Break Up the (Summer League) Knicks
New York's kids look good.
Good morning! It feels like we haven’t even fully wrapped our heads around what happened in free agency yet (aaaaaaany day on those Brunson and Mitch contract details!), and already we’re back to watching live Knicks basketball. Summer League is always a little jarring in that sense. The good news is that the product has been about as good as we could have expected. We’ll get into that below, but first, for anyone who hasn’t yet gotten fully aboard…
The Knicks are in first place!
Even though it’s only Summer League, boy does it feel good to write that. Not only is New York one of three 2-0 teams, but they’re sporting a +22.5 scoring margin that leads Vegas. They kicked things off with a 101-88 win against the Warriors on Friday night, overcoming a 34-point performance from last year’s 14th overall pick Moses Moody while holding last year’s 7th pick Jonathan Kuminga to four points on 2-for-10 shooting. Then last night, the Knicks absolutely demolished the Bulls, shooting out to a 13-0 lead before eventually building a 65-26 advantage early in the third and cruising to a 101-69 victory.
As is always the case with Summer League, it’s wise not to overreact, even if New York does look like a well-oiled machine. Instead, let’s get into some of the notable players and what they have (or haven’t) been doing that can give us insight into what lies ahead for the big club.
📸 Play of the Weekend 📸
Featuring (spoiler alert) the top two Stars of the Weekend:
Not bad for the 25th and 58th pick in last year’s draft.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
Honorable Mention: Feron Hunt
Hunt, who is likely to occupy New York’s second two-way spot next season in addition to the newly signed Trevor Keels, had a mixed bag of a weekend. On Friday, he had several highlight plays, including a breakaway windmill and this athletic finish that required a mid-air adjustment:
Overall, Hunt put up 17 points and had a ridiculous seven steals against the Warriors, looking every bit the part of the rangy wing the Knicks could use (along with, of course, Cam Reddish). There are some rough edges to sort out and he still doesn’t shoot it from deep, going 0-2 from three over the two games. He converted only one shot last night, but did add another three steals to his Vegas-leading ledger.
Hunt will be a good test for the development chops of the Westchester staff, as I imagine that’s where he’ll be spending most of his time.
⭐️ Deuce McBride: The numbers have been solid: 14 points in each game, on 8 and 10 shots, respectively, with 13 total assists and the hounding defense that has become his calling card. The shot looks good (he’s 5-of-12 from deep) and his timing and placement on a few lobs to Sims has been exquisite. Watch his anticipation on this steal, reading the ball-handler well before the rock leaves his hand:
On the downside, we still haven’t seen much penetration, and as I’ll get into more below, McBride has arguably been more of an off guard than the man running the show.
⭐️⭐️ Jericho Sims: He gets the two-star designation here, only because Grimes has been such a revelation. But make no mistake about it: Jericho Sims has made the case that he’ll enter the season as the best third string center in the NBA.
I say “enter” because 82 games is a long time and a lot could happen over the course of the year. Mitchell Robinson has missed an average of 18 games since being drafted, so the odds are good that Sims will get a chance to show how he’s improved between year-one and year-two. If Summer League is any indication, it’s going to be quite a show.
There was a lot to like from Sims over these two games, not only on the offensive end but defensively as well (he positively erased Jonathan Kuminga at the rim on a couple of occasions Friday night, plus a bunch of subtler plays showing good technique and awareness). His leaping ability - as if the court was a trampoline in the spot he jumps from only - remains jaw-dropping. It is a weapon that is quite frankly unfair against this caliber of competition.
Going to have more on Sims later in the week, but today we’ll spend the bulk of our time on someone who has a better chance to make a significant impact for next season’s Knicks.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quentin Grimes: The ask for Grimes coming into this week was a tall one: dominate. Dominate in every sense of the word. Look the part of a guy who is far too good for these games. And in doing so, perhaps, give his team a jolt of confidence that he’s ready for an increased role in the fall.
So far, so good. So, so good.
Essentially playing point guard through two games, Quentin Grimes is showing the Knicks that they may not have needed to go out and spend $72 million on Evan Fournier.
