Wagner: Something to Build on? Young Knicks are Learning and Growing

The two teams that met in Sunday’s early afternoon game at Madison Square Garden had very different mindsets.

The playoff-bound Toronto Raptors were trying to reach 50 wins while holding onto the three seed in the upcoming NBA Eastern Conference playoffs whereas the lottery-bound New York Knicks wanted to know more about their most inexperienced players for next year.

In those terms, the game was a success for each club, as New York (30-51) led by 11 points in the second quarter and battled hard before ultimately succumbing to a game-deciding 16-2 fourth-quarter run that propelled Toronto (50-31) to a 110-97 win.

That was especially the case on the Knicks’ side for center Willy Hernangomez and point guard Ron Baker, each of whom had their most effective games to date in the NBA.

Starting three rookies — forward Maurice Ndour, Hernangomez and Baker (and playing all six on their roster) — New York led 29-23 after the first period before scoring the first five points of the second quarter.

Withstanding a second-stanza Raptors spurt and 26 first-half points on highly efficient 9-of-11 shooting by guard DeMar DeRozan (who finished with 35 points), the Knicks clung to a 55-52 halftime lead on the strength of 20 points — in less than 14 minutes — on 7-of-8 shooting from Hernangomez.

Baker only had five points by the break, but had already made an impact with six assists, just one turnover and five rebounds in the half.

Although the 22-year-old Hernangomez went just 2-for-7 in the second half, he matched his career-high of 24 points while grabbing a game-best 11 rebounds and adding a career-best five assists, making him the first Knick rookie to produce numbers like that in a game since Bill Cartwright recorded 32 points, 18 rebounds and five assists against the New Jersey Nets in 1979.

While Hernangomez produced his 11th double-double of the season (to lead all NBA rookies), Baker nearly recorded his first career triple-double, with 11 points, a team-best eight assists, eight rebounds and just two turnovers in 38 mostly impressive minutes.

The 24-year-old undrafted signee was also largely up to the challenge defensively, while helping to limit three-time All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to 17 points, although Lowry made half of his 10 shots and had a game-high 11 assists.

Rookie reserve center Marshall Plumlee didn’t do much in only three minutes of action, and 24-year-old rookie forward Maurice Ndour (in his second NBA start) scored just six points (on four shots) while pulling down only two rebounds in 25 minutes, but 24-year-old point guard Chasson Randle (Stanford’s all-time leading scorer) was able to get to the free throw line (where he made all six of his foul shots to score nine points in almost 15 minutes off the bench) while 27-year-old rookie forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas matched Lowry’s 5-for-10 shooting to score 12 points in a little under 22 minutes.

Overall, Jeff Hornacek has been pleased during his first year as New York’s head coach, not only on Sunday, but over the course of the season with the development of those on his roster who’ve had the biggest learning curve.

“I think the young guys have learned a lot,” he said.

Hornacek pointed particularly to the play of Hernangomez and Baker in that regard.

Right now, Hernangomez’s strength is his offense. But his defense is slowing catching up.

“Specifically with Willy, with the help defense, it’s gotten a lot better,” Hornacek said. “Willy’s another one of those guys, because of things that happened this year, he’s gotten a great opportunity to play and [has] made the most of it. He’s got moves inside [to help him] score. When he rolls to the basket, he’s able to kick passes out of [the post]… and he’s got a right and left hand. He can go either direction.”

Looking ahead, Hernangomez said, “I think I [have become] more aggressive… offensively, I feel more comfortable when I have the ball in the low post. I can pass, I can finish with both hands. Defensively, I am way better than the beginning of the season, and I know that I [still] have to improve that. This summer, I am going to be focused on that so next year, I can [improve more defensively].”

Singing Baker’s praises, Hornacek said of the former Wichita State star who hails from the town of Hays, KS, “I think he’s made tremendous strides. He gets us into the plays, he gets us into the offense. That was a good test for him [today] with Kyle Lowry putting all that pressure on him. Kyle’s tough, he’s a bulldog. He gets after you. He’s got grand hands. So for Ron to protect the ball, to shield, I thought he did a nice job against [Lowry]. Ron’s gonna continue to learn as he goes on.”

Baker humbly added, “I’m not out here trying to prove myself. I’m just out here trying to win, be a good teammate, play as hard as I can. I know down the road, I’ll be a free agent and all that nonsense, but I’m just worried about the next game and I’m just trying to become a better person and player each and every day.”

For rookies like Baker, nothing is as valuable for growth as playing time.

“A lot of us have gotten minutes throughout the year, so to get better, you’ve got to get minutes and watch film, and evaluate yourself,” Baker. “We’ve all gotten some playing time this year, so that’s one thing we have in our back pocket, and there’s things over the summer that we’re gonna try and work on and get better at, for the guys that are still here.”

With only the season finale left (at home, against Philadelphia on Wednesday), the focus will soon switch to analyzing the year and what can be worked on in the offseason.

Kuzminskas noted, “To learn a system takes time, and I think finally, we understood and we are playing more… the right way.”

Yet there’s still plenty to improve upon. Two of those areas Kuzminskas pointed out were in staying fresh mentally and preparing for the competition.

“You can never think that you’re tired [in the NBA] because I think the mind has a real big power over our bodies, and if you are going to think that you’re tired, you’re gonna be tired,” Kuzminskas. “I’m just very impressed with the stars [and veterans] who play every single game at the same level — for the body, but especially for the mind.”

He added, “You’ve got to do really, really good scouting before the game. You’ve got to know [your opponent’s] strong and weak sides… so you just need to do really good homework.”

Ndour said what he learned most as a rookie was, “No matter what happens during the course of the season, keep working and stay focused… and when you [always] stay ready, you don’t have to [suddenly become] ready.”

The thin, 6-foot-9, 200-pounder also acknowledged that he needs to add lower and upper body strength for next season.

“For a guy like me, most of the guys [I’m guarding] are way bigger than me, so definitely put on some weight and just keep working on my shot,” he said. “The energy will be there night in and night out, so I’m not worried about that.”

Team wide, Ndour said the Knicks (who are 13-2 when allowing under 100 points, yet 17-49 when giving up triple digits this season), “At times, we do a great job of stopping teams, but sometimes we go through a stretch of five or six minutes when we can’t stop them.

“Sometimes on offense, we take bad shots and that carries over [to the defensive end]… that comes with guys getting to know each better, understand what you can do best and what your teammate can do best.”

When it comes to the young players, Horancek said, “The biggest thing is when a team really pressures you, you’ve got to slow down. What we try to do is break through the pressure with the dribble and that got us out of [our] offense… I tell the guys, ‘Just because they’re yelling ‘Get up, get up,’ that doesn’t have to speed you up.’ [But] I thought our guys played well. We had 27 assists (on 37 made field goals) and 11 turnovers.”

Or, as Hornacek was mainly saying, take the good with the bad. Such is often the case with young players.

However, if there’s been a bright spot in the final games of New York’s fourth straight losing season without the playoffs, it’s that the Knicks younger players — especially Hernangomez and Baker — have shown some promise on which to build for next year.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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