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The New York Knicks made the 2021 NBA Playoffs and looked poised to have finally turned the page on decades of inconsistent play and disappointing results.
Then the 2021-2022 season rolled around, and fans were quickly reminded that, as with most things Knicks-related since 1999, their brief success was nothing but a mirage in the dessert of hopelessness.
Not only did the Knicks fail to repeat to make the postseason, their star player Julius Randle regressed dramatically in performance, and their young players made only modest improvements.
They’re now armed with the 11th first-round selection in this year’s NBA Draft, which to many may seem like an uninspiring position to select from. However, it presents the Knicks with a chance to pick their own future direction.
Chaos can lead to players slipping
This year’s draft is going to be unpredictable. No one truly has an idea of the direction the Orlando Magic, owners of the top pick, will go in. The Oklahoma City Thunder and general manager Sam Presti usually whistles to their tune, meaning the second overall selection would be a complete surprise, allowing talent to slip.
While the Knicks may not be able to get Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith Jr, any unexpected pick will push down the entire remaining draft board, allowing the Knicks and the teams before them to potentially have access to names they didn’t expect to have.
One such name could be Bennedict Mathurin. The 6’6 guard/wing from Arizona is a fluid offensive player who can create shots for himself on the perimeter, and uses his 6’9 wingspan to finish at the basket over larger players. He was one of the more polished scorers in college basketball this season, averaging 17.7 points, and having high rates from both the outside (6.1 attempts), and the free throw line (4.8).
At 19, Mathurin already has a lot of experience to his name, having attended the NBA Academy Latin America division in Mexico before making his way to Arizona. As such, he’s already familiar with the NBA ecosystem, something head coach Tom Thibodeau will surely appreciate.
Selecting 11th, fans and pundits don’t usually expect slam dunk successes. There’s significantly less scrutiny in getting a pick wrong at that spot, than there is in the Top 3. That doesn’t mean the pick is any less important, but it does mean the Knicks can make a pick without feeling the additional burden of having to walk away with something great. They’ll still try to just that, but they can afford to gamble on a player who is a few years away from being able to contribute.
That could be Jalen Duren, the 6’11 big man out of Memphis who at 18 looks like one of the most physically ready center prospects in years. Duren tips the scale at 250 pounds, sports a 7’5 wingspan, and has great athletic timing defensively, all of which suggests he’ll have a solid baseline in the NBA as a player when he makes the transition.
Duren averaged 12.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just 25.3 minutes per game this season, all while hitting 59.7% from the field and 62.5% from the line, which isn’t a bad starting point for a center. Duren’s ceiling is substantial, and the Knicks could decide to take a slow-burn approach with him, and primarily play him with R.J. Barrett, Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickly as a way to get him accustomed to the team of the future.
While the Knicks may appear to be in win-now mode, they quite simply don’t have the necessary pieces to compete for a championship, and should thus keep dedicating time to building a long-term core that stands a better chance at getting there.
The 11th pick may not look it, but it’s a crucial part of that core, whether they go for long-term upside, or immediate help via more a polished rookie. The flexibility of picking in that area could be good news for the Knicks.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.