Ranking NY Knicks' Young Players

John Dorn@JSDorn6Correspondent IIIAugust 5, 2014

Ranking NY Knicks' Young Players

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    Two years ago, with one of the oldest rosters in NBA history and no draft picks in sight, the New York Knicks' future seemed murky at best. But just two offseasons—and one high-profile front-office shake-up—later, the team has managed to stockpile a surprising crop of young talent. 

    During its dominant 2012-13 campaign, New York suited up just a single player under the age of 27. Entering the 2014-15 season, as many as seven Knicks under the age of 26 may be a part of this year and beyond. 

    Under Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, the future is looking bright for New York, and much of it has to do with this new influx of youth. Whether it is developing veterans like Iman Shumpert and Cole Aldrich or draftees like Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, there's been a rebirth within the roster. 

    Ahead, we'll rank those seven Knicks under 26 (not including 57th pick Louis Labeyrie, who may never play in the NBA), based on who can contribute the most to the present while sticking around for the long term.

7. Thanasis Antetokounmpo

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    He's been largely overshadowed by his younger brother through his brief career in the U.S., but Thanasis Antetokounmpo has the potential to grow into an NBA role.

    Though he's very much a project at this stage, after one season in the D-League last year, Antetokounmpo's athleticism and motor can't be questioned. He's already garnered a reputation as a lockdown defender along the perimeter, using his prototypical 6'7" build to stop wing players.

    His offense, on the other hand, isn't nearly as polished. He barely made over 30 percent of his threes last season with the Delaware 87ers but did shoot 47 percent overall, equating to 12 points per game over 29 minutes. Per 36 minutes, he put up an impressive line of 15 points, five boards and 2.6 assists, though against D-League competition. 

    In summer league competition, Antetokounmpo displayed more of what we've heard. He showed a high intensity level on both ends but oftentimes looked lost in the triangle—which isn't necessarily unforgivable from a 22-year-old who's never played in the system before.

    He isn't a lock to sign with the Knicks this season, with the New York Post reporting in July that New York plans to stash him in Europe for a season. Such a move could make sense, with the Knicks looking to carve out as much cap room for 2015 as possible; staggering the contracts of Antetokounmpo and Cleanthony Early could help in that regard. 

    Regardless of when he eventually makes his way to New York, it'll be difficult to avoid comparisons to his brother Giannis. The Milwaukee Bucks' 6'11" point forward is still only 19 and has the potential to become one of the league's most unique talents in the coming seasons. Thanasis doesn't project to be that kind of talent, but if he builds on his intangibles, he could be a solid glue guy for successful Knicks teams in the near future.

6. Jeremy Tyler

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    Jeremy Tyler seemed worthy of much more burn than he received under Mike Woodson in 2013-14. Per 36 minutes, the 22-year-old was responsible for 13 points and 10 rebounds. But after being signed in January, he only averaged 9.7 minutes per game, appearing in 41 of the team's final 52 games. 

    In limited minutes, Tyler showed that he has no trouble scoring against opposing 4s and 5s. He shot 52 percent from the field, and according to Synergy (subscription required), shot 48 percent on post-ups and 15-of-24 on attempts following an offensive board. He brought energy to a stagnant, lethargic Knicks team and was hardly rewarded for his effort with minutes. 

    Defensively, Tyler is a liability. In post-ups last season, he allowed 0.97 points per play or 11-of-19 shooting. When guarding the roll man during screen plays, he allowed 50 percent shooting. And when forced to close out on three-point shooters, his assignments made 38 percent of their looks, per Synergy.

    There's a chance he can make an impact on offense in the triangle, which relies on big men to make quick decisions and have some scoring ability. He's shown he's capable of bringing energy, but a rejuvenated Knicks roster this season shouldn't be deprived of that. In addition to bolstering his defense, he'll need to cut down his turnovers if he wants a major role in Fisher's rotation. 

5. Cole Aldrich

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    Similarly to Tyler, Cole Aldrich rotted away on Mike Woodson's bench through most of the 2013-14 season. But after a promising late-season showing, the 25-year-old earned himself a spot on Derek Fisher's Knicks. 

    It'll be difficult for the center to ever live up to his 11th overall draft selection in 2010. But after bouncing between three rosters in as many seasons, Aldrich may finally have an opportunity to flourish in New York. 

