Brandon Knight tries really hard to be a point guard
If I may, let me start this little exercise with a caveat: By and large, the players in the NBA are among the top 500 basketball players on Earth. Not only am I not among the top 500 basketball players on Earth, but I am not among the top 500 basketball writers nor am I among the top 500 people at doing what I do for my day job. NBA players possess immensely rare gifts refined by years of dedicated practice, so any critiques contained herein are relative to the pool of NBA players at large and with full acknowledgement of Brandon Knight’s many skills.
Brandon Knight has had a beautiful and horrible season all rolled into one.
Two minutes into the 2013-14 campaign, he pulled a hamstring muscle that caused him to miss almost all of the season’s first four weeks. Since then, the 6-foot-3 guard has gradually worked to acclimate himself to a team that has 11 new players including himself. Knight’s shooting percentage has climbed from 36.1% in November to 41.2% in December to 43.7% in January, and he leads the team in points, assists, turnovers and free throws made and attempted. When the Bucks’ 82 games have come to a merciful end, he will likely lead the team in total minutes too.
Simply put, Brandon Knight has been the Bucks’ best weapon on offense.
But Brandon Knight is right-hand dominant.
That fact in and of itself isn’t a huge revelation. Most people have a preferred hand for their daily activities. (Yes, even the ‘pure’ point guards!) But Knight isn’t a very good ballhandler with his left hand, nor is he terribly proficient at taking his dribble with him as he moves left.
It’s not just about dribbling. Knight also throws most of his passes with his right hand from the right-hand side of his body. Since he already trails most of his peers in ‘point guard vision’, this one-sidedness is a concern. All of these factors mitigate his ability to function as the sole point guard in an offense.
In fact, his game is styled a lot like Monta Ellis’: both work best with the ball in their hands, neither is the ‘purest’ of point guards, and if they can’t get to the rim by going right, they’ll use their speed and strength to try to get to the rim by going even faster and harder to the right.
Knight does mix things up on occasion. Even if he isn’t much of a threat to drive left to the rim from the top of the key, Knight will drive right and finish with a Euro-step move that takes him back left to the front of the rim. He shoots well when finishing that move, even if he has a tricky habit of sometimes fumbling the ball on the left as he gathers to shoot.
The shot chart below (from Vorped.com) shows that Knight has made a fine percentage of his shots at the rim from both sides.
But it’s not hard to see the predominant color on the chart and where it lies. It’s not a case of Knight suddenly catching vertigo on the side of the floor he prefers. Defenses know Knight’s tendencies. They also know that the Bucks aren’t flush with playmakers and have shifted accordingly.
A map of Knight’s turnovers would highlight the danger zones in almost exactly the same spots. Knight is driving right, and when he doesn’t get all the way to the rim, he doesn’t have enough space to shoot OR pass well, and he doesn’t do a good job of swinging the ball from right side of the offense back to the left.
For instance, here is a play from the second half of the recent game against the Cavaliers: The Bucks have already had the ball in a half-court set for a while here, but they have swung the ball around and restarted in what amounts to their usual initial set: Knight at the top, two players on each side of him, and a big man (in this case, Larry Sanders) ready to rush up from the right and set a pick.
But the Cavaliers take a smart approach here by sending both defenders to trap Knight, especially since the extra help is coming to take away Knight’s right hand. Brandon could do a couple of things here but both are risky.
One approach would be for him to try to split the defenders. That’s a dicey move though, and if he fails, it’s almost a guaranteed two points for the Cavs. Another approach would be to get Larry Sanders the ball — he’s open after all — but Sanders isn’t a prime offensive weapon with the ball on the move 25 feet from the hoop and Deng has crept down off of Ersan Ilyasova into the lane to offer help too.
Plus, Knight is so intent on surviving the trap without coughing up his dribble that he can’t get his back turned enough to see him. In the end, the Cavs poke away the ball and turn Milwaukee over.
(Somewhere it should be noted that this is about the last lineup on Earth an NBA coach would want breaking a trap. It’s Knight, a 19-year-old rookie and three big men who should almost never dribble: John Henson, Ilyasova and Sanders.)
Another option on these types of plays is for Knight to try to swing a pass over to his shooters. In these sets where the Bucks run pick-and-rolls on the right side, the best shooters — Ilyasova, Mayo, Middleton — are often waiting up top on the left. They’re usually open too, as their man slides down to help guard against the roll man.
But these passes are risky. In the NFL, it is often said that the throws that require the most arm strength are the ones where a quarterback rolls right and has to throw back to his left. Knight is trying the NBA equivalent of those passes to get the ball to his shooters. And when Knight tries to find these shooters on the other side after over-penetrating, there are a lot of opportunities for the ball to be stolen. Worse, they function as outlet passes for the opponent’s fast break.
Another issue hurting Knight is that the baseline is serving as an extra defender. If Knight drives right, draws extra attention or a full-blown trap, then he often keeps going right to the point of no return and the baseline gets in his way and forces him into a less-than-ideal situation.
Here is one proposed partial remedy: the Bucks could afford Knight a lot more opportunity if they would let him try to start his drives from the left-hand side. Take a look at the play below.
By bringing the action in from the left, the amount of court to which Knight can send off a pass from his right side increases dramatically. Also, he won’t have to bring the ball back across his body as much, or throw the ball in a direction that completely opposes his own movement. Here is another pass using the same principle:
By keeping the action to Knight’s right, he can more naturally zip out a quick pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo or another finisher in the instant that such an opportunity arises.
What are some good ways to get Knight over on the left? Here is the clip the precedes the lob to Giannis. Knight hands off to Middleton on the right and while the Bucks move the ball from right to left on the perimeter, Knight slides over.
To mix things up, the Bucks could also have the other player on the left-hand side set a pindown screen to catch Knight’s defender as Knight curls around in a counterclockwise direction starting from inside the paint. Another tactic would be to run the pick-and-roll with Knight going left, take a peek to see if there are options there and if not, immediately reset and run it again moving to the right.
But starting Knight from the left is so much better than starting him from the right. Here is a two-part sequence that shows Knight trying to initiate offense from the right side instead of from the top. It looks even shakier than what normally happens when he starts from the top. To start, Knight dribbles left and tries to pass from his left side, a combination that ends predictably badly with Knight putting the ball a foot behind Giannis.
But then they regroup and Knight starts from the right side anew. It eventually ends in a bucket for Sanders, but only after Knight runs out of room. Knight had to stop and keep his dribble alive while the hawking, trapping defenders tried to pilfer it from him.
He has 172 assists and 103 turnovers for the season and he’s currently directing the worst offense in the NBA and the worst offense in Milwaukee since 1976. He has the athleticism and finishing ability to keep up with the current point guards that are all the rage in the NBA. That’s what keeps people hoping that Knight will learn the intricacies of the point guard position and become Milwaukee’s point guard of the future. But without improvement, specifically in his ballhandling, he won’t be.
For what remains of this season, however, the Bucks would do well to put him in a situation where he can thrive. They know he can score. They know he can rebound well for a point guard. Now they need to know if he can run an offense while finding his shooters, limiting his turnovers and continuing to attack the rim.