2006 Summer League First Thoughts

Due to my trusty PVR, I’ve been able to catch a few of the summer games. My thoughts on some of the young Knicks:

Channing Frye
Frye looked solid until twisting his ankle. And I mean solid physically. Channing must have spent some of his offseason time hitting the weights, and it’s quite common for players to fill out in their first few seasons. The Knicks wanted Frye to work on his inside game, and his little jump hook seemed to be coming along. However the injury ended his summer league, so that’s something he’ll have to work on in practice.

Renaldo Balkman
The Knicks first selection in the draft comes as advertised. Balkman is an energy player who gives the Knicks a little bit of athleticism and length on both ends of the court. He’s leading the summer league squad in blocked shots with 4, which is something the Knicks sorely missed the last few seasons. Additionally Balkman is shooting a healthy 69% from the field and is the team’s second best rebounder. Renaldo’s attacks the rim with abandon, posterizing Cleveland’s Stephen Graham in the first game, and he moves well without the ball.

On the other hand Balkman doesn’t have any semblance of a jump shot, nor can he hit from the free throw line. Balkman has only hit half of his free throws this summer which isn’t surprising looking at his college numbers. Not being able to hit a solitary 15 foot shot doesn’t bode well for Renaldo being able to develop an outside game in the future. At one point Balkman received the ball alone from beyond the arc, and the announcers remarked that he “passed up the open three pointer.” Yeah, and I passed up the lead role in Pirates of the Caribbean II. The other thing I noticed about the 20th overall pick is that his dribble is inconsistent. The first time he touched the ball as a professional Balkman dribbled the ball too far from his body & had it quickly taken away. Other times he’s handled the rock with skill, so hopefully what we’re seeing is rookie jitters that will go away.

David Lee
If there is one positive outlook on Channing Frye’s injury, it’s that David Lee has been able to step up his game. Lee’s strength is his rebounding, but with Frye out Lee has become the Knicks leading scorer. While he still has lapses on the defensive end, Lee has become the Knicks most consistent player in Vegas. The Knicks forward is making a good case to get more minutes when the season starts.

Nate Robinson
For second year players, the summer league is a time for expanding repertoires. The Knicks coaching staff has asked Nate Robinson to become more of a point guard and get his teammates involved with the offense. Unfortunately the message is not getting through, as Robinson has taken 2.6 shots for every assist he’s dished out. All too often Nate has sped off to the hoop with a cadre of defenders abandoning their duties to prevent the diminutive guard from scoring. With a host of teammates open on plays like these Robinson still refuses to pass the ball. Additionally Nate has issues with his shot selection, as his summer 42% eFG would attest to. Mark Aguirre has regularly benched Nate, including removing him early in the first quarter of the Kings game after the guard forced up a shot.

Robinson’s fearlessness allows him to get to the hoop on offense, grab rebounds on both ends of the court, and talk smack during the course of the game. Nonetheless he needs to increase his court vision because he’s not going to continue to make a living if the entire league knows he can’t pass when driving to the rim.

Mardy Collins
The other Knick draftee receives an incomplete. He only averages 19 minutes a game, and really hasn’t done anything that stands out in my mind.

Franko Kastropil & Paul Miller
Kastropil is a 7-footer that can get up the court quickly, but he doesn’t do anything particularly well. He doesn’t have a great vertical jump which prevents him from blocking shots or finishing with authority. Kastropil doesn’t seem to have much of an offensive game. He has been a decent rebounder in summer league, but most 7 footers are.

Like Kostropil, Miller is firmly grounded, but unlike Kastropil, Miller doesn’t run the court well. Paul does have a nice little jump shot, but if the Knicks are going to play up-tempo this year he won’t fit in well with the major league team. If you could combine Miller’s shooting touch with Katropil’s size and mobility you’d have an NBA center on your hands.

These two players are exactly the reason that the Knicks should match the Spurs offer to Butler. Kastropil & Miller show how hard it is to find quality big men in this league. But more importantly if the Spurs, one of the best run organizations in sports, is offering your 21 year old center a 3 year deal for $7M, then that should tell you that you have a good young player on your hands.

