Brandon Knight has his work cut out for him. The Detroit Pistons franchise and many of its fans expect Knight to succeed as a point guard. The game's most complicated position can be a challenge to learn, and doing so can be a long and drawn out process. Even then, not many succeed-- just ask Detroit's last "point guard of the future" who is now the team's shooting guard. Can Brandon Knight figure it out? Whether or not he does, he's been given the opportunity to do so.
Despite his struggles as a point guard last season, Knight did establish hope that he can be a long-term NBA player. His perimeter shooting and adaptation to NBA talent served him well last season, and both show room for improvement. Will that improvement translate into the ability to run a five man offense? There's a lot of hope for Brandon Knight-- but there's also a whole lot of concern.
Brandon Knight: 2011-12 Year in Review
12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, .7 steals, 2.6 turnovers, 41.5% shooting
Knight entered the league in a dream scenario-- he joined a team without a point guard that needed him for heavy minutes right away. He led all rookies in minutes played and shot attempts, a right usually reserved to the cream of the crop draftees. Just look at the last few years of Rookie of the Year voting-- the guy who gets the most burn and the most touches usually always wins. Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, etc. Yet every once in a while, you get your Adam Morrisons in there shooting out of their minds to score 12 points on 12 attempts. When given these kinds of opportunities, some players flourish, others flounder. Brandon Knight floundered.
(Yes, there was the All Rookie First Team award, featuring 7 players for the first time in league history. Had they extended the All Rookie First Team back in 2006-07, Adam Morrison would have made that team too.)
Let's start with what Knight got right. He shot a respectable 38% from three, good for second on the team behind a guy who was challenging league records in three point shooting. With Ben Gordon no longer with the team, the title of "team's best perimeter shooter" is Knight's to lose. Knight's second success was with how he handled the transition from college to the pros. The bigger, faster, stronger athletes and the unforgiving pace of the NBA didn't tarnish Knight's production. He matched his college numbers to a "t", which in itself suggests growth in this young guard.
As hinted at above, Knight's adaptation to the NBA and his 3-point shooting suggest that he can have a long career in this league. The problem is that the one thing that separates a point guard from a shooting guard is that the guy with the ball has to run a five man offense. Thus far, the evidence that Brandon Knight can do this is either shaky or non-existent.
A leading metric for a point guard's ability to run a five man offense is "assist percentage". This number reflects the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on on the floor. Knight assisted 20.8% of his teammate's field goals in 2011-12, which is one of the lowest assist rates for a rookie point guard in recent NBA history. In this century, Knight ranks 122nd in assist percentage amongst rookie guards.
Some people point to the fact that Knight didn't have a summer league or a preseason to get to know his teammates or his coach's system. Neither did Kyrie Irving (36.5% AST), Ricky Rubio (37.4% AST) or Isaiah Thomas (25.6% AST). Others suggest that Knight's assist rate was low because his team shot poorly. Kyrie Irving's Cavaliers, Ricky Rubio's Timberwolves and Isaiah Thomas's Kings all shot worse than Detroit last year.
At some point, we need to set aside the excuses and look at the truth: Brandon Knight was a really, really bad point guard last season.
That's all, right? No more bad things can be said about this handsome, smart, nice guy with a good work ethic? Well, unfortunately, yeah there are a few more concerns.
First, he's wildly inconsistent. He'll score 6 points with 1 assist one night and 23 points with 10 assists the next. Those big games could show promise for his career if he could sustain them, but so far in his career, NCAA and NBA alike, he hasn't been able to do so. The truth is shown by just how far away his 12.8 and 3.8 average is from those 23 point, 10 dime outings. The problem is that if defense wins championships, inconsistency loses them. Teams can't afford 6 point, 1 assist nights in a 7-game series, and shooting 26% on 23 shots will knock your team out of an NCAA tournament.
Second, beyond the 3-point shooting, Knight's offense is broken. His 41.5% was good for 59th amongst starting guards last season. It took Knight 12 shots to earn 13 points thanks to poor shooting inside the perimeter and an inability to get to the free throw line. When you add in nearly 3 turnovers per contest, you have a player that takes a lot of possessions to offer very little to his team's offense.
Last, he was a very poor defender in 2011-12. According to Synergy Sports, Knight gave up .93 points per possession, good for 370th in the league. His greatest defensive weakness is isolation plays, where he gave up .99 points per possession, good for 295th in the league.
Areas to Improve in 2012-13
A short round up of the above: individual offense, individual defense, team offense, ball handling, consistency. Like I said at the beginning of this article, Knight has his work cut out for him.
2012-2013 Projected Production
Many NBA players improve after their rookie season. Unless you're Adam Morrison. Despite Knight's poor rookie season, I am bullish on him improving this season for one reason-- his easy adaptation to the NBA. The fact that he matched his college production against tougher opponents might suggest that he actually improved last season. That improvement might point toward more improvement this season, but how much can fan's expect?
This is the weird thing about Brandon Knight. Despite having a beautiful floater, he's not efficient. Despite looking committed on defense, he's not effective. Despite appearing like a leader, he's not running a five man game. All of these appearances -- the shot mechanics, the hustle, the communication -- they're misleading, but not meaningless. It's not unreasonable to expect that beautiful floater to connect more frequently, or for his defense to start picking up more stops, or his communication to lead to some well executed plays. In short, this is a stat guy extending an olive branch to those who prefer the good old eyeball metric. Brandon Knight may be slightly better than the stats suggest he is.
As far as nailing down some numbers, this is a much more difficult task with Knight. With Greg Monroe, he had already proven that he could improve when his minutes and shot attempts had been increased. Predicting what he could accomplish with even more is not difficult. With Knight, it's a much harder task. My guess is as good as yours, so feel free to drop in your estimate with some rationale in the comments. Here's mine:
35 minutes, 14 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, .8 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 42.5% shooting
There was little to like about Knight's rookie season, but there was enough to suggest that he'll have a long-term NBA career. The question remains whether or not he has the capacity to be a starting point guard, but the team feels committed to keeping him there. Like Knight or not, fans of both perspectives can agree on a genuine hope that he improves in 2012-13. It's not easy to write an honest, truthful and objective review of Knight without sounding like you don't like the kid. In the end, Knight owns the perceptions about him. The moment he improves and has a good season, I'll be here to congratulate him for it. For now, the hope is barely stronger than the skepticism.