The 2017-18 Midseason Awards
The Knicks season hit the midway point last Wednesday following a wrenching 122-119 double overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls. The loss brought the team's record to a meager 19-22, not far off from the 18-23 record from last year or the 20-21 mark from the season before that. Despite this year's record falling right in line with those of past seasons, there are now tangible positives to take away that did not exist before. Imminent tank notwithstanding, it has been one of the most enjoyable Knicks seasons in quite some time. The not-very-good-but-hard-to-hate Jarett Jack now starts at point guard — a position previously occupied by the corpses of Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose. Jack's steadiness at point salvaged the season and should be commended given his physical limitations. It has also paved the way for Frank Ntilikina, whose defense has already shifted games, to take over the spot when Jack's legs finally give out. Across the roster there have been plenty of other Knicks who have silenced their critics thus far, and whether or not this team is legitimately good or was just aided by a home-heavy schedule, they deserve some awards for putting on a good show. Without further ado, the 2017-18 Midseason Awards!
Best Teammate: Enes Kanter
Kanter's arrival to the Knicks was met with skepticism by many: after being the third overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Kanter had seemingly been used as a salary filler in a long overdue Melo trade. After being an expensive backup in Oklahoma City, the Knicks had higher expectations for the twenty-five-year-old. So far this season, Kanter has started all 41 games that he has played in for the Knicks — a stark contrast from just the one that he started in over the previous two seasons. The results have been mostly positive: Kanter has averaged a double-double and offers elite rebounding and finishing, however that's about it, and he rarely finishes games. His hyper-efficient stat lines make him somewhat of an enigma: how can someone with stats this good be played so sparingly? And why is this already his third team? I don't have the answers to those questions, but I do know that there are few — if any — players that I would rather have on my side in any sort of conflict.
Regular season game against the Cavaliers in which LeBron tries to punk your prized rookie more than once? Kanter's got your back.
Having a disappointing season in which your alleged "big three" haven't figured out how to play together? No worries, Kanter still thinks you're better than the Warriors.
Being ruled by a power-hungry dictator that denies its citizens basic human rights? Kanter isn't afraid to call bullshit.
There may be questions about Kanter's defense and floor spacing, but the dude's willing to die for his country and his teammates. I'm even neglecting the win against Atlanta on December 10 in which Kanter arrived and left the game on crutches but still played 18 minutes. Keep doing your thing, Enes.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway's first stint with the Knicks ended when the franchise finally hit rock bottom: he was traded on draft night in 2015 for the rights to Jerian Grant following a 17-65 season, good for the second-worst record in the league. That 2014-15 season was the Knicks' most comprehensive tank job ever, and the only thing that stopped them from having the worst record in the league was Hardaway's "heroics" in the 80th and 81st games of the season, leading the Knicks to two straight victories and allowing the Timberwolves to leapfrog them for the no. 1 pick and select Karl-Anthony Towns. It's an interesting what-if that luckily worked out for the Knicks and Hardaway, who has been enjoying a career year alongside Porzingis.
The Hardway that the Knicks signed this summer for an eye-popping $71 million looks like a different player from the one that started his career with the Knicks. His points per game have increased from 11.5 to 18.0, and his rebounds and assists have also risen. The Knicks are finally getting the player that Hardaway had been advertised as: a slashing wing who can create his own shot and take pressure off the star of his team. In his first two seasons, Hardaway's ability to attack the basket was somewhat of a fallacy. Per NBA.com, he averaged just 1.8 and 3.0 drives per game respectively. This season, that number is at 5.5, good for second-best on the team. Hardaway's comfort with the ball in his hands is the single-biggest improvement that he has made to his game, and it affords the Knicks a second elite scorer that defenses must respect. On the other side of the ball, his defense has taken the leap from subpar to passable, as he has been playing the most small forward of his career and using his bulked-up frame to stay with bigger players. Hardaway has proven willing to make the necessary improvements to his game, and that willingness has been huge for the Knicks. At just twenty-five-years-old and in the first year of what no longer looks like an albatross contract, Hardaway figures to be a staple in the Knicks starting lineup for the next four years.
Most Unpleasant Surprise: Willy Hernangomez
It's been a disappointing year for Willy to say the least. Coming off a rookie year that saw him make the All-Rookie First Team and win April Rookie of the Month, Hernangomez's second year is the definition of a sophomore slump. He has averaged just 9 minutes and played in only 19 games thus far, and is behind Kanter, Kyle O'Quinn, and sometimes even Joakim Noah on the depth chart. I wanted to believe that Willy's lack of minutes had to do with Kanter and O'Quinn exceeding expectations and that perhaps a season on the bench could help as he could learn from the more experienced bigs, however that has not been the case, and Willy has looked like a shell of himself so far this season. Hernangomez has done little to deserve more minutes and, barring an injury, seems positioned to remain on the bench for the foreseeable future. On the flip side, his poor play may have everything to do with not getting enough run: rookies and young players oftentimes need large doses of minutes to flourish and find their games. Rookies like Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell have all found success through a surplus of chances — that could be exactly what Hernangomez needs. If this season hits a similar nosedive like the two before it, Hernangomez could finally get the opportunities he needs to turn his season around. Last season he started 21 of his final 25 games and displayed the impressive potential that made him so intriguing.
Most Valuable Pieces of the Franchise: Frank Ntilikina and Kristaps porzingis
However the second half of the season plays out, it can already be considered a success for two reasons: Kristaps Porzingis has shown that he can be the number one option for his team and Frank Ntilikina is good. This season, Porzingis has demonstrated a more diverse and versatile offensive game in which he has punished mismatches and flopped incessantly to the tune of a career-high 6.1 free throws attempts per game. Questions about fatigue and his body will dog him for the rest of his career, but the MVP-level play that he showed at the beginning of the season is a good way to quiet the doubters. With Hardaway back and looking as if he hasn't missed a step, Porzingis could enjoy a splendid second half.
Frank Ntilikina entered this season with low expectations: the season would be used as a year to acclimate him to NBA competition and include plenty of growing pains. The growing pains have been there, but the flashes that Frank has shown are legit and sustainable. Frank's claim to fame was always his defense, but no one expected it to be this impactful at just nineteen-years-old. It has already swung games, like the Lakers game back in December when he prevented Lonzo Ball from scoring any points in the fourth quarter or overtime. His three-point shot has looked iffy at times, but his form is good and he's got to keep shooting it in order to improve. Moreover, his lack of offense seems to be a lack of willingness on offense; the tools are there to become an elite all-around player, it seems like he just needs to be more comfortable with creating offense for himself. Ntilikina will always have his defense to fall back on which will afford him plenty of chances to become a more selfish and aggressive offensive player, and at his age it's hard to see him not eventually putting all of his tools together.