One of the reasons you heard a collective groan in the Hilton Midtown hotel during the NBA Draft lottery was not only because the New York Knicks were the only team to lose draft position that night but also due to the fact they lost out on two potential Hall of Fame big men in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor. But after coming to terms with the fourth pick in the draft, it isn’t hard to see that the Knicks still have a chance to draft a potential franchise player. Even ESPN NBA Insider Chad Ford agrees as he writes, “I think there are five guys worthy of the No. 1 pick.” After following this draft class for more than a year now, I believe the 2015 NBA Draft is one of the deepest classes in the last few years and there is clear tier of six players who have a chance to be NBA All-Stars and franchise cornerstones for the next decade. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and D’Angelo Russell are all gone by the time the Knicks pick. If in the off chance one of these players is available, the Knicks are clearly expected to pick one of the three freshmen. Here’s who I think the team should pick on Draft Night:
The Case for Emmanuel Mudiay
The first time I watched tape of Emmanuel Mudiay playing high school ball in Texas, his athleticism was on full display but his ball handling and skills as a change of pace guard were perhaps even more impressive. As I then watched each of Mudiay’s games playing for the Guangdong Southern Tigers in China, there was one word that I would use to describe his playing style: unselfish. Mudiay’s uncanny ability to drive and kick back to a three-point shooter highly resembles some of John Wall’s passing ability.
Mudiay’s athleticism also draws some comparisons to Derrick Rose but I also see a lot of Utah Jazz Deron Williams in him as well. Mudiay’s size at 6’5’’ and 200 lbs. bodes well for a transition playing against more physical guards in the NBA. His ability to penetrate is an element that can certainly be maximized in the triangle offense and Mudiay’s court vision suggests that he can indeed be the floor general or lead guard in Phil Jackson’s offense. Mudiay’s size and 6’9” wingspan also suggest that he has all the capabilities to be a plus defender at the point guard position.
Unfortunately, Emmanuel Mudiay’s shooting ability will always be compared to the point guard who will be drafted above him, D’Angelo Russell. Mudiay isn’t the shooter Russell is, but he is a more physical and a stronger finisher at the rim. Mudiay’s jump shot is not broken, but rather inconsistent. He seems more likely a streaky shooter rather than the generic “bad shooter”. John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook are all athletic point guards that have proven that shooting can be improved at the NBA level. ESPN draft expert Fran Fraschilla also gave Mudiay high praise by drawing comparisons to Jason Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard who went from not having a jump shot coming out of California to finishing his NBA career third in 3-point field goals made of all time. Shooting, despite what some may say, has been proven to be a part of the game that can be strengthened in the NBA. What you can’t teach, however, is Mudiay’s athleticism and work ethic.
Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time the Knicks are picking fourth in the draft. In 1978, the New York Knicks selected a 6’5” athletic point guard from Lubbock, Texas. No, it wasn’t Mudiay but arguably the second most talented point guard in Knicks history behind the legendary Walt Clyde Frazier. His name was Micheal “Sugar” Ray Richardson. He was also a four time All-Star, earned All-Defensive First Team honors twice, and averaged 15.3 points/10.1 assists/6.6 rebounds in the 1979-1980 season. “Micheal Ray was a guy who played just like I played,” Magic Johnson once said “Every time I saw him, he went right at me… and Micheal would always talk trash, too, the whole game.” Even Larry Bird once declared the former Knicks point guard as the best basketball player in the world. After going back in history and watching the available video on Richardson, his resemblance to Mudiay seemed eerily familiar. They were both physical guards with the ability to play above the rime and with outstanding athleticism. Even Richardson’s shot somewhat resembled Mudiay’s:
Micheal Ray Richardson was on the path to stardom in the NBA but he unfortunately could not handle the New York nightlife. Richardson’s destructive lifestyle eventually led him to cocaine addiction and the ultimate end to his once promising NBA career. He was banned for life by NBA commissioner David Stern in 1986 for multiple violations of the NBA drug policy and soon would become an afterthought in Knicks history.