The Fournier signing, you’ll remember, was a response to Reggie Bullock being completely neutralized in the playoffs against Atlanta. Bullock was a great catch-and-shoot threat who also provided exceptional wing defense, but they wanted Fournier, not only as a guy who could counter teams that ran him off the line, but as a pull-up threat who didn’t need to rely on anyone to set up his threes.
And in that sense, it worked…except the defensive drop off ate away at the identity of the team to the point that Fournier felt like a net neutral addition, at best. It’s why he’s well suited in a bench role, where he’ll have an easier time feasting on offense while his deficiencies at the other end won’t be as glaring.
But to make that move, the Knicks need an apt replacement. In Grimes, they might just have that and more.
For as impressive as Grimes has been from the field - he’s 14-of-26 since starting Friday night 1-for-9, and has 48 points thought two games - his passing is what has stood out the most.
After an eight-assist debut, he had four more dimes last night, almost none of the cheap variety. He’s bringing the action to the opponent in every way, whether it’s on dribble penetration or hitting the roller with a perfectly timed pass riffled at ear level to avoid the defense:
This is the player Ben Perkins talked about bringing out this summer - the kid who ran point before going to Kansas and eventually honing a 3 & D role with the Houston Cougars.
Whether Grimes was tagged with that label unfairly or not, there’s zero question he has more to offer. These two games have been a glimpse into that ceiling. At the same time, New York has the luxury of bringing him along slowly. For the regular Knicks, he won’t be asked to take on any creation responsibilities, regardless of whether he’s starting in between Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett or whether he’s aiding Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley with the backups.
His priority list still starts with being the best wing defender on the team, and he’s looked every bit that part in Vegas. After that, it’s knocking down shots from all areas of the court without hesitation. After a slow start, he’s checked that box as well:
The final piece - putting the ball on the floor and either taking it to the rack or making the right pass - is what’s been such an eye-opener. Even more than that though, Grimes just seems to have a knack for knowing where to be and when to get there, probably from his years running point in high school.
Take this play for instance…Grimes tries to direct the offense without the ball, but after the defense caves in on the ball-handler, he moves to the spot he knows will be safe for a pass out, and then wastes no time in getting it to the open man:
Grimes has been one of the best players in Vegas through one weekend, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the Knicks run him out there any more. Either way, one thing is for certain: Quentin Grimes is ready for more.
Next Up: The Knicks are back in action tomorrow against the Blazers at 11pm on ESPN2.
✍️ News & Notes 🗣
🏀 The Knicks officially signed Jericho Sims (3 years, $5.6 million) and Trevor Keels (standard two-way), but the big news came courtesy of Fred Katz, who reports that according to “multiple sources,” the Knicks won’t be doing a sign-and-trade with the Mavericks to acquire Jalen Brunson, and instead will sign him using cap space.
To open up that cap space, the Knicks officially waived Taj Gibson on Friday, and he quickly got scooped up by the Washington Wizards. It’s a move we knew was coming but stings nonetheless. His time as a Knick is over, so it is only approprate…
Long Live Taj
A little more than two and a half years ago, during a season that would rather be forgotten by most of those involved, I was lucky enough to cover the Knicks in person for Sports Illustrated.
It was the single most exhilarating experience of my life - getting to walk in through the press entrance, shoot the shit with whoever was on the court before a game, and of course, stepping foot into New York’s locker room. A Knicks fan’s dream if there ever was one. It was also incredibly intimidating.
The post-game scene in the locker room - in pre-COVID times at least - went like this: the reporters waited until they were given the go ahead, and upon entering, you’d bounce from one locker to the next to do the post-game interviews, with everyone huddled around the MSG cameras waiting to get in a question after Rebecca Harlow did her thing. In total, there would usually be three interviews, maybe two after a loss. So usually two. By the time those interviews were done, the locker room would largely be cleared out, with players having already showed, dressed and departed, ready to get as far away from that unpleasantness as possible. The one exception, almost always, was Taj Gibson.
I won’t say Taj was the only player to stick around after everyone else had left, because there would be the occasional odd straggler. But you know the feeling you get when someone doesn’t want to give you the time of day? Imagine that same sensation, except you’re me, quivering in your boots, afraid to even look in the direction of one of these guys for fear of pissing them off even further1.
