Nicolas Claxton of the Brooklyn Nets and Jalen Brunson of the New York Knicks
February 14, 2023: NY Knicks guard dribbles against Nic Claxton of the Brooklyn Nets. Image via the Brooklyn Nets

Talking All Things Knicks With Candace Pedraza of ‘The Knicks Wall’

The Nets will be back at Barclays Center home after a five-game Western Conference road trip with a matchup against the Knicks on Dec. 20. Though the team has started to figure some things out, it returns home on a three-game losing streak, allowing other teams to climb the standings.

The Knicks enter Wednesday’s game following a four-game Western Conference trip of their own. The team has been able to build on a successful 2022-23 season and figures to be a tough out in the playoffs.

To prepare for the first Battle of the Boroughs this season, we reached out to Candace Pedraza, who covers New York for ‘The Knicks Wall.’ She took some time to talk about the Knicks, their upcoming matchup with the Nets and more.

Brian Fleurantin: With the news that Mitchell Robinson will be out for an extended period, how do the Knicks go about trying to make up for his absence?

Candace Pedraza: New York has long felt that their center depth is some of the best in the league. With their signing of Isaiah Hartenstein last season and with their development of Jericho Sims, I didn’t imagine they’d be in the market for any more help at that position despite losing Robinson being such a big loss. Sure enough, though, they went out and got ol’ reliable in Taj Gibson to back up both their bigs and, potentially, Julius Randle. But, I think that based on what we’ve seen in their two games so far without Robinson against the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz, head coach Tom Thibodeau is going to go with what he knows: playing it safe defensively by always having a rim protector on the floor, while relying heavily on Josh Hart to pick up the rebounding slack along with Randle. Hart’s averaging six rebounds per game in bench minutes, while Hartenstein and Sims can pretty easily grab the big man boards Robinson fights for when healthy. The combination of Hart with either of those shot-blocking centers could make up for about 80% of Robinson’s impact. Unfortunately, I do think the Knicks will suffer in terms of second-chance points available to them over this stretch, so they’ll need to really emphasize better shot selection without him there to clean things up.

February 14, 2023: New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes shoots against the Brooklyn Nets. Image via the New York Knicks.

BF: From the outside looking in, it looked as if all of Quentin Grimes’s confidence was gone. However, it appears that he’s back to his usual play now that he’s coming off the bench. What did you make of that situation and generally of how Thibs manages young players on the team?

CP: So, I will eat crow on this one and say I truly did think Grimes’s impact was slipping away because he was not getting touches alongside Randle, Brunson and Barrett in the starting lineup. That’s simply untrue. Over his last three games since moving to the bench, he’s averaged 27 touches per game, whereas prior to that, he was hovering around the same amount (26 per game). The big difference has been playing less with iso-heavy scorers like Randle, Brunson and Barrett and alongside pass-first players like Immanuel Quickley and Hartenstein who are always on the lookout for cutters and looking to drive and kick out to the corner (this is especially true for Quickley). This fits Grimes’ game so much more, and he’s really benefitted from having more room to run the floor with this unit. 

I think it was expected that the signing of Donte DiVincenzo would ruffle the feathers of Grimes in some way—he seemed like such a Thibs-y signing, I couldn’t help but feel like he was eventually going to replace him after a trade. I did not expect him to replace Grimes 21 games into the season, but I think it was the right call to squeeze the most out of Grimes and to get his confidence back. While I feel like the DiVincenzo for Grimes switcheroo is pretty 1:1, it shows that Thibs does, sometimes, listen to his young players. I wish he had the same listening skills for Quickley, and especially when he can see that Quickley is a much better scoring option for the team than Hart at times.

BF: I can’t quite tell what to make of RJ Barrett. He has stretches where he is electric and looks like an All-Star caliber player. At the same time, there are games where he appears to be a complete non-factor and is not even on the court during crunch time. Now that he is in his fifth season, what does he need to do to take that next step and become a bit more consistent?

CP: I am a huge RJ Barrett believer. He has shown flashes of greatness as you alluded to, and he was big for the Knicks in the postseason last year. But, he also shows a lot of… boneheadedness? He’ll often drive to the rim and, instead of gaining his composure and passing it out to someone open after collapsing the defense, he’ll just go up with the shot himself, often missing. His three-pointer, after looking automatic to start the season, has gotten flat. The one facet of his game that has improved, though, has been his on-ball defense. He’s been reliable in keeping most guards and wings in front of him when they try to bulldoze over him, and that’s been a big part in how New York started out so hot on the defensive end of the floor. 