Walker Russell, Jr.
I didn’t know anything about Walker Russell before the summer league started. One article mentions that Russell is a son of a friend of Isiah Thomas, which led me to believe that this was a charity case and that Russell shouldn’t be taken seriously ala Zech Marbury. However Russell has impressed me with his play and if his minutes are an indication, he has impressed coach Aguirre as well. Walker is 4th in the team in minutes played behind Lee, Robinson, and Balkman, and has given the Knicks a little bit of everything. While the Knicks have a full roster and aren’t looking for extra players, I’d be surprised if some NBA team doesn’t give him a 10 day contract during the season.

Draft Night Postscript

1. Renaldo Balkman, F, 6?6.5?, S. Carolina (Rd. 1, #20)

Analysis. When David Stern uttered, ?With the 20th selection of the 2006 NBA Draft the New York Knicks select Renaldo Balkman of the University of South Carolina,? my jaw dropped and my mouth hung wide open. As many of you regular readers may know I happen to be an employee of that fine university. So I have seen much of Renaldo Balkman?more in 2004-05 than this past season?and it?s hard not to like what he brings, but strictly as a role player.

Though he officially measures only 6?5.5? in shoes he has quick feet and exceptionally long arms (7?1? wingspan, 8?8.5? standing reach). His standing reach, incidentally, is longer than many taller players like Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, and James Augustine. Balkman?s physical attributes allow him to legitimately defend shooting guards, larger point guards, small forwards, and some power forwards. I thought Balkman, Hassan Adams from Arizona (#54, Nets), and Bobby Jones from Washington (#37, Sixers) were the best defensive specialist small forwards available. Balkman is a surprisingly good passer, though turnover prone because of carelessness.

His calling card is his Nate Robinson-esque manic energy, focused almost exclusively on defense. Those incurable college hoops junkies who tuned in to the NIT final four saw it on display, as Balkman dominated the Madison Square Garden portion of the tournament in a manner consistent with his college career. Watching the games it looked like three of him were on the floor, yet his numbers for the tournament were even less impressive than in the regular season. (He was shut out in two of the games.) This season at South Carolina, as widely reported, he scored 9.6 points in just under 26 mpg (14.9 per 40). Taking only 6.6 shots per game, he averaged 61.5% (TS%) from the floor; precisely what you want and expect from a high energy player who doesn?t take 3s. Nothing jumps out at you on paper.

However, Balkman?s value becomes more apparent when you look at the entire stat sheet. He puts something in every column, chipping in per game averages of 6 boards (9.8 total/3.3 offensive per 40), 2 assists (3 per 40), 1.7 steals (2.7 per 40), and 1.3 blocks (2 per 40). He also generally stays out of foul trouble despite being a well-regarded defender. He committed only 2.2 per game (3.4 per 40) this season. Unfortunately, Isiah has already demonstrating that he does not understand Balkman’s value by throwing out the Phoenix red herring and then saddling him with impossible Rodman comparisons. In truth, the best NBA comparison is Utah?s Andrei Kirilenko. Like Kirilenko, Balkman lacks a singular prowess but does a bit of everything other than score. Kirilenko?s similar per 40 NBA career averages (17.2 points, 8.1 boards, 3.2 assists, 2 steals, 3.2 blocks, and 2.8 fouls) certainly do not imply that Balkman will be as good. But they are a far betterpoint of comparison than Rodman’s career numbers. Balkman would need to almost double his rebounding to match Rodman?s.

On the downside, I question whether Balkman’s limited offense will translate to the NBA though I strongly suspect his other numbers will. In three seasons at S. Carolina Balkman?s offensive game has not progressed beyond transition baskets and offensive rebounds. On a team that struggled to break 70 points most nights Balkman made next to no offensive contribution in almost a quarter of the games. This season he was shut out four times, including twice in his coming out party at the NIT, and scored fewer than five points in four other games. He brings little to a halfcourt offense, which is why he was thought by most to be a second round pick at best.

