Knicks Draft 2018: Don’t Love Knox. Don’t Hate Him.

The first NBA draft for the Perry/Mills/Fizdale leadership team is in the books. So I’ll get right to the point, I don’t love Knox as a prospect but I certainly see what there is to love and I don’t know that there were much better options at #9. I never pronounce judgment the day after a draft unless I think the team did something dumb. They didn’t. Debatable? Certainly, but that’s to be expected. 

What I don’t like…

Though I doubt he’ll be some Anthony Bennett-level bust who just can’t play, Knox scares me a bit as a prospect. He’s actually not very good at anything just yet. To be fair, he’s always been young for his cohort. At just over 18 now, he’s the youngest or 2nd youngest player drafted this year. So he’s being sold as a high upside pick. That’s actually the part that scares me. As my homeboy Ty says, “greatness manifests early in basketball.” Yet, as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton notes (Insider), Knox has never really been great even in his cohort at AAU, USA Basketball, or at Kentucky. I’m not a big Trae Young fan, but even ignoring his shooting, he’s an elite playmaker in his cohort. Knox has been a decent-but-not-especially-efficient scorer who contributes less to the “effort” categories (rebounds/blocks/steals) than his athletic traits lead you to expect. He also doesn’t appear to be a playmaker of any note.

What I like…

I’m actually not here to crush our (Sharpei) puppy-faced prospect. Rather, I’m here to temper talk of his upside being Durant-like. (Thanks, Chauncey and others.) Unrealistic expectations doom prospects as much as anything else. If Knox really projected to be all-NBA or even consistent all-star caliber he’d probably already be elite at some aspect of the game, even at 18. (As Michael Beasley has said of Kevin Durant, “He had that jumper in the 6th grade.”) Over two seasons of EYBL and a freshman season as Kentucky’s leading scorer, he’s not proven to be even “very good” at any one aspect of the game. Nevertheless, the skills, the smooth athleticism, and a frame that can easily hold another 15 lbs. are all undeniable (especially given NY’s desperate need for more athleticism). I can’t blame anyone for feeling confident that production will soon follow. 

To my mind, a reasonable outcome for Knox is as a quality starter who functions mostly as a weakside scorer that puts the ball on the floor well enough to keep defenses honest. Assuming the shot comes around–his stroke looks legitimately great, so let’s call that likely–the open question is whether he’ll do enough other things to not offset his shooting. Given NY’s roster (and some potential culling), he could be starting consistently in his second season. I think his body probably fills out into a big 3/stretch 4, along the lines of Danillo Gallinari. If everything breaks right he could be better, but that’s more optimistic than realistic. 

In terms of process, the Knox selection is an easily defensible one given the way the board fell. I don’t see much fault on draft night. There were no dominating alternatives waiting for the Knicks at #9. Once Atlanta flipped Doncic to Dallas for Young I don’t think there was even a vaguely realistic trade-up scenario for NY. Add to that, you look at selections 10-15 and none of them is hands-down a better prospect than Knox. He was the last guy I feel comfortable projecting as a decent starter before a talent cliff. 

  • Mikal Bridges (PHI/traded): I am solidly on Team Mikal(TM) but his limitations are well known, even if I feel like his upside (especially on defense) has been criminally undersold.
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (CHA/traded): Meh.
  • Miles Bridges (LAC/traded): He has his fans, me among them, but Knox cleaned his clock at the workout by all accounts. Certainly, if NY loved Miles he was available via trade.
  • Jerome Robinson (LAC): So, the Clippers ended up with two almost identically sized PGs?
  • Michael Porter, Jr. (DEN): I’m a Mizzou alum, and even I thought Michael Porter, Jr.’s risk profile wasn’t right for NY. It’s a legit great pick for Denver. Since they’re not going to defend at all they actually need another scorer. 
  • Troy Brown (WAS): I like Brown for them. They need bench talent so, so badly.

In the second round, NY selected Mitchell Robinson, something of a mystery man C who did not play college ball after committing to Western Kentucky. Again, given the way the board fell I have no problem with a gamble on his athletic traits. He’s 7’1″ in shoes with a 9’3″ standing reach and bouncy. It’s worth noting that his size and athleticism translated into production in the EYBL, where he rebounded and blocked his ass off. According to Pelton, he was dominant among his peers in those most translatable of box score categories. Among all EYBL players from 2012-16, Mitchell was 1st in block rate, 3rd in OREB%, and 1st in 2-pt. % (min. 150 FGAs). Yes please, and thank you. 

Evidently, NY has also signed former Arizona guard Allonzo Trier to a two-way contract. Though I’d have preferred Rawle Alkins, this is easily a worthwhile gamble.

