Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
The Knicks could start two Kentucky and two Michigan guys on Opening Night
By ADAM ZAGORIAGREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Knicks Opening Night lineup could feature two products each from Kentucky and Michigan — two tradition-rich programs with a history of going deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Although head coach David Fizdalehas declared that every starting position is wide open, rookie Kevin Knox could start at small forward with Enes Kanter at center. Both attended Kentucky, although Kanter never played there.
Meantime, Trey Burke could land the starting point guard spot, with his former Michigan teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. alongside at shooting guard.
Mario Hezonja, the free agent from Croatia, could start at the other forward spot.
“Something is right with the Kentucky guys, man,” Kanter said Monday at Media Day when I asked what he thought of having multiple Kentucky players on the roster. “Every year, something, man. But I’m very excited about it. I watch their summer league and they’ve been unbelievable. The most important thing was they’re looking to learn. They sacrifice a lot, they’re hungry, they’re humble and they’re ready to go out there and fight so I’m very excited about it.”
The 6-foot-11 Kanter spent a year at Kentucky but never played there due to NCAA amateurism rules, but said he will always consider himself a Kentucky product.
“I never got to play basketball there but I still see myself as a Kentucky player,” Kanter told me last year.
Kanter said when he speaks to Kentucky coach John Calipari, he tells him he’s part of the BBN family.
“He’s a really nice guy because when [the NCAA] said, ‘You’re permanently ineligible for basketball,’ he said, ‘You’re still part of our family’ and they made me student-assistant coach of the team,” Kanter said. “They said not even practice so they made me student-assistant coach so I could practice.”
In 2017, the NBA listed Kentucky as having 25 products on opening-night rosters, while Kentucky counted 27. The school included both Kanter and Alex Poythress (then in the G League) as Kentucky products.
The Knicks have now added the rookie Knox, who has said his main goals are to help the team win and to chase the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Calipari said before the draft that his former Kentucky players would have NBA contracts worth more than $1.5 billion, which is a huge recruiting pitch for five-star prospects at Kentucky.
“We spoke to Cal a lot,” Knicks President Steve Millssaid at the draft. “Scott [Perry] and I probably had two or three different conversations about all of his players actually. But we obviously spent a lot of time talking about Knox as well. We talked a lot to him.”
The night of the Draft, Calipari Tweeted out a video with high praise of Knox.
“He’s a tough kid, he’s 18 years old,” he said. “Unbelievably skilled. The game of basketball, position-less, 6-10, inside, guards multiple positions, can switch pick-and-roll.
“And you know what, you haven’t even seen how good he’s going to be. He hasn’t scratched the surface, he’s going to be phenomenal.”
As for the Michigan guys, Burke will likely have to beat out Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay to get the starting point guard spot he earned at the end of last season. All three are lottery picks chosen in the Top 10.
Burke, 25, averaged 12.8 points and 4.7 assists last season after emerging from the G League’s Westchester Knicks.
Hardaway Jr., 26, averaged 17.5 points and 3.9 rebounds last season.
They were teammates at Michigan in 2013 when the Wolverines reached the NCAA title game and lost to a Rick Pitino-coached Louisville team. (The title was eventually vacated in the wake of the Stripper-gate scandal at Louisville.)
“Me and Tim, we played at Michigan together, but we still every day are learning more and more about each other,” Burke said Monday. “Learning more and mor eabout each other’s tendencies, where we like the ball at.
“We all know when Tim gets hot, what type of player he can be. I think I was just watching film the other day. He had gotten hot in one of the games. I crossed the court just to give him the ball. He came and got the ball and went to work and got him another bucket. So just the matter of feel of the game, knowing personnel, knowing who has it going at that time, I think that’s a big part of my job, my role of this team.
“Making sure thoe guys are getting the ball when they’re hot.”
Burke showed love for Kentucky, too. He said he’s looking forward to playing with Knox and with 7-foot rookie Mitchell Robinson, who declared for Western Kentucky but ended up sitting out the year to train on his own.
“Man, I’m very excited about those two,” Burke said. “Everyone has obviously seen what Kev did in summer league. It’s a small measuring stick, but the potential is definitely there. His ceiling is very high but I don’t think everyone realizes how much Mitchell is going to bring to this team.
“I got a chance to play with him in open gym and I was just shocked a little bit. His ability to get a rebound off of the rim and just go right back up and dunk it, it reminded me, and this is high praise, of a young Shaquille O’Neal. Just skinnier. Because he literally caught the ball and just jumped back up without dribbling and monkey-dunked it.
“Me seeing a rookie do that, I was like man this could be great, so I’m very excited to play with those two.”
Follow @AdamZagoria on Twitter
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.