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. 

It could be a big ... Knight ... for Brandon. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brandon Knight drives left. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 10.27.39 PM

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.

cavs1

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.

cavs2

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.

Husband. Father. Blogger. Retired mathlete. I covered Larry Sanders' "Three Thumbs Up"…

23 Comments

  1. Sorry gang. Point guard skills don’t “magically” appear if the player just tries hard enough. By the time you’re in the pros and in your 3rd year you either have it or you don’t. Can the Bucks FINALLY stop trying to make players into something they are not? Remember when Mo Williams was suddenly going to become a point guard? Or Ersan a true starting power forward? Or Bogut a #1 scoring option? Or Redd a franchise player?

    Stop the madness!!!

    • Michael Redd had seven years wherein he was among the best two or three wings in the game. Injuries derailed a HOF career. As is, his lifetime numbers are very, very good and he ranks among the top 300 players of all time.

      That’s a franchise player.

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  3. I think he’s best suited as a combo guard coming off of the bench unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be any true point guards in the top 5 in this upcoming draft except maybe Exum..but I don’t know if he’s a pure point guard either? Not a great crop of PG’s in upcoming Free Agency except Kyle Lowry. I imagine Knight will be the Bucks PG for this season and all of next season because of the lack of options for Milwaukee at PG.

    • Why does he have to come off the bench?

      His numbers indicate he’s among the top 15-20 guards– at either spot– in the league.

      Are the Bucks so suddenly flush with talent that they can pull a Manu with Knight?

      Why limit your best players minutes?

  4. The good news is with the extra picks, theres mounds of trade possiblities, IF the right partner comes along, knight, along with alot of the deadwood, and a 2nd rounder could be traded for other deadwood and a more pass-first, polished point guard. I know there are a lot of point guards right now in the fashion of scoring first but a pass first, high defense, polished point guard combined with the current young talent (and a high scoring option in the draft) could make a HUGE difference for this bucks team. Be on the lookout for an under the radar move that trades knight away for a point guard in this fashion. It may not even be the centerpiece of the deal initially, but both being throw-ins.

    We need more jason kidd type point guards in the NBA. There are a few out there, but the defense orientated, pass-first guards are not in “NBA fashion” at the moment. I see this as a great opportunity, to get an excellent, polished, point guard on the cheap that may not be a scorer, but wont be needed to be a scorer either.

      • I’m trying to think of one, other than Rubio, but I’m not sure he’d be the answer either. Knight is our best scorer right now, Ersan isn’t hitting, Middleton had been slumping, who else can he pass to. I do admit some of Knight’s passes are face-palmers but I do not believe finding a “true” PG is the biggest of the Bucks worries.

  5. This appears to be an excellent piece of observational analysis from KL, and a great service to fans like me. As I’ve written lately (and thanks, Jeremy, for the nice note in response) one can be a great player in the NBA without having the natural abilities and overall knack for the point position. If it is indeed the case that Brandon is not a good fit for that role, my hunch is that he does have the talent, the intelligence, and the attitude to be a key contributor to the Bucks in some other capacity — perhaps even as a star. I’m really reluctant to part with him.
    (I’m even starting to wonder if the point is the best place for all-stars Kyrie Irving and John Wall, as their teams seem to be more or less underachieving. Along the lines of what matt is saying above, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the point position in the NBA.)
    As I understand it, a very good violinist could practice ten hours a day without becoming an elite performer if he doesn’t have the gift of a certain inborn genius for that instrument. I think that being a top point guard requires a certain artistry — innate aptitudes of vision and creativity, demeanor and decisiveness — a deft touch both literally and figuratively, which cannot be taught, only further developed (though this still allows for individual variations and styles in different players). In keeping with what rowe499 has written above, I hope that the Bucks do a good job of discerning the best possibilities for Brandon, and put him in the right situations for success, for his good and the good of the team.

  6. I find it odd that Bucks’ fans are hating on one of only three bright spots on the entire team. John Henson looks like a decent option as a power forward going forward. He has some serious limitations, though– he needs to get stronger, he needs to pass better, and he needs to be able to dribble. Giannis looks like a real deal possible future All-Star as a small forward, but he, too, has his limitations– he’s turnover prone, he doesn’t rebound well at all for as tall as he is, and he needs to learn both the speed and the intricacies of the game. Both of these guys also need to play more minutes without getting winded.

    Brandon Knight is the other bright spot on this team. He rebounds very well for a guard. Considering the Milwaukee system, as it is now, relies on two ball-handlers (whether that be Ridnour or Wolters as his backcourt partner), his 4.7 APG is actually more than solid. He’s in the top half of the league’s point guards in scoring and rebounding and top twenty in assists and blocks. He also ranks 17th among starting PG in TO/G, clumped within two-tenths one way or another of 14 starters including the likes of Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Isiah Thomas, Ricky Rubio, Kemba Walker, and Ty Lawson. Overall, Knight ranks 18th in PG PER.

