Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Knicks may not know who their starting point guard is yet, but it's seems like they have shooting guard figured out.
Rookie R.J. Barrett locked that position up with a strong performance in the Knicks' preseason finale on Friday. He had 19 points (9-for-12 shooting), six rebounds and three assists in a loss to New Orleans.
"He's a very good player," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Friday night. "…. Good scorer. He's obviously worked on his body and gotten stronger. I think that's gonna help. He's a playmaker. He's a kid that's learning the game and I think you can see he's going to be a really really good player in this league for a lot of years."
Barrett has rebounded well and looked comfortable as a playmaker for most of the preseason. He's used his strength (215 pounds) to hold off defenders on drives. In four preseason games, he averaged 15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. Barrett shot 46 percent from the floor.
"He doesn't look like a rookie," David Fizdale said. "He's a tough kid. He really knows how to play and he's fearless."
Barrett, the No. 3 overall pick, will undoubtedly deal with ups and downs as a rookie. But the idea that he's looked this comfortable - and productive - in the preseason is, at the very least, a positive development for New York.
"I feel confident out there. I feel like I deserve to be here," Barrett said after the New Orleans game. "I'm not going to back down at all."
Coming off of a 17-win season - and five straight years of at least 50 losses - it seems like the Knicks' best path to contention is to start by building a strong young core. Barrett's development, obviously, will be a key in that endeavor.
PG up in the air
None of the Knicks took a clear lead in the point guard battle on Friday night. Dennis Smith Jr. had nine points, nine rebounds, six assists and three turnovers in 31 minutes. He missed 10 of his 12 shots.
Elfrid Payton had six points, five assists and four turnovers in 17 minutes. Frank Ntilikina did not play Friday because Fizdale wanted more time to analyze Payton and Smith Jr. Ntilikina had already played three preseason games.
After the game, Fizdale credited Smith Jr. for making several strong defensive plays in the second half. The coach has chalked up some of Smith Jr's shooting issues to his time away (he missed roughly 10 days with a back injury).
"I think more than anything, it's probably on his finishes around the rim," the coach said. "I thought he stayed aggressive. He ended up making some plays down the stretch there. He really competed defensively, which is what I'm asking all of those guys to do. But there's definitely some rust there."
Here's how Fizdale analyzed Ntilikina's play in preseason: "He stayed aggressive, he attacked, he didn't shy away from shots. I was really happy with that Obviously his defense was tough and consistent. He did a great job of pitching the ball ahead as well. Especially last game, he had a bunch of times where he got our break going. And again I'm just going to continue to harp to him, stay in attack mode."
The competition for the starting spot is likely down to Payton and Smith Jr. Fizdale said he'd like every player in his lineup to be a threat to score. Ntilikina has played with more aggression on the offensive end, but it's a stretch to call him a consistent threat to score at this point.
The third-year guard averaged five points on 28 percent shooting in 20 minutes per game in the preseason. As Fizdale has noted, Ntilikina defended at a high level. But it would be surprising if he gets the nod to start on Wednesday against San Antonio.
Fizdale didn't want to discuss the point guard battle after Friday's game.
"I don't want to think about it. I'll tell you guys the next time I see you," he said. "No, they competed. They really competed hard. They're making it tough on me. They're making a tough decision for me."
The coach said that all three guards could be in the regular-season rotation. Though at least one of them would be playing off the ball in this scenario.