Outlook. Undoubtedly, Isiah?s strength as an executive?such that it is?has been his NFL-style approach to the draft, favoring ?best player available? over ?need.? He went away from the value-based approach with this pick. Of course, having your job threatened provides all the incentive most people need to abandon long-term thinking if they were ever capable of it. In addition, since what?s left of his tattered reputation is super-glued to Stephon Marbury it?s not surprising that he passed on the glut of point guards available at #20. Almost all the value was concentrated at that position. So he rolled the dice on a player that fills a need for a defense-oriented small forward that fits his bias toward athleticism to a tee. Balkman is in many crucial respects precisely what the Knicks need: someone who defends, who doesn?t need the ball to perform well, and who does the little things off the ball like set screens, pass, and cut.

Unfortunately Balkman is a textbook reach for need at #20 overall. Given the talent available, he will almost certainly be unable to justify his selection without near-miraculous offensive improvement. At this point Knick fans might save themselves the agony Mets fans have endured after future all-star Scott Kazmir was traded for the disappointing Victor Zambrano. Many chronicled and compared every pitch, simply adding painful detail to the obvious truth: the Mets got hosed. Balkman doesn?t have much upside but may well develop to fill precisely the role for which he was drafted, especially if he can develop a mid-range jump shot a l? Udonis Haslem. On a personal note, I hope the beat writers and fans allow this kid to just be the role player he is without throwing the Rodman comparisons back at him. He may model his play after Rodman’s and Isiah may be deluded into thinking he’s Rodman but Senator, he’s no Dennis Rodman. Isiah really oughta know better.

2. Mardy Collins ? 6?5.5? G/F, Temple (Rd. 1, #29)

Analysis. Collins is solid value at #29. Keeping with an emphasis on defense Collins is a big guard with long arms and can guard multiple positions. At Temple he never averaged fewer than 1.8 steals in four seasons and averaged 2.8 steals in each of the last two. He?s very good at jumping the passing lanes (and recovering when he doesn?t get the steal). Like many Temple players Collins will come to the league well prepared to defend but will struggle offensively.

To his credit, on offense Collins was asked to carry the load in college, playing big minutes all four seasons. In his most impressive stretch this season at the end of January against Maryland, Xavier, and UMass, Collins averaged 25 points, 3 boards, and 7.3 assists. In an earlier stretch against Auburn, Alabama, and S. Carolina he averaged 13, 3, and 5. This season he accounted for 27% of offense-starved Temple?s points and 40% of its assists. He is not a super efficient offensive player; neither a good 3 point or free throw shooter. In fairness Temple?s offense often requires guards to take poor shots against the clock. I still would have liked to see a higher percentage, especially at the line, but Collins is not quite as bad as he?s been portrayed. He shot 50.1% (TS) this season. He is very effective in the post and in the mid-range. He does a good job of using his size to get himself to the foul line extended area where he can hit the mid-range pull up jumper and hit cutters. He has “an old man’s game” and I mean that in a good way. He’s smart enough to play within his limitations.

Outlook. It?s hard to criticize Thomas for taking Collins at #29. Collins is a nice chip; a talented player with point guard skills but who could play minutes at any of three positions in a pinch or who could be included as part of a deal. But where he plays, if at all, will depend entirely on what happens with the roster this off-season. Thomas is indicating right now that he?s ready to head into the season with the current group. However, that sounds like an attempt at damage control after James Dolan undermined his bargaining power by publicly announcing his lame duck status. ?

The odds are that picks numbered 20 and 29 in any draft will likely end up being at best serviceable NBA players, with the rare exception moving on to stardom. Neither Balkman nor Collins projects as a future star, though both could and should be useful players. Of the two Collins projects to have the best career because he is the more complete player. What we can say a few days after the draft is that once again New York Knick management found a way to overpay a guy with limited marketability to put it kindly. Without question Balkman would have been available at #29. Now we can only hope that he can actually fill the role for which he was selected. Mardy Collins is a player I have long liked and had targeted for the Knicks, but a draft with one of Marcus Williams, Jordan Farmar, Rajon Rondo, Shannon Brown, or Josh Boone, along with Balkman or Collins at 29 would have preferable. [End]

Hope everyone out their has a Happy Independence Day!!!