Examining Knicks young core's biggest improvements early on in 2021-22 NBA season

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Immanuel Quickley/RJ Barrett
Immanuel Quickley/RJ Barrett

Following last year’s fourth-seed finish and this season’s 4-1 start, it’s easy to forget the Knicks are early into a rebuild. Though the roster is at the league average in terms of age, their best player is just entering his prime, and four players 23-and-under are getting significant rotation minutes.

While veteran upgrades help secure wins in the short-term, it’s how these young pieces develop that will shape the Knicks’ long-term future. Here’s a look at one improvement we’ve noticed from each of these prospects five games into the season.

Julius Randle: Interior Passing

Though it’s hard to consider Randle a prospect, he’s proven himself an All-NBA talent who doesn’t slouch on year-over-year development. The league’s brightest stars are ones who continually add to their game into their primes instead of becoming stagnant and plateau.

Randle is doing just that with his interior passing. Last season, Randle displayed a newfound elite passing game that mostly favored weak-side shooters.

In 2022, Randle snuck in a number of impressive wrap-around and mid-air dump-off passes to Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson. He didn’t appear as comfortable or capable pulling off these crafty dimes last year. Only 8.8 percent of his assists were to another big in 2021, compared to 14.3 percent this season.

There could be some outside factors in play such as Robinson’s relative health and defenses crowding more threatening perimeter scorers. Still, seeing Randle expand on his passing game is encouraging.

RJ Barrett: Defense

As soon as the Knicks replaced Reggie Bullock with Evan Fournier, it was clear what the next step in Barrett’s development had to be: defense. He’s taken on the role of lead perimeter stopper with confidence, noting he wants to make an All-Defensive Team, and the early results are promising.

Barrett was never bad defensively, but he’s made big strides toward being the elite stopper he can become. After locking up Jayson Tatum in the home opener, RJ gave Zach LaVine and eventually DeMar DeRozan fits in Thursday’s win. Both featured Barrett shutting down game-winning shot attempts.

It’s hard to point out one specific leap as Barrett has improved his entire defensive arsenal. He fights well over screens, doesn’t jump out of position and his IQ is higher as well. On one weakside closeout against Chicago, he feinted toward DeRozan on the wing before fully committing to LaVine in the corner, who tried to take RJ one-on-one but traveled.

New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) controls the ball against Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden.
New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) controls the ball against Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Mitchell Robinson: Strength

Robinson has been flexing his bigger frame, both literally and figuratively, since training camp. In past seasons the big man could easily be described as gangly and got moved off his spot often.

Not so much nowadays. Though he’s still taking his falls and giving Knicks fans a heart attack every other night, he’s generally holding his ground much better. As a result, his defensive rebound and field goal percentages are at career highs out of the gates.

In matchups against Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic, two of the league’s most fearsome post-up threats, Robinson fared well for the most part. This will be a fun trend to watch unfold as the season continues.

Obi Toppin: Defense

We are eons away from rookie year Toppin. His minutes used to feel like playing Russian roulette with the scoring margin, but now he’s not only more confident offensively, but is a completely new defensive player.

There’s still a ways to go before Toppin is a plus defender, but he’s showing glimpses yet unseen to this point. Namely, a couple of impressive, almost inhumane blocks, one leaping over a Andre Drummond screen and another in a one-on-one isolation to block three-point shooters.

His activity is translating to the stat sheet as his block and steal rate have basically doubled. He’s looked more aware of where he’s supposed to be in the scheme and the head-shaking moments are mostly gone. For a prospect dinged for his lackluster defense, these are big positives.

Immanuel Quickley: Creation

Quickley’s shooting is off to a shaky start; luckily he’s found new ways to contribute to the offensive load without scoring. Immediately from Vegas Summer League, it was clear Quickley worked on his ability to create for others over the offseason, trying to become more of a well-rounded point guard.

Though he’s had few opportunities thus far and the statistics don’t bear it out yet, the improvements are evident. Many of Quickley’s hit ahead and half-court skip passes are leagues above what he was able to do last year. He’s passing more out of drives - 38.5 percent versus 33.4 percent last year - and forcing his shot less.

Keep an eye out for his playmaking once he’s able to get more pick-and-roll looks and pick up his shooting.