Explain one play: Young Nicks plays chess

Is it fair to say this is a fun time for the Knicks?

No, the season did not go as expected. Being completely out of action after a year of a solid regular season and playoff berth hasn’t been on the bingo card for most people, especially given their possessions in this off-season.

If there’s a positive side, it’s the end-of-season extension. The Knicks have gone 11-11 since the All-Star break, boasting a net worth (plus 3.1) rating above the Mavericks (plus 2.8), the Nets (plus 2.5) and the Warriors (plus 0.8).

As far as fun goes, it’s a good thing that young people are driving so much success. Emmanuel Quikley is making real strides as head coach of football. Same for RJ Barrett, whose shoulder-defending moves caused dents in his defenders’ chest and cores. And if the Knicks didn’t have the league’s sportiest front court with Obi Tobin and Jericho Sims, they couldn’t be far from the top.

It’s hard not to jump off the couch watching these guys go after a fiasco or flip. Quickley has to pull out of nowhere. Barrett freight train. Toppin and Sims can highlight the shots with their best. But from a projection point of view, properties like this stand out from Friday night’s events:

Knicks rushes in after a mistake but pulls things back because the early advantage isn’t there. Not yet at least.

Toppin is defended by Cassius Winston, an unfavorable cross match formed by switching on the previous possession. Toppin goes to the block early in possession but falls back into the corner after Quickley makes the call.

Here the fun begins.

Quickley calls Sims to set a screen – a screen that Quickley doesn’t really plan to use. As Sims gets close to Quickley, Toppin works his way back to the right block with Winston.

With Sims above the free-throw line, his defender (Thomas Bryant) is able to comfortably on the inside. The only player who can take a rotation to help the Winston-on-Toppin mismatch is Isaiah Todd, despite being occupied by Feron Hunt in the left corner.

With Winston trying to get ahead and no assist in the rear, there is a lob available for Toppin. Quickley makes the pass, resulting in the easiest half-court bucket at night for Toppin. Two of Tobin’s 35-point career highs, I might add.

The Quickley-Toppin connection wasn’t just fun; it was good. Consider these numbers since the all-star terminator:

  • The Knicks scored 1.09 points per possession (PPP) in rounds featuring the Quickely-Toppin ball screen. It’s a number on par with groups like Monte Morris, Nikola Jokic (1.09 PPP), Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns (1.08 PPP), DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic (1.06 PPP), per Second Spectrum.
  • With Quickley and Toppin on the field, the Knicks outpaced opponents by 11.1 points per 100 ownership.

The jury is out on what this list will look like in October. But at the risk of recognizing modernity bias, it is hard to argue against prioritizing these young people.

Toppin has thrived in Julius Randle’s games, averaging 23.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in his last four contests. The answer may not be Randle’s steady trade, but there should be more time allotted for Toppin moving forward regardless.

Quickley has shown spark potential since his rookie season, and we’re starting to see him grow more into the half field. Look down the list, and you’ll remember that the Knicks flipped the first (among other assets) of Cam Reddish’s first-rounder a couple of months ago. They have to find a place for him, too.

It’s time to prioritize and empower the younger pieces. The next era of great basketball for the Knicks may depend on it.

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