When the Knicks purchased their own D-League team in 2014, New York became the seventh NBA team to fully own and operate its own affiliate. But for really the first time, the Knicks have been using the official minor league of the NBA as, in fact, a developmental league – something the team has yet to do save for Cleanthony Early, who made seven appearances for the Westchester Knicks during his two-year stint in the Big Apple.
The D-League’s flexible assignment system allows NBA teams to assign players to the D-League for development or rehab from an injury. For guys who are not in the rotation or on the fringe of the rotation, this provides them a perfect opportunity to stay in game shape and in a rhythm so that when called upon they’re ready to perform.
“Huge,” undrafted rookie Marshall Plumlee told me about getting a chance to play in Westchester. “Because if not I wouldn’t be in game shape, no matter how many sprints I run. Nothing’s the same as playing a game, your feel can get off a little bit when you haven’t played with people in awhile so that was 100 percent the reason why I was ready the last couple of opportunities.”
Westchester, a team headlined by journeyman Von Wafer and Courtney Fells and intriguing youngsters Damien Ingles and Doron Lamb, allows players like 24-year old rookie Maurice Ndour, who doesn’t get regular playing time, to seamlessly get a few extra reps. For many young players seeking to make their mark in the NBA, this would be troublesome. But the Senegal native welcomes the opportunity to play extended minutes and doesn’t see playing in the D-League as a demotion
“There’s no way to complain because I feel like at the end of the day you want to play basketball then you get up on it to go down there to play a lot of minutes and play basketball, the sport that you love,” Ndour told NY Sports Day. “I mean personally for me, I really love to go down there and play.”
Ndour has appeared in 20 games with the big club, averaging 2.3 points and 1.4 rebounds in 7.2 minutes. Meanwhile, Plumlee has played in just 8 of New York’s 57 games, recording averages of 1.1 points and 2.0 rebounds in 8.1 minutes. The two youngsters are valued for their energy off the bench, but the Knicks have embraced the D-League, and a result, so have their players.
“I approach it as I do every day here with the Knicks, that this is an opportunity to get better. It’s only a negative thing if I let it be a negative thing,” said Plumlee, who is going straight to the army after hanging up his sneakers. “And I feel like the proof is in the pudding thus far playing with the Westchester Knicks. I think I’m getting better, I think the coaching staff sees that so yea it’s just an opportunity to get better.”
The assignments have been convenient, with Westchester’s County Center located roughly 28 miles from the Mecca. Plumlee says he lights up when he gets shipped to the Dub-Knicks, usually with Ndour. The 24-year old big man has been assigned to D-League eleven times this season, while Ndour has rode the Westchester shuttle ten times. Folk hero Ron Baker has seen action in three games with the team, too.
“It’s very important any time you can go down there and get good quality reps,” Baker told NY Sports Day. “I know for me I don’t try and change my game at all and coach [Mike] Miller understands that so he tries to put in positions that I’d be in at this level. And it’s important that you get minutes during the year when you’re not getting a lot of playing time at this level to stay in shape and keep your rhythm.”
Not only does Westchester have the same team name and colors as the Knicks, they also run similar plays. Westchester head coach Mike Miller incorporates the same offense and defense that Jeff Hornacek deploys. Miller joined the organization last season after spending two years as an assistant with the Austin Spurs, the D-League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. The experienced coach has helped make the shift between New York and Westchester easy for the Knicks assignees.
“I’m really proud of my relationship with coach Miller,” said Plumlee. “He really goes out of his way to make sure that I’m comfortable and that I’m getting better and he holds me accountable. So to me he’s every bit a part of my coaching staff as coach [Jeff] Hornacek and coach [Kurt] Rambis because he’s instrumental in my development and I know Ron Baker and Maurice would say the same thing. We all share similar sentiments about coach miller and I think probably the most underrated person in my development this year.”
Ndour, who played for Monroe College in the Bronx before transferring to Ohio University for two years, is averaging 14.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 27.4 minutes up in the ‘burbs. He’s also getting to work on his 3-ball, hoisting up more than two per contest. In 144 NBA minutes, he’s attempted only five threes.
“It’s almost like going back to college so it’s not something new for me,” said Ndour, who speaks five languages, including reading and writing three dialects of Japanese. “It’s like okay we did this in college so it’s nothing new. But it’s always great to have Marshall or Ron down there, knowing that they’re friends, teammates.”
It was during Summer League play in 2015 that Ndour first made his mark with Knicks fans. He was subsequently signed by the Mavericks and then waived with an injury before the season began. After spending the 2015-16 campaign with Real Madrid in the Spanish league, the 6-9, 200-pound forward signed a guaranteed two-year deal this past summer and there’s a clear desire to see his development through.
“It’s great for guys like us who don’t really play that much, it’s really good for us to just go down there and get some reps, keep yourself motivated and gain confidence,” said Ndour “It’s really good for us.”
Marshall’s two older brothers, Miles and Mason, are both in the NBA, drafted as first-round picks. After going undrafted in the 2016 NBA Draft, Marshall is taking a different route than his siblings. But the Duke graduate is making the most of his time in Westchester, averaging 12.7 points in 31.3 minutes and leading the W-Knicks in rebounding, snagging 9.1 boards per game.
There’s not much to say about Plumlee’s offensive game, but the Knicks are invested in the 7-footer as his frequent trips to the D-League shows. They want him to develop into a stronger defender and rebounder. So when the Plumlee heads to Westchester, he is given a simple directive: be yourself.
“I try to be the best Marshall Plumlee I can be and that’s something they’ve been very adamant with me about and I agree with them on is that I need to go practice the things I will do with the New York Knicks,” Plumlee said. “It doesn’t do them any good if I go down there and practice taking 40 shots a game when realistically with the Knicks I might take 3-to-4. So I try to work on the things they need me to, ball screen defense, protecting the rim, rebounding, running the floor, bringing energy and those are things that I pride myself and the Westchester Knicks are helping me bring that to a new level.”
The 23-year old Baker, who starred at Wichita State, was also not drafted by any NBA team in June and was signed prior to the 2016 NBA Summer League. Through the Knicks first 20 games, Baker only made four appearances, playing for a total of 34 minutes. But the D-League provided Baker with a vehicle to further develop into an NBA-level player and he’s emerged as one of the few bright spots for the 23-34 Knicks.
“Marshall, Mo and I don’t play a lot together up here but when we go down there we get 20+ minutes together so we get a feel for one another,” said Baker. “One way you can improve your game is if you get minutes and that’s what going down there is all about.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of February 22. Email Steven Simineri at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SSimineri