Gibson was different though. Maybe it’s because unlike the rest of the roster, he had been there and done that, and because of that experience, the D.O.A. 2019-20 season didn’t impact him in the same way it did everyone else. Whatever it was, after every game I covered, Taj sat by his locker, usually long after everyone else had left, and dutifully spoke to any reporters who wanted to pick his brain.
And not just boilerplate, “can we please get this over with” responses. He gave genuinely thoughtful takes on what was going on, what was going wrong, and for me at least, what might be reasons for hope.
A lot of these stand out in my mind2, but the one that sticks the most is during our final in-person interaction. It came following New York’s last game before the All-Star break, a 114-96 home shellacking at the hands of a bad Wizards team. The Knicks had decided to start their respective vacations 12 minutes early, getting outscored 37-23 in the fourth. Never in NBA history had their been a team full of guys so ready to board their respective private jets and get away.
And yet, there was Taj, willing to give me a few minutes afterwards to talk about, of all things, culture. Could they possibly be building one here, even in the midst of nights like this? His answer:
“We’re building a culture. We're building a culture. We're trying to build a culture. We're trying to build strong habits, trying to challenge each other, trying to challenge these young guys on a daily basis. At times, we’re on the right track. At times, like any other young team, we have adversity. Especially with young teams, you have to get everybody out of their own thing, and everybody has to come together as one, everybody has to sacrifice in order for the team to be successful.
We have a lot of young guys. You're dealing with them going home and being coached, and you're dealing with them coming in the gym and being coached. Their mind kind of wanders, and it's tough, but every day you have to get on them, that’s why I’m on the bench, constantly yelling, constantly talking. And I go home sometimes without a voice.”
I followed up by telling Gibson he sounded like a future coach. “That’s my ultimate goal,” he said, echoing what everyone who has ever watched him surely thinks.
For a lot of Knicks fans, the dream would have been for him to make that transition now instead of going off to Washington to instill a different young team with winning habits. You have to admire the choice. I imagine it must have felt like ice-skating uphill for Gibson at times over the last three seasons, but never more so than in that first year. I imagine this year with the Wizards may be more of the same.
Of course, the real reason Taj isn’t hanging it up yet is because he can still play. As much as I’ll remember him for his thoughtful nature off the court, on the court, he’s still a handful. There have been more talented guys to wear the blue and orange, but few players in my lifetime as a Knicks fan have taken as little off the table as Taj, and there’s something to be said for being a metronome, especially for this franchise.
Never was that more apparent than in New York’s first round playoff defeat at the hands of the Hawks last year. Aside from Derrick Rose, he was the best Knick on the court. He was significantly steadier than his counterpart Nerlens Noel, who was a minus-34 in 92 minutes compared to minus-7 in 138 minutes for Gibson. Anytime he left the court, I distinctly remember thinking, “How are we going to survive these minutes without Taj?” That’s not something you usually ponder about a backup center on the verge of his 36th birthday, but there we were.
Now Gibson continues that journey elsewhere. He leaves the Knicks ranking 118th on the all-time games played list, between Max Zaslofsky and Danilo Gallinari, and 163rd on the scoring leaderboard, between Allonzo Trier and Trey Burke3. Those numbers don’t do justice to his impact over the last three years. Not close, in fact.
Here’s to a guy who made us all proud to be Knicks fans, probably because he was so proud to be a Knick.
The pride of Fort Greene, Long Live Taj.
And to be clear: I don’t blame a single one of those players for wanting to get the hell out of Dodge without dealing with the press. There was an air of misery emanating from the players all season long, probably starting when the front office brass went in before the year started and reportedly read them the riot act before they’d played a single game.
One of these: Taj’s response to the Tom Thibodeau rumors after they first surfaced. It’s not what he said about Thibs that stands out though - something along the lines of, “if you want to win, he’s your guy” - but how before he even responded to the rumors, he spoke extensively about how wonderful a job Mike Miller was doing with the team, and that he thought Miller deserved every opportunity to be back as coach. Now, Gibson will be reunited with Miller, who is an assistant coach in Washington.
Taj’s best stat? Among Knicks who have played at least 100 games for the franchise, his 57.7 field goal percentage ranks third behind Mitchell Robinson and Tyson Chandler.