Brandon Knight entered the 2015-16 season as one half of the latest dual-playmaker backcourt alongside Eric Bledsoe before injuries cut his season short at 52 games. However, Knight did get an opportunity to showcase his individual abilities — even if it came under less than ideal conditions and with mixed results.
Knight showed observers this season exactly what he's capable of offensively, scoring a career-high 19.6 points per game and racking up five 30-point games, including 38-point and 37-point outings that were the highest by a Sun all season. However, he did not put up those points with the greatest efficiency. Both his field goal percentage (.415) and 3-point percentage (.342) were the second lowest of his career, and his true shooting percentage (.522) was only marginally better than that of Ronnie Price (.517). Only Knight's free throw percentage (.852) was a highlight, as he ranked 24th in the NBA among qualified players.
If one is looking for positives, though, each of his percentages this season is an improvement over his 11 games with Phoenix last season.
Looking specifically at his 3-point shooting this season, a couple trends begin to emerge. Knight shot 42.9 percent from 3 in the right corner and 44.8 percent from 3 in the left corner but just 32.8 percent from 3 above the break. The problem is that he attempted 299 3-pointers above the break — his least efficient area — as opposed to 50 combined from the corners. It should also be noted that over 75 percent of Knight's made corner 3s were assisted upon whereas only 57.1 percent of those made above the break were. Knight may not be thrilled with the implications, but those numbers suggest that he's at his most dangerous as a shooter when he's spotting up in the corners, not dancing with the ball in front of his defender, which happened far too often this season.
Finally, no examination of Knight's offensive game would be complete without mention of the one aspect he literally needs to get a handle on — his turnovers. He averaged 3.4 per game, which was a career high and ninth worst in the NBA, and never averaged fewer than three turnovers per game in a month this season, with his 3.9 per game in January being his worst. And certainly, a few of his 177 turnovers stand out more than others.
Knight has to start treating every possession as important. Lackadaisical ball control and heat-check shots when he's not even on do not scream winning basketball. The talent is there, but it needs to be honed, sharpened, focused to be dangerous.
The Suns as a whole did not play stellar defense this year. Heck, it was only seldom passable. But considering how important guard play is in the NBA nowadays, a team cannot afford a weak defensive backcourt if it expects to enjoy success. Knight may not have been the biggest sieve on the team this season, but he certainly had something of a sieve bent to his defense.
Looking first at traditional stats, Knight finished with averages of 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per game. His blocks number was a career high, and his steals ranked second. Yet traditional numbers don't always tell the whole story. For that, you have to go deeper.
On the season, Knight allowed players to shoot 2.1 percent higher from the field than their average when he guarded them. That is compared to 2014-15, when he held opponents to 0.3 percent worse than their average. Breaking down Knight's 2015-16 number, opponents shot 3.1 percent higher from behind the 3-point arc against Knight and 2.4 percent higher from inside the arc. Most concerning, though, is that Knight allowed opponents to shoot 9.8 percent higher than usual from less than six feet and 9.2 percent higher from less than 10 feet, suggesting a propensity for getting beat on the perimeter and difficulty recovering.
However, it wasn't all negative for Knight. While his defensive numbers were poor through January, the chart above shows his March numbers were actually good once he returned from injury, holding opponents to 3.7 percent below their averages from the field. That included 2.5 percent below their average from 3, 6.3 percent below from less than 10 feet, and 10.5 percent below from less than six feet. This about-face on the defensive end is difficult to account for, but it could correlate with improved health, the insertion of Tyson Chandler and Alex Len into the starting lineup together, or both.
It is important to keep in mind when examining Knight's defensive numbers that defense isn't played one on one and that team defense can skew defensive numbers in either direction, but for perspective, opponents shot 1.6 percent worse overall than their average against Bledsoe this season before he went down with his injury.
Overall, Knight utilized his athleticism to come away with steals and a sneaky block here and there, but he proved less adept at the grittier aspects of defense, like keeping his man in front of him. The excuse of having to guard bigger, stronger shooting guards can't be used, either, since Bledsoe guarded the tougher matchup when healthy, and Knight was slotted at point guard for all of 2016, including his abysmal January. That will need to improve for next season.
Knight averaged 5.1 assists this season but did so with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.49, which ranked 66th out of 76 qualified players and better than only D'Angelo Russell among point guards. That is a decline from both his 1.75 ratio last season and his 2.13 ratio during his 11 games in Phoenix after last year's trade.
A big contributor to this poor assist-to-turnover ratio was Knight's inability to set his teammates up for easy baskets. Of his top five pass targets this season — Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, Jon Leuer, and Mirza Teletovic — only Leuer, Teletovic, and Tucker were also in his top five assisted players and neither were in the top two. Contrast that with Bledsoe's abbreviated season, where of his top five pass targets, four were also his top five assisted players, including the top three overall. As a primary playmaker for the team, Knight has to be more cognizant of setting his teammates up for scoring opportunities with his passes rather than making a pass just to bail out of a situation or when his own offense doesn't materialize.
Player Specific: Consistency
Knight has the ability to heat up like a microwave, and when he does, he is as dangerous an offensive player as the NBA has. The problem is that the opposite is also true. He will go through prolonged cold stretches where he cannot buy a basket but will continue shooting anyway, usually from 3, as he tries to rediscover that spark.
This was true on Mar. 12 against the Golden State Warriors, where Knight had just three points at halftime but scored 17 points over the final 4:43 of the 3rd quarter to nearly propel the Suns to an improbable win. He did it again on Mar. 28, when he scored 27 points in the 1st half against the Minnesota Timberwolves only to score a total of three points the rest of the game.
Those extremes are fine for a bench spark plug like J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford, but as a key player logging significant minutes, he cannot afford to be an all-or-nothing player. Knight can't allow his offensive output to fluctuate so wildly, and drawing more trips to the free throw line would rectify most of that. He attempted just 3.5 free throws per game last season and was ahead of only John Jenkins and Price among Suns guards for free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Earning more trips to the line will ensure he remains an offensive threat at all times when on the floor, even when his shot isn't falling, and may even help him find/keep his shooting rhythm in games.
Brandon Knight showed everyone that he was who we thought he was to paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green. He had arguably his best offensive season but continued to struggle in the areas where he needed to improve, namely defense and playmaking. How much his sports hernia played into his struggles will likely never be known for sure, but if a player steps on the court, there are no excuses.
He needs to spend this summer a) getting healthy and b) correcting his deficiencies. As it stands, he profiles well as a Sixth Man, and with Bledsoe coming back healthy and Booker looking to take another big step in Year 2, he needs to show more reliability than he did this year if he wants to remain a starter going forward.
Final Grade: C+