The scene: June 23, 2011. Our beloved Pistons had just finished their 3rd consecutive losing season boasting a roster with fading stars such as Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Tracy McGrady and Ben Gordon. Rodney Stuckey, the starting PG for the '10-11 squad averaged 15.5 points on 44% shooting along with 5.2 assists. Not bad numbers. However, Stuckey had a tough time defending opposing point guards and due to his lack of shooting ability (he shot 29% from the 3 point line), it became increasingly clear that if the Pistons wanted to return to prominence, he just simply could not be the starting point. Enter Brandon Knight (Note: Klay Thompson, Chandler Parsons, and Kawhi Leonard were drafted after Knight and would have certainly added talent to the roster, but let's focus on the topic at hand). Entering the 2011 NBA Draft, most analysts, reporters, and fans predicted Brandon Knight would be selected in the top 7. So it was a glorious surprise that he seemingly fell into the Pistons' lap at spot #8. As a Freshman at Kentucky, Knight averaged over 17 points and 4 assists a game while leading his team to the Final Four. It appeared he had almost all of the tools needed to be a successful starting point guard in the NBA - he's lightning quick, possesses great size for his position, has tremendous work ethic, is extremely intelligent (4.3 High School GPA), and can really shoot the rock (37% career 3-point shooter). Just one thing was missing - he hadn't proven he could consistently make good decisions running the offense. Granted, that's extremely important for an NBA floor leader, but he had only played one year in college. His vision would surely improve being around NBA coaches, trainers and players right?
Fast forward to now. Unfortunately he hasn't improved much at all in this category. His Assist/Turnover ratio coming out of college was 1.3 and last year, his 2nd NBA season, he averaged 1.5 dimes for every giveaway. Many people think it is time to give up on Brandon as a starting point guard. Doubters think his court vision is just too poor to ever get better. At some points, I myself have thought the same thing - it's hard not to when you see him make a pass a full second too late, or continuously cut off a rolling Drummond or Monroe in P&R sets. But there's reason to believe that if Joe Dumars committed to playing Knight at the 1, this season could be Brandon's coming out party.
It's a well-known fact that most players improve as they gain more experience in the league, so my argument is more specific than, 'Brandon will get better because he's getting older.' Just in the past ten years we have seen several young point guards really improve their vision and decision-making after their first two years. Rajon Rondo's Freshman stats at Kentucky almost exactly mirror those of Knight. Their first two seasons in the league again mirrored each other as Rondo averaged 4.45 assists in Boston (slightly above BK7 at 3.9). However, Rondo improved significantly his 3rd year, dropping over 8 dimes a game. He's now a lock for 10+ every time he's on the court.
We all know Chauncey's story. In his best season with the Pistons he was dishing out 8.6 assists per game compared to just 2 turnovers - but he averaged 3.6 assists with a 1.75 A/T ratio in his first 4 seasons.
I could name many more players (Mike Conley, John Wall, Jrue Holiday to list a few), but I think Steph Curry might be the best comparison of all. I'm certainly not suggesting that Knight possesses Curry's creativity with the ball or shooting touch, but they are similar in some key ways. Steph and Brandon are both aggressive penetrators (resist, resist...) and shoot-first point guards with range (Knight's 3-PT shooting is nothing to snuff at). Curry averaged 17 points, 6 assists and 3 turnovers in '09-10 - last year his numbers were 23, 7 and 3. His turnovers haven't decreased but he's gotten more comfortable with the ball and his vision is much improved.
Learning from Coach Cheeks and Chauncey
Knight isn't Rondo, he's not Billups and he'll never be Curry. But he has shown the ability to be a scorer in this league at the point position and with help from Coach Cheeks, Chauncey and a more talented roster, I'm expecting him to take things to the next level this year. Coach Cheeks' impact on Russell Westbrook is well documented. As an assistant coach for the Thunder, Cheeks dealt directly and often not only with Westbrook, but also Reggie Jackson (Did you see what he did in the playoffs? More importantly, did you see what he did to the Pistons in the summer league?).
I presume Cheeks' time in the NBA as a point guard helped in his connection with both guys - coincidentally, it is Lawrence Frank's lack of experience as a player that was rumored to be his downfall. Cheeks will help Brandon, I don't think there's any doubt about that. With Billups' return, Knight has yet another guy in his corner who played the position and conquered many of the same troubles he is attempting to correct. Quality coaching and a veteran's presence matter in the league - BK7 is going to benefit enormously this season because of it, how much really depends on his ability to improve his P&R efficiency.
Pick and Roll Numbers
Brandon has the physical tools to be dominant in the Pick and Roll. He's not quite as quick as Tony Parker and he doesn't have the handle of Kyrie Irving, but there aren't too many 1's and certainly no bigs that can stay in front of him when he runs the P&R correctly. The problem? He often doesn't run the P&R correctly. I will follow this article up with some P&R numbers sourced from Synergy Sports, but essentially the main problems in his operation of the Pick and Roll are:
1) Below-Average Finisher: Knight actually gets to the rim quite a bit off of P&R sets, unfortunately he doesn't finish opportunities at a very good rate. He has worked on his strength which will definitely serve him well this season, but it was a glaring issue from '12-13.
2) Pick and Roll Angle: The opposing bigs often prepare for BK's quickness by aggressively hedging in hopes of not allowing Knight around the corner. In response, Knight likes to shoot through the newly open gap. The issue with that response is, more times than not, he's cutting off Monroe or Drummond's roll to the basket - taking them completely out of the play (while Drummond excels at screening and rolling, Greg Monroe must do a better job of planting stronger and rolling quicker). This also limits his ability to kick it out to the corners for the open 3, as his passing lanes become much more narrow from cutting inside.
3) Timing: In a P&R set, it's probably best to attack the rim when Charlie Villanueva (I will not be sad when he joins another team) is protecting the basket as opposed to Larry Sanders. Yet, Brandon relies on his athleticism a bit too much and challenges big men who are not inclined to allow a 6'3 guard dunk on them - that's what the floater is for. Change of speed and the use of a hesitation dribble will help the rolling big men get in position to catch the lob or bounce pass. Currently, Knight relentlessly attacks while Moose and Dre are trailing behind in positions where they are not yet a threat to score.
Ultimately, Knight is best when he's shooting off of the pick, much like Curry. If he plays to this strength and also improves on the 3 areas mentioned above, even slightly, my guess is this year he steps up to the next level.
The truth about Brandon Knight is that he can be extremely frustrating at times. But he is a point guard. A young one at that. And he does possess the physical tools to be successful at that position. When he makes an errant or late pass, it doesn't mean we should all of a sudden conjecture that he can play the 2 - he's not big enough to defend that position, or to get shots off against even the likes of Aaron Afflalo or Marshon Brooks. He's a point guard. Only time will tell his worth as a starter on a championship contender, but it's certainly possible for him to become the point guard we'd all like him to be. So let's see what he can do with KCP, Josh Smith, and the Bruise Brothers - if history is on his side, we could soon see some magical things.