Barring a major trade down the pipeline, the Knicks will enter the 2020-2021 NBA season with the following guard rotation: Elfrid Payton, Austin Rivers, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Immanuel Quickley, Jacob Evans and Theo Pinson.
According to SNY’s Ian Begley, members of the organization believe whoever proves to be the best of the bunch will start at point guard, meaning open competition in training camp and preseason will determine who New York’s lead facilitator will be.
Here is a rundown of the above names, where they are coming into this season, what they have to do to earn the job and how likely it’ll happen.
Payton is the early favorite, having returned in free agency at a discount after his team option was declined to pick up where he left off last year.
Payton played just 45 games due to injury, starting 36 of them, helping the Knicks to a 14-22 record in those games. He shot 48% from two-point range, and stuffed the stat sheet when he was aggressive, putting up 13 points, six rebounds, nine assists and two steals per 36 minutes.
Judging strictly on the evidence to this point, Payton has the strongest case thanks to his six years of experience as a starting point guard and reliable production last year. At 26 years old, fans shouldn’t expect any major strides in his game, which leaves him susceptible to being replaced by a Ntilkina or Smith Jr. finally breaking out. His glaring weakness remains his long-range shooting, which could end up getting him benched if the rest of the starting lineup just doesn’t have enough shooting. But barring either of those scenarios, the spot should be his to lose.
Rivers is really more of a shooting guard at this point, only spending 18% of his minutes at the one last year, according to Basketball Reference. However, he’s the most experienced of this pack of guards, has one of -- if not the best -- handles on the team, and is a better shooter than Payton, all of which puts his name into consideration.
Fans shouldn’t expect to see much of Rivers at the point, though. The Knicks only have a select amount of traditional wings in RJ Barrett, Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock, with Kevin Knox considered more of a tweener forward. This makes Rivers the most viable guard to slide into that rotation, which he likely will.
Ntilikina made tangible strides last year, putting up career highs in shooting percentages from all areas, assist rate and steal rate. He was generally more assertive, had big stretches and even games in which he spurred winning basketball out of the Knicks. The question is how much of this can he bring consistently, and is year four another of small improvements or his big leap forward?
The biggest boon to Ntilikina’s case is being the best defender of this group, which is sure to appeal to Tom Thibodeau’s preferred style of play. On the other hand, he’ll have to exhibit greater confidence and leadership, getting guys into sets and becoming a nightly threat in the pick-and-roll instead of just the games he happens to be hot. As with the younger names in this crowd, we won’t know if Ntilikina is the man for the job until the season arrives.
Dennis Smith Jr.
From the same Begley story as earlier: “Some in the organization continue to want Smith to get a fair shot to earn playing time in 2020-21. Some feel that New York's new coaching staff can help Smith, who was acquired via the Kristaps Porzingis trade.” Smith Jr. has also sought help outside of the organization, working with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to fix his jumper.
The Knicks are smart not to have thrown in the towel on Smith Jr., arguably the guy with the highest ceiling on this list. Unfortunately, his young career has gotten off to a rocky start, marred by injuries and an inconsistent role. He shot under 36% from two-point range last year, despite his athletic prowess. Smith Jr. has the tools to turn it around -- a keen eye for passing windows, the ability to get to the line at will -- but it’ll require sharpening up his game big time to ascend to the starting spot.
Quickley may be fresh out of Kentucky at the ripe age of 21, but he might walk into Tarrytown as the best shooter of this group. He shot 42.8% from deep on 4.8 attempts per game in his sophomore year, and New York desperately needs shooters in its lineup. He’ll even win points with Thibs as a pesky one-on-one defender.
Unfortunately, fans will have to suffice with whatever rotation minutes Quickley ends up getting. You rarely find rookies who can be NBA starters off the bat, especially with a late-first, projected second-round pick. If Quickley had fewer veterans ahead of him and more traditional point guard skills he’d be in the discussion, but as of right now, it’s highly unlikely he’d win over the job.
Jacob Evans, Theo Pinson and Jared Harper
These three are all specialists in their own right and will hopefully see some floor time, but they’re currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the starting point guard race. Evans is 23 and more of a two guard, and Harper has yet to play meaningful NBA minutes. Pinson has been an effective defender in spot minutes for the Nets in years past, giving him the edge of this subgroup.