Emmanuel Mudiay has a chance to be what Richardson couldn’t be with the Knicks, a face of the franchise for years to come. While Mudiay’s game resembles Richardson’s, it is safe to say that Mudiay seems to be one of the highest character kids in this draft class. The 19-year old Mudiay has had to go through a lot of difficult experiences that separate him from other draftees. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mudiay lost his father while he was a toddler. His mother, Kabeya, grew vegatables and sold coffee from their home to make ends meet. The Mudiay family was living in midst of the Second Congo War. Bullets would hit the gate of their home, and Kabeya decided to seek asylum for her family and bring her sons to the United States.
As Mudiay’s basketball talent made him the nation’s top high school guard prospect, he decided to forego college and playing professionally in China. Mudiay explained his decision, “I was excited about going to SMU and playing college basketball for coach Larry Brown and his staff and preparing for the NBA, but I was tired of seeing my mom struggle.” It took a lot of guts for Mudiay to trust his ability in still becoming a top pick in the draft by making the jump overseas. Injuries limited Mudiay to only 12 games in China, so his statistics (including his FT%) should be taken with a grain of salt. What impressed me the most about his stint with Guangdong was his performance in Game 3 of CBA Semifinals. After a four-month absence, Mudiay was brought off the bench and led his team to victory with 24 points and 6 rebounds. His teammates convinced the Guangdong coach to play Mudiay after seeing his performance in practices and maturity in staying with his team despite his injury.
Mudiay also caught my attention with some of his comments in New York before the Draft Lottery. When asked about Phil Jackson, Mudiay replied, “He’s a winner, I know that. He knows how to win and make players better. If I’m lucky enough to play for him, I’d definitely try to pick his brain at anything. I already know he’ll make me into a great basketball player.’’ In watching his interviews leading up to draft, it is very clear Mudiay is focused on working as hard as he can to be the best player he can be. In my own personal big board, there isn’t much separation between Mudiay and Russell. Both have different skill sets that can be very effective in the league. I have very little doubt that Emmanuel Mudiay would be able to handle the bright lights of New York City and he has all the tools to be a great player in the NBA.
The Case for Kristaps Porzingis
The reaction NBA personnel had when watching Porzingis work out in Las Vegas was the same one I had when watching his game tape, awestruck. Porzingis’ shooting touch was very impressive from the minute one watches his video but what shocked me even more so was his athleticism. Kristaps Porzingis doesn’t shy from physicality near the paint and dunks at will. Not only does Porzingis use his 7’1’’ frame to shoot three pointers effortlessly over defender, but also uses it to block shots. Porzingis’ unique size and shooting ability makes him an ideal big in the triangle offense.
I would go as far to argue that Porzingis has the best shooting mechanics in the entire draft class. Combine this with his size, length, mobility, and you have a potential monster on the offensive side of the ball. There was also a certain defensive tenacity seen when watching Porzingis play as well. He seems like a very active defender who can turn to be an effective shot blocker with his fair share of steals. The only flaw that Porzingis has currently is his passing ability, which I expect to improve as he develops and reads defenses better in the NBA. The 19-year old Porzingis’ lanky frame definitely can use developing as well. But I fully expect the franchise that drafts Porzingis to invest heavily in his strength and conditioning. A bigger Porzingis with a post game will only add to his offensive repertoire and potential. It isn’t crazy to think that Porzingis may have the highest ceiling in the entire draft outside Karl-Anthony Towns.