All I think that he needs to work on is his decision-making. He is sometimes so sharp that I’m positive I’m watching his leap, and then he reverts right back to being a shaky option on offense at best, and a really frustrating decision-maker who sinks himself and the team with his shot selection at worst. If he can figure out how to just keep moving off ball, acting as a tough defender who can start getting some steals and getting himself going in transition, and as someone who is looking to pass first instead of trying to force himself into the action, he can be a great third-option on the team.

BF: It feels like Jalen Brunson has taken that next step and is solidly one of the best guards in the league. How has he been able to build on his successful New York debut and make himself a better player in year No. 2?

CP: Brunson has really accepted a leadership role with the Knicks. He came in, I think, with many fans holding pretty low expectations for his signing and impact. The Knicks lost out on pairing him alongside Donovan Mitchell that summer, so the perception was really around how Randle and Barrett would benefit from his presence. It’s gone so far beyond that, of course, and I believe that has a lot to do with how even-keeled he is as a playmaker who can casually shoot the laces off the net, too. 

Last season, he established himself as part of New York sports lore as he tried to Carmelo Anthony this team past the Miami Heat in the second round of the postseason. I believe that this season, the difference has just been that he’s even more comfortable with this offense and knowing which shots to take from three, when to defer to a hot hand in Randle (which has been their plan these last few games), and doing the small things like taking a league-leading amount of charges in the paint despite his 6’1” frame. Brunson is like if you constructed a basketball player in 2K with 3-and-D wing-type tendencies, but put all those skills into a small guard. He’s just so fun to watch get better and better, and it’s also a very weird feeling to watch a free agent signing for the Knicks actually work out!

Julius Randle of the New York Knicks shoots over Dorian Finney-Smith of the Brooklyn Nets.
February 14, 2023: Julius Randle of the New York Knicks shoots over Dorian Finney-Smith of the Brooklyn Nets. Image via the New York Knicks

BF: Over the years, it feels like there’s been a love-hate relationship between Knicks fans and Julius Randle. What do you think of the way he’s played so far this season?

CP: Randle has been dealt a very unfair hand by Knicks fans, in my opinion. This is the guy who was basically a Plan B signing after New York lost out on signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and he was *still* excited to play here! He has been so night and day from that 2019-20 season – I haven’t seen him Beyblade spin into the paint and try to finish over four other players for YEARS. He’s been an All-Star twice, won Most Improved Player, and has consistently led this team in scoring. I can go on, but even this season, he’s been stupendous after one of his infamously bad starts to the year. I think a leap I’ve noticed him take this year, especially, has been his willingness to trust his teammates. Folks have yelled about Randle’s potential as a passer for a season or two, and he’s finally learning that his gravity can be leveraged. So, outside of his red-hot shooting and strength in the post, he has really turned it up as a facilitator which has helped players like Brunson who have been shooting really well, and has helped players like Quickley who play off of how much attention he receives.

Overall, Randle is really underappreciated. Still is. Always will be while he is on the Knicks. But he is a joy to watch, much like Brunson and Quickley, and I will not kill him for missing a few defensive assignments per night considering all the other things he brings to the table for this club.

BF: As we head into 2024, what is something you will be watching closely for the team?

CP: The popular answer right now is “What star are the Knicks waiting for?” Honestly, I’m slowly sinking into that realization lately, but less so regarding a star and more so wondering if they’ll make another Hart-type deal by the trade deadline that gives them a morale boost and fills a need. Right now, the most glaring need for this team is another wing on the bench for size and for shooting. A trade for the New Orleans Pelicans’ forward Trey Murphy III is a really interesting idea for the Knicks, or San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson. With players like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns succeeding with their respective teams, I don’t see the Knicks pulling the trigger on a huge deal until next summer. But, a smaller trade could definitely give them a necessary boost and a necessary backup to Randle for the rest of the year.

BF: Is there anything that I missed that you’d like to make mention of? Also, where can the people keep up with you and your work?

CP: Nothing at all! Thanks so much for these questions! I do features and recaps on the Knicks over with the fine folks at The Knicks Wall, and I also do some WNBA coverage with Winsidr (but that will be back next year). Keep an eye out for video breakdowns and podcasting we plan on rolling out in the New Year!