Over the past year, Brandon Knight has sometimes been compared to former Pistons’ star Chauncey Billups. Since Billups has been one of the best point guards in the NBA over the past decade, and led the Pistons to the 2004 title with an MVP performance against the LA Lakers, this is not a comparison that should be made lightly. For one thing, no two players play the game in quite the same way. And just as it would not have been fair to expect Billups to be the next Isiah Thomas, it’s not fair to expect Knight to be the next Chauncey Billups.
Still, it’s only natural for fans – and the Pistons’ organization – to hope that Knight can make a Billups-sized impact as a player. And since Knight’s name is frequently mentioned in the same breath with Greg Monroe’s as being one of the team’s "cornerstones," the expectations for the former Kentucky Wildcat are clearly high.
While Knight made the NBA All Rookie Team and had some great performances, he also had some very bad games, and on the whole his play was inconsistent. His defenders point out that he was a "one and done" freshman, and that his development was also hindered by the NBA lockout, which eliminated Summer League, working with coaches, and training camp prior to the compacted 66-game schedule.
His detractors remind us that Kyrie Irving of Cleveland faced those same obstacles, yet performed in a much more consistent way. They also note that Knight’s limitations as a Piston very closely paralleled those seen in his play as a Kentucky freshman. For the Wildcats, he averaged 4.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers; his Pistons’ averages were 3.8 and 2.6, respectively. His shooting percentages in college and as an NBA rookie were also very similar.
Knight’s defenders counter that surely it counts for something that he was able to play at a similar level against much tougher NBA competition. And his detractors respond that he still hasn’t shown that he can be a consistently competent NBA point guard.
Ironically, it is exactly at this point that Knight’s supporters can point to Billups’ career arc to bolster their optimism. Part of the mystique of the 2004 Pistons title team was their "cast off" crew, and no one exemplified that character more than Chauncey. By the time Joe Dumars signed him in 2002, Billups had played for four different teams in six seasons. No one could have foreseen back then that he’d become a finals MVP and five-time All-Star as "Mr. Big Shot."
Pointing to the early struggles in Billups’ career to defend a current Piston is not a new idea, of course. This same example has previously been used to encourage the Motor City faithful to be patient with Rodney Stuckey’s development. Don’t give up on a player too soon, we’re reminded. Who knows - if the Timberwolves hadn’t let Billups walk (after he’d achieved the best year of his NBA career for them in 2001-02), Kevin Garnett may have won a title sooner (not that I care!).
Yet for every Chauncey Billups whose career takes off when he’s been written off as just a "journeyman," there are probably a dozen guys who never significantly improve after their fifth or sixth year as a pro. Still, as Alexander Pope wrote in his famous essay on sports, "Hope springs eternal." Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at Billups rookie year and see how it compares to Knight’s first year as a pro.
Chauncey Billups was drafted third in the 1997 NBA Draft by Boston, after playing for two years at the University of Colorado. His sophomore year, Billups averaged 19.1 points on 41.3 % shooting (40.1 % on 3s), with 4.8 assists and 2.9 turnovers. As a freshman, he’d averaged 17.9 points on 41.3 % shooting (35.4 % on 3s), with 5.5 assists and 4.6 turnovers (yikes!). By comparison, Knight averaged 17.3 points on 42.3 % shooting (37.7 % on 3s), with 4.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers (yucch!). Clearly there’s not much difference between their freshman numbers.
Billups played in 51 games for the 1997-98 Celtics, and started 44 of them. Then in February he was traded to Toronto for Kenny Anderson (there were some other players involved, too, including current Pistons’ assistant coach Roy Rogers). Billups appeared in 29 games for the Raptors, starting 26 of them. For the season, he averaged 11.2 points on 37.4 % shooting (32.9 % on 3s), with 3.9 assists and 2.2 turnovers. His numbers with Toronto dipped down some from what they’d been with Boston.
A shoulder injury first kept Billups from playing for Toronto the following year. When he was healthy in January of 1999, they shipped him to Denver as part of a 3-team trade with Minnesota. Further shoulder problems also limited his playing time for the Nuggets, who sent him to Orlando in February of 2000. But he never played for the Magic; they let him walk.