Many NBA fans, especially those who root for the Knicks, tend to be scared away by the proverbial “European bust” inspired by the likes of Frédéric Weis, Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitshvili, and Andrea Bargnani. It really isn’t fair to Porzingis when we assume the reason for these players disappointing performances in the NBA is their place of origin. There have been plenty of American bust draft picks but we won’t link them to the non-European players in the 2015 Draft. No, Porzingis wouldn’t be the most popular pick if his name was read as the Knicks pick in the Barclays Center, but this shouldn’t factor into the important decision of drafting him. As if I wasn’t already impressed by watching Porzingis’ game, I was further intrigued when I see his professionalism in his interviews. The 19-year old Latvian speaks English with hardly any accent and talks as if he grew up in the states. Porzingis also speaks fluent Spanish as a result of playing in Spain with CB Sevilla of the ACB, arguably the best league outside the NBA. This will in all likelihood make his transition to playing basketball and bonding with teammates easier. You can see Porzingis’ intelligence in his interviews and he is smart enough to say that he models his game after Anthony Davis (personally I see a blend of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol but no complaints there!) When asked about what he looked forward to the most in the NBA, Porzingis told Yahoo Sports: “The biggest thing for me – the thing that I think most about – is that you can get into the gym whenever you want here. They give you a card, or a key, and in the middle of the night, if you want to work out, you just go to the gym and get your work in – and I think that’s amazing.” After reading that quote, all I know is that if Kristaps Porzingis fails at basketball, I will never be able to believe in a European basketball player again. The kid also has an amazing support system in his parents and older brother. Porzingis was born to play basketball. Don’t believe me? Listen to Porzingis himself: “For sure, it’s a big spotlight being here, playing here in New York, a lot of pressure,” Porzingis said. “But I would love to play here one day with the Knicks, and hopefully they pick me.”
Both Mudiay and Porzingis are known as the “mystery men” in the NBA Draft but I don’t necessarily agree. As mentioned before, Emmanuel Mudiay has been playing high school basketball all his life in the United States and if I’m not mistaken, high school players were once drafted into the NBA based on their talent. Mudiay should be looked at the same way. Porzingis definitely has a lot less media exposure but it shouldn’t be overlooked that he has excelled in a tougher league compared to the NCAA. While I believe he can play in the NBA as soon as next season, the Knicks could also possibly look to stash Porzingis abroad for one more season and use his rookie salary to obtain two max free agents this summer.
Whatever the case may be, I view both Mudiay and Porzingis as the best players available at the fourth pick due to their high ceilings. Combine their potentials with the intangibles both players possess, and you have a great prospect at #4. Other popular choices at the Knicks pick have been Justise Winslow and Willie Trill Cauley-Stein. While I would agree both players have a higher chance to contribute to next season’s New York Knicks greater than Mudiay and Porzingis, I also believe their ceilings are significantly lower. Winslow’s motor and hellacious defense is undeniable but I just don’t see some of the James Harden comparisons given to him. His ball handling skills and mid-range shooting woes give reason to pause at Winslow’s ultimate ceiling. Winslow captured a lot of attention at the end of his season in Duke’s NCAA championship run primarily because of a move to the PF position. He was just too fast for the college big men who guarded him. However, with his 6’6” frame, Winslow has no chance to play PF at the NBA level. His game closely reminds me of Andre Iguodala, a terrific role player on a championship team but not the best player. When Iguodala was the feature player of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team had a 300-340 regular season record. Winslow, like Iguodala, doesn’t seem to be a franchise cornerstone. Similarly, Cauley-Stein is perhaps the best defender in the draft with the ability to guard 1-5 but he lacks a post game and good touch near the basket. Yes, I was surprised by his shooting ability in his workouts but I do know shooting in games isn’t quite the same experience. Even Tyson Chandler, Cauley-Stein’s closest comparison, had a jumpshot but that didn’t mean he was a shooting threat on the floor.
In his final regular season press conference, Phil Jackson stated: “The reality is we want to grow a star through this system that’ll be here for 15 years and a career.” I wholeheartedly agree with Phil. This draft pick isn’t about the Knicks record in 2015. This is about finding the next face of the franchise.
Phil, you are now on the clock.
ICYMI, here are the must watch workout videos of each prospect.