    Is that an All-Star? Of course not. However, when compared to the other Buck starters, he’s been the best by a wide margin. Compare Wolters to Knight. Or Ridnour. Neither is in his league. Giannis, as much potential as he has, ranks at the bottom of his contemporaries. So does Ilyasova. If not for Jared Dudley, Butler would be dead last among SF starters. Sanders is in the same boat– well below everyone but Kendrick Perkins.

    Knight is pretty much Jeff Teague.

    Sanders is Samuel Dalembert.
    Giannis is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
    Wolters is Aaron Brooks.
    Ilyasova is Ryan Kelly.
    Butler is Jae Crowder.

    Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. Knight has been much, much better than almost anyone predicted. He’s more than serviceable as a starting point guard. If you don’t like him in that role, fine. His ranks as a shooting guard are even higher (15th in PER this season).

    To look at it another way, the man he replaced– Brandon Jennings– is having pretty much the same season overall. He’s also being paid more than three times as much. Why the author of this piece and others cannot seem to see that is beyond me. He’s been the best player on a bad, bad team. A team with a starting lineup in which everyone else is not only below average, but in the bottom five of their respective positions.

    Think about that for a minute.

    The Bucks have one starter that grades out as above average.

    And that’s the guy who gets this hatchet piece?

    Unfair, Dude. Unfair.

    • He doesn’t have to come off the bench but why should they start him and give him 30+ minutes a night at a position that he clearly isn’t suited for? His numbers might be in the top 15-20 but you’ve seen him play, he is often out of control and is a below average pick and roll PG why would you want the guy who initiates your offense to be careless with the ball and make questionable decisions?

      I’m not saying he doesn’t have value and there is nothing wrong with being a 6th man but I don’t think he is suited to be a starting point guard in the NBA.

      • The numbers say he is.

        You may think he’s “out of control” and “careless with the ball,” but, when compared to other PGs, he decidedly average in both respects.

        Trust the numbers, not your eyes.

        And I’d absolutely use Knight as my PG:

        1) He’s an above average player capable of double figures in rebounds, assists, and points
        2) He’s 22 and likely to improve
        3) He’s cheap, allowing better players at other positions
        4) He’s versatile, capable of moving to SG as needed
        5) He’s has solid to above average range, allowing a team to spread the floor for weaker (but quick) post players.

        In short, Brandon Knight is not the problem with this team. Were the Bucks to have more like him, they’d be a far better team.

        • When you say “Trust the numbers not your eyes” I don’t really understand the point you are trying to get across because in addition to showing on the court that he’s a subpar ballhandler/passer as a PG the numbers aren’t anything special either…Go to 82games and Synergy to check them out. Also this particular article has alot of evidence that supports the fact that Knight is not a great floor general.

          • It’s anecdotal evidence and therefore untrustworthy.

            In short, one play does not an All-Star (or scrub) make.

            The numbers at 82games and Synergy agree with the assertion that Knight is a deserving starting guard in the NBA. He’s above average in some respects, below in others, but, overall, grades out as an above average player, regardless of whether he’s a point or shooting guard.

            As I’ve said since the Bucks traded for him, Knight is not an All-Star; however, he has some real talent and is a great, low-cost option for the rebuilding Bucks because he’s one of three guys on the team who grade out as above average NBA players and, as a 22-year-old, he has ceiling he hasn’t reached yet.

          • A few thoughts, in no particular order:

            ** The red in the chart is not anecdotal evidence. When I re-watched in rapid-fire succession every turnover and every assist Knight recorded this season, the conclusions I drew weren’t based on anecdotal evidence.

            ** I said, “Brandon Knight has been the Bucks’ best weapon on offense” and that he’s getting a lot of attention on D because opponents “know that the Bucks aren’t flush with playmakers and have shifted accordingly.” He’s not terrible; he’s not All-NBA. But he is interesting.

            ** The Bucks have the 30th best offense in the NBA when measured by points per 100 possessions.

            ** I have comments here saying he’ll never be a point guard and others saying he’s doing a great job, so I hope that’s a sign the piece landed in a fair equilibrium point

    • whoops that other post was supposed to go in my post above…but I’m curious as to how you think any of those players are similar in playing style? Aside from maybe Ryan Kelly/Ersan none of those other guys you listed play like their counterpart.

      • I’m compared through Hollinger’s PER numbers, which ignore “style” in favor of production. Or, in the case of most Milwaukee players, lack thereof.

  7. I don’t think there’s much hating on Brandon Knight on this site; rather, I’d guess that most of us — whether the Bucksketball staff or the fans — are pretty excited about the guy. I think he could be an all-star. The question is his role with the Bucks, for his good and the good of the team.

    • Disagree.

      It seems as if many posters (and every author) love them some Wolters.

      He’s received the highest grades of any Buck player. This despite his pedestrian PER (below league average, fwiw), and the fact that he’s actually older than Knight.

      When you add all the grades together, Knight ranks fourth on the team, behind Henson, Giannis, and Wolters. Sanders is really close to Knight as well.

      That’s just not reality.

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