Brandon Knight and the rest of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates noticed that coach Jason Kidd had been on the phone for a good while during the final practice before last February's trade deadline, leading to a playful guessing game that one of them would be on the move. To Knight, the banter was hilarious. In his mind there was no way the Bucks would break up a group that was in the playoff hunt 10 months after a 15-win season and had won eight of nine games entering the All-Star break despite losing Jabari Parker to a knee injury and Larry Saunders to an early retirement.
After practice, the locker room was filled with laughter until it wasn't. Until the jokes about trades became a reality for Knight and silence hijacked the fun. Knight was headed to the shower when a team staffer known for kidding around showed up to tell Knight he was wanted upstairs. The players guffawed once more but Knight became unsettled when O.J. Mayo, his best friend on the team, told him the request was sincere. A short time later, Knight realized the Bucks were telling him he had to start over for the second time in less than two years – in the midst of a borderline All-Star season – when Kidd showed up and shouted, "B-Knight!"
Knight looked around at his equally stunned and suddenly somber teammates, struggling to digest that their time together had come to an end.
“I wouldn’t say it hurt,” Knight told Yahoo Sports. “It was more about the brotherhood we had built. Being on the worst team in the league and being able to turn that around. And for them to try to step on that, based on whatever the case may be – money or whatever it is – what’s the point in that?”
As Knight made his lonely stroll up to general manager John Hammond's office to find out that he would be heading to the Phoenix Suns, a calm came over him. Knight learned about the harsh side of basketball when the Detroit Pistons traded him in the summer of 2013 as part of a deal for Brandon Jennings. A conscientious perfectionist, Knight was so disturbed by the move that he actually cold-called then-Pistons general manager Joe Dumars a week later to understand why he was traded.
This time around with Milwaukee, Knight understood: Basketball is a business and the faster he moved on, the better.
“Brandon didn’t sit around and pout about it. He knows he had a job to do,” Knight’s father, Efrem, said in a phone interview. “You can’t pout and stay down about something because you won’t ever get up.”
Knight might've finally found the NBA home he has long sought in Phoenix. Paired in a point guard tandem with fellow Kentucky alum Eric Bledsoe, Knight is off to the best start of his career. Knight matched his career high with 37 points last week in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers, recorded his first career triple double with 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds Monday in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and is one of four players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, 4.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting at least 38 percent from 3-point range.
The confidence Knight gained while maturing into a leader in Milwaukee is now starting to manifest in the fifth-year guard’s ability to finally get the upper hand in some embarrassing plays. Knight tossed Clippers forward Paul Pierce into a crossover-dribble blender, sending the future Hall of Famer sliding to the ground before knocking down a floater in the lane. He then had Lakers reserve Marcelo Huertas spinning in confusion before stepping back to bury a 3-pointer.
For much of the early part of his career, Knight was on the wrong end of those kinds of plays. In his second season with the Pistons, Knight made an ill-advised decision to jump with Clippers center DeAndre Jordan – “Wrong place, wrong time,” he explains now – and got flattened in a vicious alley-oop jam. Later, in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving made Knight collapse with a wicked crossover. Those plays used to not bother Knight and he even made jokes about them. But he started to get annoyed when fans or Internet trolls would ignore his own special plays and express sympathy for his mishaps.
“That’s what our society has drifted to – highlights. Who’s going to get crossed? Who is going to get dunked on? Truth of the matter is, everybody is going to get dunked on. Everybody is going to get crossed. Our league is too good,” Knight told Yahoo. “What gets me though is people try to define you by stuff like that. The positive will come to light, sooner or later. I’m blessed to do this. Highly favored. I don’t have any worries. People say they feel bad for me. Don’t feel for me. I’m living my life. I get paid to play basketball. I feel bad for a lot of y’all.”
Knight's belief in his abilities is rooted in the work he invests in his game. Adapting a work ethic he inherited from his father – who retired this year after 32 years working on the Florida East Coast Railway – Knight has always taken the approach that he had to put in his all in everything he does, or don't even try. That's how he was able to become a two-time national high school player of the year at the prestigious Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., all while getting straight A's from the time he was in second grade.
“I always told Brandon, you get out what you put in. You’ve got to put your best in it, so that you have no doubts. There’s no, ‘I could’ve done this. I could’ve done that,’” Efrem Knight said. “Leave nothing off the table, go all in. You’re going to be a dishwasher, be the best dishwasher. A garbage man? Be the best garbage man. Whatever it is.”