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Why Being a Knicks Fan is the Worst (But This Time Might Be Different)

As you are no doubt aware, dear reader, Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis (aka the Unicorn) tore his ACL in a meaningless game on February 4th against the Milwaukee Bucks. The injury ends his 2017-18 season and almost certainly keeps him out of game action until after the calendar turns to 2019. This was, in its own way, a perfect microcosm of life as a Knicks fan. To that point in the contest, KP had more than held his own against Milwaukee’s uber-talented phenom, Giannis Antetokuonmpo. Porzingis blocked at least one of his dunk attempts and generally frustrated him. Of course, with Porzingis off the court the “Greek freak” went bananas

On the 2nd quarter play where Porzingis was injured he faked a high ball screen then quickly slipped it and cut to the rim, coming wide open to receive a perfect bounce pass for a dunk. Antetokuonmpo pursued but had little chance to contest the shot. Unfortunately, as Porzingis landed he appeared to catch just a wee bit of Antetokuonmpo’s foot with his own. He came down awkwardly and crumpled into a heap, clutching at his knee. With so little contact (it’s not even clear on video) a torn ACL seemed far less likely than an ankle sprain. Yet here we are.

Of course, Knicks fans are hardly alone in terms of suffering through life with an injured star. So when I say that the Porzingis injury is a microcosm of life as a Knicks fan, I’m not suggesting the Knicks have it worse than others. Rather, I’m referring to that foreboding sense that every Knicks fan feels; that the outcome will eventually be terrible no matter the cause. Now, it’s incompetent boobery often enough to warrant endless mocking from seemingly every ignorant jackass in the sports media universe. So at least dumb luck represents a kind of rhythm change. We usually have to wait all the way until the June draft lottery to get screwed by dumb luck. But here it is in early February, like Punxatawney Phil’s dismal shadow.

But y’know? This time feels a little different. To be clear, losing Porzingis is fetal-position-thumb-suck bad. I just feel more confident than in the past that this front office won’t make things worse with idiotic quick fixes. Y’know why? The Knicks are–gasp–not incompetently run. As much as it feels like tempting cruel fate to type those words, they are true as far as I can tell.  Although the possibility of a James Dolan “big time” move this summer hangs like the Sword of Damocles, he has (to date and to his credit) stayed disengaged from day-to-day management since firing Phil Jackson. The Mills/Perry duo (to date and to its credit) has stayed away from the kind of short-sighted, just-do-a-bigger-deal disasters that any Knicks fan can recite without thinking. Reasonable people can criticize their player evaluation (they clearly didn’t value Hernangomez), but turning McDermott (who they weren’t going to pay) into a cost-controlled look at a guard with size, athleticism, and some upside is not a bad look at all. 

Native American Mascots: It Ain’t About Who is Offended

Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, just published a piece in The Nation on the Washington, D.C. NFL club’s mascot. You know the one. The piece is worth a read. It is both passionate and thoughtful, which for me hits a real sweet spot.

Native American mascots must go. I’m all in, but this May 19th article by John Cox, Scott Clement, and Theresa Vargas, about a Washington Post (WaPo) opinion poll of 504 Native Americans should engender some thoughtful reflection by those of us who oppose Native American mascots. The poll, problematic in its own right, lays bare core weaknesses in how mascot opponents have framed the issue. Though I agree with Keeler in broad brush strokes, I think her analysis also displays some of those weaknesses. The most damaging is that, like many mascot opponents, she falls into the “personal offense” trap. Although taking offense is not trivial, it obscures a fundamental problem with Native American mascots: White supremacy. Native American mascots enact White supremacist ideology, which is unjust on its face, regardless of who takes offense to it.

Keeler’s critique of the poll doesn’t amount to much and manages to obscure a far more important point.

To be clear right up front, I am not Native American. So I’m definitely not here to “Redsplain” (if that’s a thing) Native American mascots to somebody who is. I am here to take Keeler’s points seriously and offer counters where I disagree. (At one time, we used the term “discourse” to describe this practice of responding to public statements.)

An important point on which I wholeheartedly agree with Keeler is that Native mascots do psychological harm to Native American people. (Peer-reviewed research establishes the effects.) In fact, I wish Keeler had simply chosen this point as the basic rejoinder to the WaPo poll. On this basis alone, school boards, state athletic associations, the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, and other amateur and professional sports leagues ought to choose to retire them. Removing these mascots harms no one. Perpetuating them does. Within the limits of social science, this is a pretty inescapable conclusion. This is why the American Psychological Association called for their retirement in 2005.

Unfortunately, Keeler leads with a criticism of the poll itself that obscures this more fundamental point. I have no idea about her background in survey/polling methods, since she does not reveal it in the column, but I have taught undergraduate and graduate research courses in marketing at the University of South Carolina for 13 years. I’d state with some confidence that most of her objections to WaPo’s sampling methods are quite minor. They are not necessarily wrong, but they do not explain away the poll’s results. Additionally, I can’t see, based on her column and my own reading of the poll, anything to justify the claim that WaPo allowed a narrative to drive a specific set of results.

Let me reiterate, the poll is problematic. And, I do not think we should interpret it’s results at face value. Sampling wasn’t the problem though.

So, let’s talk about problems with the poll and move on to what’s important.

