Regardless, Knight will feel the pressure, both internally and externally, to excel at point guard.
At least it appears he is willing to embrace the challenge.