Knight graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA and even made an unofficial visit to Yale before electing to play for John Calipari at Kentucky. He left college after one year but was a sophomore academically because of his advanced-placement scores.
Efrem Knight, 55, worked the night shift but tried to make every one of his son's games and would always make sure his son finished his homework before heading to his job. Retirement had nothing to do with his son signing a five-year, $70 million contract last summer with the Suns.
“I would still be working if they didn’t change my hours,” Efrem Knight said.
Brandon Knight was so relentless in working out as a rookie in Detroit that the training staff would hide his shoes at the practice facility when he refused to heed suggestions to relax. After two relatively solid seasons – and plenty of hard work – with the Pistons, Knight was caught off-guard by being sent to Milwaukee. During their post-trade phone call, Dumars explained to Knight that he needed a point guard with slightly more experience to help the Pistons make what turned out to be a failed playoff run.
“I was like, ‘OK. I’m going into my third year, trade me for a guy who is two years older than me, I’m fine with that. Do I feel he’s better than me? I don’t feel anybody is better than me,” Knight told Yahoo Sports. “I think Joe did me a favor at the end of the day. Trades can hurt you, but they can help you as well.”
The move to Milwaukee helped Knight find himself after dealing with some dysfunction in Detroit, where the front office and the coaches fed him contrasting advice that left him confused. The Bucks finished with the league's worst record in his first season with the team, but that only pushed him to work harder that offseason.
Knight trained daily in Miami with Mayo, hoping to get a lucrative extension that never came. The Bucks offered a deal that would've paid just under $10 million annually, which Knight rejected, and that provided the motivation as Knight helped the franchise experience a breakthrough under Kidd. He still believes he should've made the All-Star team last season, considering the external expectations for the team to fail once the season began.
“Should’ve been in there,” Knight said. “Everybody that’s there deserves to be there. But my only thing was, if Atlanta got four [players on the team], Golden State should’ve got four. Golden State had the best record in the West. … I was thankful to be in the conversation, because it let me know I’m improving.”
Knight's disappointment with the All-Star snub would be trumped a week later when he was sent to Phoenix in a three-team deal involving Philadelphia. The centerpiece of the deal for Milwaukee was the 76ers’ Michael Carter-Williams, the 2014 rookie of the year who is still on his cheaper, rookie-scale deal and also happens to be two months older than Knight. Knight became the odd man out when the Bucks decided that their offseason plans were to retain one of their guards (which turned out to be Khris Middleton) and sign a big man (Greg Monroe). Milwaukee also had to preserve cap space for future extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker.
“He was having a great season, and he’s having a great season this year. But it wasn’t, ‘We gave up Brandon.’ We had a decision to make between our backcourt,” Kidd said. “It wasn’t Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry. We weren’t going to max out our backcourt. As an organization, we had a decision to make, and we made it.”
The Suns sacrificed a potentially high first-round pick, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee to get Knight. Knight was able to overcome the initial disappointment of leaving Milwaukee because the package served as a signal of how much the Suns valued him. Wanting to immerse himself into his new team, Knight's agent, Darren Matsubara, made an unusual request for the Suns to send as much video and play-call information as possible to Knight.
“Whenever you acquire a player in the draft or in a trade, you’re hesitant to give a player too much information. You don’t want to overload a player, because it’s a big adjustment just moving and all the things that go along with relocating,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about that with him, because he’s a unique guy that can handle a lot. You don’t need to simplify anything. You don’t need to dumb it down.’”
Knight was limited to just 11 games with the Suns last season because of an ankle injury and the team missed the playoffs. But Knight was able to use his time on the mend to connect with the Suns’ medical staff. He also had lunches and weight-room conversations with McDonough that encouraged him to make a long-term commitment without testing restricted free agency.
The Suns met with Knight once the recruiting period began. After committing to the Suns, Knight joined the organization as it made free-agent pitches to both Tyson Chandler and LaMarcus Aldridge. He then let Phoenix complete its free-agent deals with Chandler, Mirza Teletovic and Sonny Weems before signing his contract. “Probably the most unselfish thing somebody could do,” McDonough said of Knight. “He’s a guy we had our eye on a little while. We were really impressed with his commitment.”
On his third team in just five seasons, Knight said he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward Detroit or Milwaukee and that his drive comes from within, not a desire to impress others who might not think as highly of his game. “In the long run, I know the type of player I am, can be, or that I will be,” Knight said. “I’m not out to prove this guy wrong, or that guy wrong, because then, you get caught up in failure. I’m just focused on myself, making sure I’m not cheating myself. In turn, I know that I’ll prove the people wrong that doubt me.”