From a methods standpoint, it’s a pretty orthodox poll; not problem-free, mind you, because no poll is. People far too often wish to invalidate poll results they don’t like by pointing out minor, insubstantial flaws. Every flaw is not fatal. For example, Keeler raises a legitimately interesting criticism of the sample’s high age relative to Native Americans nationally. The sample appears to skew older and more male. But even considering that, WaPo wouldn’t have to add many more young people to a 500 person sample (a reasonable size, so let’s not go there) to lower the median age. Adding a few more young people  would indeed lower the age, but seems very unlikely to substantially change the results.

With that out of the way, let’s get to what’s really wrong with the poll. The reported results are very much open to charges of “social desirability bias.” On matters that may be controversial, people often respond to survey/poll items in ways that are consistent with how they want others to perceive them. Just like in real life, we may lie or exaggerate so we don’t look bad. On polls, we may tell a pollster what we think s/he wants to hear. Or, we may respond in ways we think we are “supposed” to when that’s not how we really feel. Social desirability just happens. It’s not necessarily something the researcher creates with bad form. When researchers ask questions that tap into people’s experience of vulnerability social desirability is an obvious potential problem. People will always be highly motivated to guard against feeling vulnerable. As you might imagine, social desirability bias looms large in survey-based research on sensitive topics, like experience with racism (see linked abstract). Again, researchers don’t create the bias. Nor can they make its effects disappear entirely. They can, however, take steps to minimize its effects.

With that in mind, read the WaPo poll item that’s driving all the talk on this topic.

WaPo mascot poll

Now I’m not one to gossip, but I wouldn’t let one of my undergraduates send out this item (or any of the others) on such a sensitive topic worded this way. This poll doesn’t just fail to minimize social desirability bias, it practically begs for socially desirable responses. The Washington Post or their research agency basically called up 500 Native Americans and asked them, “Well, are you some kinda punk sissy or not? If you are, how badly have you personally been wounded by this cartoon figure?” I’m only being a wee bit tongue-in-cheek. That is NOT an unreasonable interpretation of the item, particularly from an older, male-heavy sample.

Academics probably worry about social desirability bias more than pollsters, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for pollsters. Ultimately, I feel comfortable saying the WaPo poll results are probably driven by desirability because they failed to do even the simplest things that would suggest any awareness of a (potential) problem. Frankly, to see near unanimity on ANY topic, much less a controversial one, really ought to have arched a lot of eyebrows at WaPo. Add to that, numerous statements from elected tribal councils and some other polling data. That kind of context suggests that the WaPo poll results don’t really deserve benefit of the doubt, not when the WaPo poll has zero–no–indirect items. That’s standard practice when social desirability may be a problem. Nope. Every question is about “you, personally.” Even WaPo admits to being surprised by the consistency of their results in Keeler’s column. Well, WaPo, I have an explanation for why your numbers look the way they do but doesn’t take them at face value. You can’t rule it out because you didn’t even try.

Even socially desirable responses can be meaningful. What do these mean? 

WaPo kinda sidesteps social desirability bias by adopting the language of anti-mascot activists to frame their questions. They are not wrong in this. It just doesn’t solve the problem. Nevertheless, this is where the anti-mascot crowd (mostly us liberals) need to own our contribution to this, and use it as an opportunity to grow and get better.

Liberals have helped frame the mascot issue around “personal offense,” largely, I think, as a way of avoiding any discussion of White supremacy. It is difficult to imagine a more disempowering way to frame the mascot issue than personal offense. It must be frustrating for someone doing their best to escape or manage the harm Native American mascots cause, however mild or severe, only to find that the language of those opposed to the practice almost completely mischaracterizes their dilemma. I can see why 90% of Native Americans polled flat out rejected “personal offense” language. And really, can you blame them? Time to move that to the dust bin.

Native American feelings are important, but not central. Injustice is.

The problem you (or anyone) should have with Native American mascots is the same problem you should have with me smacking you (or anyone) upside the head whenever I feel like it. It’s not complicated. My actions are ipso facto unjust. There is no moral or ethical principle that entitles me to take liberties with your person, or your extended self (which includes your stuff and your likeness). “Me and my friends don’t mean any harm. We’re just having a good time” does not entitle me to take such liberties. Any harm I cause you would be over and above that fundamental injustice, and it is the duty of clear-thinking people committed to justice to call on me to stop.

Unfortunately, the (American) cultural tendency to psychologize every blessed thing has caused many people to conflate matters of social justice with personal feelings. A consequence has been to obscure the fact that the White supremacist ideology that gave life to Native American mascots is fundamentally unjust. And as such, it is not subject to some “no harm, no foul” proviso. (If 90% are unwilling to admit to being personally offended then the mascots must be okay. Now, back to our war chants and chopping.)

As manifestations of White supremacy go, some undoubtedly have less capacity for harm than others, but they are all unjust. Some manifestations are ground into physical and social infrastructure. The injustices that stem from them are difficult to escape or undo. They are with us. Other manifestations are quite fleeting and ethereal. They are the unexpected smack upside the head. But sometimes these fleeting instances of White supremacy have opt-outs. People of goodwill can simply choose to opt out; to not smack someone else upside the head just because they wish to do so. If nothing else, the Native American mascot issue is an interesting look into who opts out and who doesn’t when given the chance.