“He is one of the hardest working players you will ever find. He is just tenacious in the gym. And I’m talking about every day of the year.”
That was a quote from Jim Paschke, the veteran Milwaukee Bucks TV play-by-play man. He said that about Brandon Knight on November 5th, while the Bucks were up 90-81 over the Philadelphia 76ers. As he waxed about Knight’s work in the gym, Knight took the ball to the basket.
I captured that quote because it’s a really good summation of Knight. You can look at him and tell he lives in the gym. He doesn’t have an ounce of unwanted fat on him. When he plays basketball, his quickness, speed, strength and leaping ability stand out, even among the amazing athletes of the NBA. You don’t turn into the man Brandon Knight is without hard work. You don’t work hard without accountability. Knight’s work ethic and accountability are reflected in what he’s able to do every night on basketball courts across the country.
When reflecting on Knight’s first four years against one of his chief rivals among young point guards in the Eastern Conference, Kyrie Irving, the growth and development in his game are apparent.
Irving has been playing at an All-Star level since his rookie year, when he finished the season with an average of 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and a PER of 21.4. Knight was a rookie that year too. He averaged 12.8 points alongside 3.8 assists and his PER was just 11.7.
After a below average start to his second season, Knight was shifted off the ball and then out of Detroit and onto Milwaukee. But Knight has kept getting better. His averages now? 17.9 points and 5.1 assists with an 18.3 PER. Irving (before last night’s 55 point game, hey great time to grab a guy’s stats, Jeremy): 21.3 points, 5.2 assists and a 20.3 PER.
Knight caught up. Truthfully, Irving is still better than Knight – see last night’s game for about all the evidence I’m sure you’ll need – but whose future would you be more willing to bet on? The guy who has gotten better every season or the one who came in as one player and basically remains the same player four years later? It’s rare a guy improves the way Knight has each season.
In this era of instant expectations and analysis that rules on a player’s future swiftly and aggressively, we don’t often see a player stick in a starting role for years while he learns how to do his job really well. There just aren’t many Mike Conleys – a guy who didn’t really blossom as a point guard until his fourth or fifth year as a starter and didn’t become an All-Star for another year or two after that.
It seems almost impossible that someone who works as hard as Brandon Knight isn’t going to get the most out of his abilities. But that doesn’t mean Knight is an All-Star yet. And while his hard work has paid off to an extent, sometimes it seems like the commitment he has to making plays sets him back a bit.
One thing that’s been gnawing at me all season has been his play late in games. As an observer, I can’t help but notice that it seems like he gets more aggressive late in games, but not with a lot of success. His attacks are that of a drunken man with a short temper who begins wildly throwing hands when he’s in a 2 AM argument. That’s a man who lacks strategy or balance. That’s a man who has a goal in mind – knock the other dude out – so he begins by throwing punches as hard and fast as possible, without considering that his drunk balance isn’t a good as his sober balance. That man ends up on the ground pretty quick.
Like that man, Knight often lacks patience and strategy late in games. He knows he can get to the basket, so he tries to make it happen, while often failing to account for how a defense may be treating drives into the paint differently in the fourth quarter than they did in the first quarter. It’s like he constantly drives to score, rather than to create an opportunity. On these drives he’s failed again and again. On what NBA.com/stats calls “Layup Shots” in the fourth quarter this season, Knight is 8-30, just 26.7% from the field.
For comparison’s sake, Irving is shooting 50% (10-20) on these shots. Another young Eastern Conference point guard, Jeff Teague, incredibly has only three “Layup Shot” attempts in the fourth quarter of games this season, and he’s missed all three. The majority of his shots have been a combination of “Floating Jump Shots” and “Driving Layup Shots”, both of which he’s shooting over 60% on.
Here are a few examples of Knight’s struggles:
Knight isn’t always out of control. Particularly on that drive against the Knicks, you can see how sometimes he gathers quite nicely, only to see the shot roll out. Those shots aren’t a problem. The drives against the Hornets or the Sixers or force into Spurs traffic or the high number of jump shot attempts that didn’t even make it into this layup video, it’s those that are Knight’s problem right now. He’s a still a little too “head down, get to the basket or get an open look for myself,” rather than, “how can I create the best possible attempt at a basket for my team?”
Look at the mastery of pace and control he displayed on his game winning layup against the Grizzlies earlier this season:
It’s totally cool when Knight drives into space or uses Milwaukee’s movement to his own advantage and gets a good look. Sometimes, that’s the Brandon Knight we see. And we’re likely seeing that good Brandon Knight a lot more than anyone in Detroit ever did. We’re also seeing him make more threes and turn the ball over less. He’s growing as a player, without question. But we’re not seeing the best of Brandon Knight often enough that his name should be discussed among the very best point guards in the league.
The best point guards are impacting their team in a positive way almost constantly. They’re finding teammates or finding the best possible shots for themselves. They understand space and pace in a way that few do. Knight isn’t there. He’s not crucial to his team’s success on both sides of the ball the way that the league’s best point guards are.
The net ratings (how a team performs with a player on the court on offense and defense added to how a team performs without that player on the court on offense and defense, per 100 possessions) of some of the league’s best point guards all dwarf Knight’s.
|Player||Offense Net Improvement||Defense Net Improvement||Net Rating|
(Note: All numbers via 82Games.com as of January 23)
I mean, Knight’s not even close to ANYONE on this list. It’s hard not to consider the gulf, even if all other things are equal. If he was clearly better as a scorer or passer than other potential All-Star point guards, it’d be easier to look past these numbers, but he isn’t. He’s had a pretty good year, but he isn’t the leading factor in Milwaukee’s resurgence this season and he isn’t quite on the same level as other potential All-Star point guards.
Will he get there? I’m less inclined to bet against it this year than I was a year ago. That alone makes me feel like, All-Star berth or not, this season has been a success for Brandon Knight.