In the summer of 2000 the Timberwolves inked Billups to a 2-year deal as their backup for starting point guard Terrell Brandon. Chauncey had a solid first season in Minnesota, and then made major strides in 2001-02 when an injury to Brandon in December made him their starter. But then Minnesota let him go. In July of 2002 the Pistons signed Billups to a 5-year, $27 million deal, and the rest – as they say – was history.
But let’s look back now to Billups’ rookie year. A quick comparison of his numbers with Knight’s shows little difference. Next, as I’ve previously done in comparing the rookie seasons of Knight and Kyrie Irving, I examined a sample of both Billups’ and Knight’s best and worst games. Why do this? While every player has good and bad games, I think the contrast between their best and worst can help us measure how consistent a player is. In the case of Knight and Irving, there wasn’t a big difference between their best games’ stats. But when it came to their production in their worst games, Knight’s stats were significantly worse than were Irving’s. I think this reveals that Kyrie Irving was a more consistent performer for Cleveland last season than Brandon Knight was for Detroit.
To compare Billups and Knight for their best and worst, I took two one-fifth samples of their respective seasons. Because Billups played in 80 games, I compiled and averaged his stats for his top 16 and bottom 16 games. Since Knight’s rookie season was 66 games long, I used samples of 13 games each for him. So how do their best and worst compare?
In his top 16 games as a rookie, Billups averaged 19.9 points on 47.2 % shooting (52.2 % on 3s), with 5.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.9 turnovers. In his top 13 games as a rookie, Knight averaged 22.2 points on 53.8 % shooting (53.1 % on threes), with 6.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.1 turnovers.
In his worst 16 games, Billups averaged 5.1 points on 21.9 % shooting (20.4 % on threes), with 3.6 assists, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.2 turnovers. In his worst 13 games, Knight averaged 5.2 points on 23.3 % shooting (16.7 % on threes), with 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2.8 turnovers.
While there are some differences between their production as rookies, both Billups and Knight were very inconsistent. That inconsistency – along with repeated injuries – may well be one reason why Billups was an NBA nomad for the first part of his career. By the time he became a Piston in 2002, he was already becoming a more consistent performer. He started slow and missed several games due to an injury in November, but then began to hit his stride in mid-December. He excelled in March of 2003, averaging 23.4 points on 46.4 % shooting (42.9 % on 3s) with 4.6 assists. With the Pistons down 3 games to 2 and playing at Orlando in their first round playoff series, he scored 40 points to lead us to a 103-88 victory. In the deciding 7th game in Detroit, Billups scored 37 points. An ankle injury hurt his play in the subsequent series against Philadelphia (won 4-2) and New Jersey (lost 4-0). But for Pistons fans, a star was born!
The statistical similarities between their respective rookie years are certainly an encouraging sign for those who hope Knight can become a top performer for the Pistons. The fact that Billups entered the NBA with an extra year of college experience is a further factor in Knight’s favor. Billups was not an efficient scorer as a rookie, nor was he a very proficient passer. These are both areas of his game that he improved over time. It’s certainly reasonable to hope that Knight can also elevate his play in the years to come.
But no one should conclude from this data that Billups and Knight are similar players. There were also some key elements evident in Billups’ play during his first NBA season that are as yet missing from Knight’s game. What are these?
For one thing, Billups showed stronger defensive capability as a rookie. One indicator of this is steals – he averaged 1.3 per game. (In his college career, he averaged 1.9 steals per game.) Billups went on to be selected to the NBA All-Defensive team twice. In contrast, Knight averaged just .7 steals per game as a rookie, the same as he did at Kentucky.
A second feature of Billups’ play as a rookie was his ability to get to the foul line. Seven times he shot 10 or more freebies in a game. For his career, Billups has averaged 5.5 free throw attempts per game. In contrast, Knight had only one game last season where he shot as many as 10 free throws, and he averaged only 2.1 attempts per game. Knight did average 4.5 free throws at Kentucky, so perhaps he has the potential to improve this dimension of his play.
Finally, while Chauncey Billups didn’t show sure signs he was worth being a high first round pick until his fifth season, this was largely due to injuries that caused him to miss over 100 games in his first three seasons as a pro. These injuries certainly delayed his progress. If Knight avoids such hindrances, he may be able to improve the quality and consistency of his play more quickly than Billups did. But whether Brandon Knight can ever make as big an impact – and truly become a "cornerstone" of future Pistons playoff teams – still remains to be seen.