by Paul West
The New York Knicks, still in search of a generational talent to lead them into a new era, have positioned themselves as likely to choose first in the 2019 draft. Virtually everyone expects them to choose Duke‘s Zion Williamson, maybe the most widely heralded college player in a generation…but this is a position worth reexamining. Murray State‘s Ja Morant–previously unheralded, and the first Division 1 player to average 20 points and 10 assists in a season–might be the Knicks’ best bet.
Williamson is widely heralded with good reason. He combines eye-popping explosiveness and leaping ability with the build of an NFL defensive end; he hustles at both ends of the floor; he’s a great shot blocker, and a solid passer and defender; and he’s got poise, charisma, and genuine likability. He won’t wilt under the spotlight and expectations of trying to resuscitate what was once a premier franchise in what was, for generations, known as ‘the mecca of basketball,’ but there are caveats. First of all, his height: listed variously at 6’5 and 6’6″, he’s well shorter than many of the NBA’s current bumper crop of highly talented centers. His enormity and athleticism would be a matchup nightmare for many power forwards and wings; but it remains to be seen whether he could sustain his degree of explosiveness, with his frame, over an 82-game grind in an up-tempo era. This effectively renders him a hybrid, albeit one with very high upside–but one of the Knicks’ current issues is redundancy of type, as their roster is laden with 2-3, 3-4, and 4-5 hybrids like Noah Vonleh, Damyean Dotson, Luke Kornet, and Kevin Knox. They have a promising center in the explosive and increasingly versatile Mitchell Robinson, which would mean their wing slots would be even more crowded; and while this might seem like a good problem to have, it would further complicate their already puzzling rotation scheme. Another concern is Williamson’s free throw percentage, which hovers in the mid-sixties. This is high enough to improve with work, but low enough to be concerning–especially in a player for whom physical wear and tear might be a concern.
What the Knicks really could use is the steadiness and versatility that Morant would bring them at point guard. Averaging 20 points and 10 assists in a Division 1 season had never been done before, and there’s no reason to believe Morant’s season was a fluke. Morant can drive the lane with downhill-racer speed, and he delivers the ball to teammates with uncanny vision and grace. He doesn’t throw ‘hand grenades,’ either; he hits teammates in stride and scoring position, and seems just as happy to do so as he is to hammer-dunk over defenders or spin one in off the glass. He’s good under pressure, and played brilliantly under the tournament spotlight; he averaged 5.7 rebounds a game, despite his slight frame; he’s consistently an 80 percent free throw shooter; and at 6’3″, he’s a good height for a point guard.
There are concerns here, too. Morant’s aforementioned frame has precedent at the NBA level, especially in up-tempo guards, but it’s fair to wonder if he won’t need to get more sturdy to hold up through an 82-game haul. He also won’t likely rebound as much at the next level, and NBA-level speed and length might limit some of his needle-threading passing. But his skill set, and the aspects of his game which appear embedded, are arguably more what the Knicks need than those of Zion Williamson.
The good news? To paraphrase an old saying, they probably won’t go wrong with either choice.