    He appeared in just 31 of the team's first 65 games last season, but over his last 15—initiated with a double-double against the Boston Celtics when injuries forced him into a starting role—he pulled down five rebounds in just 13 minutes per game. Over the full season, he pulled down 34 percent of all available defensive rebounds. At 19.1, he even posted the second-highest player efficiency rating on the Knicks, albeit in just 330 total minutes. 

    He has the 6'11" frame to make an impact protecting the rim and has shot 69 percent from within three feet for his career. And on the current Knicks roster with Samuel Dalembert and Jason Smith slated above him on the depth chart, Aldrich will have his chance to win a job during training camp.

4. Shane Larkin

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    The Knicks missed out on Shane Larkin in the 2013 NBA draft after he wound up going 18th and ending up with the Dallas Mavericks. A year later, the team now has Larkin, in addition to Tim Hardaway Jr., who's turned out to be a top value pick of that class. 

    New York acquired Larkin in the deal that sent Tyson Chandler back to the Dallas Mavericks. At 5'11", Larkin is one of the smaller guards in the NBA, but that didn't stop him from establishing himself as one of college's top threats with Miami back in 2013. Clearly, size issues are more of a hurdle to climb once a player reaches the pros, and after limited action with Dallas last season, how Larkin can overcome his deficiency is yet to be seen. 

    Larkin is quick and can get to the rim and sported a sharp jump shot in college. After shooting 41 percent from three-point range during his senior season, he made just 32 percent of his treys last year with the Mavs in limited time. He made a respectable 59 percent of his attempts from within three feet, which, for context, was better than Raymond Felton's 55 percent mark. 

    “I’m a change-of-pace guard,’’ Larkin said to Marc Berman of the New York Post. “With Jose [Calderon] coming in, I think I offer a different type of game from him. He’s more of a floor leader, always composed, takes control of the game. I’m a guy who can bring a different energy and pace and try to speed it up.”

    With Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni already planted in the team's rotation, Larkin will need to battle for minutes in the backcourt—but dual-point guard lineups have been successful for the Knicks over the last two seasons. If he can command his jumper while bringing the same offensive spark that earned him an 18th overall draft selection, Larkin could be yet another threat at the guard position for New York. 

3. Cleanthony Early

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    After two seasons with Wichita State playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, Cleanthony Early is still an unknown to much of the NBA spectrum. But the Knicks may have ended up with the steal of the draft after selecting Early, whom many projected as a first-rounder, with the 34th pick last June.

    The 23-year-old averaged 16 points and six rebounds for the Shockers during their improbable run last season, shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 from long range. Matt Kamalsky of DraftExpress took an analytical approach to Early's draft value:

    Wichita State's Cleanthony Early ranks 2nd in this group scoring 1.11 points per possession due in large part to the fact that he was effective from all over the floor. He scored a group leading 1.13 points per possession in the post, 3rd ranked 1.11 points per jump shot, and an above average 1.28 points per shot around the rim. If there's a downside to Early's profile, it's that he used fewer possessions than almost any player on this list creating his own shot in isolation and pick and roll situations, as Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker handled essentially all of the shot creating duties away from the rim. There's little doubt Early's numbers are inflated to some degree by the quality of competition he faced in the Missouri Valley Conference, but his overall skill level and performance against quality teams leaves plenty of room for optimism that his numbers are an accurate reflection of his talent and that he can help spread the floor and exploit mismatches at the next level in time.

    At 6'8", 220 pounds, Early has the size to match up with wing players in the NBA and can presumably slide in as Carmelo Anthony's backup immediately. He's shaky with the ball in his hands but can be relied on to stretch the floor and bring energy in transition right out of the gate. 

    At the Las Vegas Summer League, Early averaged 11.5 points on 46 percent shooting while hauling down five boards in 28 minutes per game. He'll need to improve his handling and passing ability to be effective in the triangle; he recorded 50 total assists in two years at Wichita State—as Jonathan Givony points out, one for every 40 minutes he played. 

    It'll be interesting to see at what position he finds the most success, as he's a bit of a tweener. He's active defensively but will either need to keep up with shiftier players along the perimeter or hold his own against bigger players in the paint. Off-ball defense—something the Knicks have struggled with for years—is important for Early to improve on, too.

    Early is a promising player who brings a lot of raw skills to the table, and he seems anxious to get his career started in New York. Improvements will need to be made, but his all-around package is enough to excite Knicks fans moving forward. 

2. Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    The NBA got its first taste of Tim Hardaway Jr. last season as a rookie, and the 22-year-old is looking to improve further on his impressive 2013-14 campaign. During that rookie year, he showed much more offense than most predicted heading into the year. Through his first 46 games as a pro, Hardaway shot 47 percent from the field, including 42 percent from three.

    Over the last three months, though, he shot just 39 percent, dropping his overall line to a pedestrian 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from distance. 

    Offensively, though, Hardaway's season was enough to justify encouragement. It's all the other areas of his game that need work. 

    In practically every area besides scoring, Hardaway's game must improve in order for him to be a difference-maker with the Knicks. He averaged just 1.5 rebounds per game and 0.8 assists over 23 minutes as a rookie. The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring recently discussed the other areas of the guard's game:

    Despite his prototypical height and bounding athleticism, Hardaway grabbed just 3.8% of available rebounds while on the court last season, the second-lowest percentage in NBA history among guards standing 6-foot-6 or taller, according to Basketball-Reference. And his struggles on defense were arguably the worst on the team last season, though they seem to stem more from his slender frame than from his effort.

    While the triangle system could conceivably improve Hardaway's passing—his 5.8% assist percentage also ranked near the bottom of the NBA history books among guards—his lack of distribution isn't ideal for team that employs Anthony as its primary scorer.

    The last we saw of Hardaway, he was tearing up the Vegas Summer League to the tune of 23 points per game on 44 percent shooting. Though his rebounding and assist numbers improved slightly from last regular season, they aren't close to what the Knicks need from him.

    Hardaway's lack of an all-around game had direct effects on New York's lineups last year. The team was 9.3 points worse per 100 possessions with him playing, which was the worst mark on the team, aside from Beno Udrih and Shannon Brown.

    There's no question that Hardaway is a worthy scorer. For where the Knicks drafted him at 24th, they've received incredible value. And in his coming seasons, the notorious "rookie wall" shouldn't be an issue. But if Hardaway doesn't start committing himself to other areas of the game, his ceiling could cap out at around last season's performance. His talent alone, though, is enough to qualify him as the second-best young player on the Knicks.

1. Iman Shumpert

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    Entering his fourth NBA season, Iman Shumpert still hasn't quite put all his raw skills together into one polished package, which makes it easy to overlook the positive effect he has on the Knicks' play.

    Shumpert is a rare Knick who contributes positively on both the offensive and defensive ends. His stellar on-ball defense has never been a secret, and when he's going right, his three-point shooting and aggressiveness are key to the Knicks' offensive attack. 

    During the 2012-13 season, Shumpert reappeared from offseason knee surgery with a newfound stroke from three, particularly in the corners. He shot 40 percent from distance that year, including 43 percent in the playoffs—specifically, he drilled 57 percent of corner-threes in the postseason.

    2013-14 was supposed to be the swingman's coming-out party, after he was arguably New York's best all-around player in the 2013 playoffs. But after a dismal season in several areas, Shumpert's value has dwindled slightly. 

    But even in a down season, Shumpert was still sought after by some of the league's best teams, namely the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, who were trade deadline suitors for the Georgia Tech product, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo and Marc Berman of the New York Post, respectively.

    Even after shooting just 38 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range and contributing just 6.7 points per night, Shumpert still posted the second-best on-off net rating on the Knicks, behind only Carmelo Anthony. The team was 12.4 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which speaks to the value of his complementary game. 

    Another factor to consider: Shumpert has shown a knack for stepping up his game when it matters most. The most glaring example is perhaps his best NBA game to date: the Knicks' final game of the 2013 playoffs against the Indiana Pacers. He scored 19, including 5-of-6 from three, in an unsuccessful attempt to rally his team back to a Game 7.

    And although games were rarely meaningful for New York, particularly down the stretch, Shumpert continued this trend. Per NBA.com, he was one of just four Knicks to shoot better than 40 percent in "clutch" situations (ahead or behind by five points or less in the final five minutes). Among players with at least 15 shot attempts in those scenarios, his 46.7 clip was the best on the team.

    Now, under a coach who presumably has a vested interest in developing talent—which will be a change for Shumpert and every young Knick—Shumpert's array of talents may finally get a fair chance to grow into a complete package. He'll be in the final season of his rookie deal before restricted free agency, which could bring out the best of the 24-year-old. 

    For three seasons, Shumpert has been a mix of raw talents on both ends of the floor. If he can mesh them together under the aid of Fisher's coaching staff this season, he'll solidify himself as yet another premier name in the current generation of young NBA talent.