After weeks of poor play and off-court questions, Brandon Knight may finally be on the right track. For the Suns, it couldn’t be happening at a better time.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: second- or third-tier NBA player thinks more highly of himself than the Suns’ priorities show themselves to think of him. The wheeling and dealing that has left the Suns with a fruitful core of young studs has also aggravated and alienated many a former player, by now. Before the 2016-17 season even began, it seemed we would be adding Knight to that list. No one, however, could have anticipated the style with which he’d write his name atop it.
Only nine days ago, coach Earl Watson made a radio appearance decrying Knight’s play on defense and ability to mesh with the team off the court as reasons why his minutes had dropped, and why he was intent on keeping it that way until a change was made. Watson even went so far as to prop rookie Tyler Ulis above Knight in terms of those categories, stating that scoring an efficient 20 points isn’t what this team needs now, it’s a defensive presence from each individual.
You might be thinking that the narrative and statistical stories surrounding the Week in Brandon Knight aren’t quite the kind that we associate with Players of the Week. You’d be right, most weeks.
But as the Kyle Korver trade showed us, the NBA’s trade season is upon us. For the Suns, since Knight’s demotion to the bench prior to the start of the season, that was always going to mean an evaluation of Knight, first and foremost. Someone like P.J. Tucker or Tyson Chandler might be more likely to move, but the team’s future plans for Knight will have the most impact on the Suns of any upcoming decision.
Since Watson’s public flexing though, I’ve actuallyseen a change in Knight’s on-court temperament, and I don’t think I’m imagining it. It’s been the key reason that despite his addition to the Suns’ list of frustrated stars, he can recover:
While it felt odd to snip a routine defense of a super-high pick-and-roll against a bench player on the West’s worst team, it’s worth highlighting that Knight is simply playing basketball again. Because he is a good basketball player, after all. Where he struggles are those times in which he becomes possessed by the idea that he is anything more than that, and tries to superhero his way into domination.
That’s not his game. Over 52 contests in Milwaukee the year he was acquired by the Suns, his performance was highlighted by efficiency and intelligence.
His assist ratio (percentage of a team’s baskets assisted by Knight while he was on the floor) was the highest of his career, as was his usage and effective field goal percentage. So he played more efficiently in spite of an increased offensive burden.
Additionally, despite the reputation (and physical profile) of a defensive positive, Knight’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus numbers (an estimate of a player’s impact on the box score per 100 possessions) has always been negative, or below league average. That season in Milwaukee, however, he floated right around league average on defense despite the offensive load.
That’s the picture of what Knight can be at his best, and what the Suns are likely hoping he can showcase to trade partners: An efficient offensive focal point who can survive at the point of attack on defense. Unfortunately, he’s strayed from that brand of basketball too often as a Sun. Knight’s pick-and-roll heavy offensive style has value in the NBA now, but not when it’s so clearly the only option.
This year, 34.7% of Knight’s total attempts have been taken in pull-up situations, according to NBA.com. He has only shot 34.1% on those looks, which is an atrocious number for that volume. To paint the picture more clearly, 47.1% of Knight’s shots have come after three or more dribbles. Both of these numbers are obvious when watching Knight scurry around in the half court looking for his shot.
It’s fine to provide value to your team as a pick-and-roll scorer, but the best version of such a player is a decisive one who uses possessions efficiently and gets out of his own way. Knight’s been that guy over the course of the past three games:
Again, a simple play that highlights Knight’s ability to just do his job. He has dug himself a huge hole, ranking in just the 55th percentile by points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (minimum 20 such possessions). His counterparts are bench guys like Patty Mills and Darren Collison who make way less money than him. However, his 37.9% on all shot attempts as a ball-handler puts him even further down the list, next to publicized disappointments like Will Barton and Kent Bazemore. Rough.
While I know morphing a player’s style at any point in their career is a tall order, the Suns should work with Knight more as an off-ball player, much like they have done with Eric Bledsoe. Less than one percent of Knight’s shot attempts this year have come off the catch, yet he’s made 36% of the attempts coming from behind the three-point line. Next to playmakers like Bledsoe, Dragan Bender, Leandro Barbosa, and Devin Booker, open looks will be created.
Knight has to be more willing to take and make them when the coaching staff takes the ball out of his hands.
In many ways, the Cavaliers game was more encouraging than the Mavericks’ game, despite what the difference in scoring would have you think. In the first quarter, going aggressively at LeBron James in after receiving a pass at the top of the key; stealing from James in the same frame; an extra pass to Tucker in the corner in the second; switching correctly throughout his second-half stint; this play on Kyrie Irving in the final quarter:
How’s that for a defensive presence, Mr. Watson?
Knight is not a sunk cost. He is a salvageable asset on what has become a reasonable contract overnight. Teams are going to be paying a lot more than $14 million per year for scoring guards over the next couple seasons. The next five weeks will be Knight’s (and the Suns’) chance to show value for whatever team ends up taking a chance on the next two years of his contract, whether that’s the Suns or another team. His play over the last week makes me optimistic that this will end well.
*All statistics current through Thursday, January 12th