The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

The Ship Sets Sail: Live Thoughts and Early Impressions of Gallinari

It’s funny- I avoided live Knicks games for almost the entirety of the Isiah era as part of a personal boycott, but I’ve managed to have really good luck in the few I’ve seen in that span: one game quite a few years back where Stephon Marbury went nuts and hit some ridiculous number of 3s, the Jamal Crawford 52 point game against the Heat, and now today’s game against the Bulls which may not have had any one standout performances but was a great win and a fun game. I ended up going to this one partly just on a holiday whim but mostly because I wanted to get a better look at Danilo Gallinari in his first serious action as a stateside pro, having only caught the Knicks in 60 version of the Philadelphia game. A few bullet point thoughts on the last couple of games and the live experience, and then some more on the Rooster.

– It’s hard to put a finger on precisely why, but being in the Garden for the Knicks was vastly more enjoyable this time than it was in my experience at least at any time in the last…uh…decade? It’s still too loud and too crowded in the stairs and bathrooms and they still won’t stop playing noise constantly, but it’s a lot better than it was. Some of it is that this team is actually fun to root for and there’s a sense of hope around the franchise, and consequently fans are much more positive and into the game; some of it is that the irritating “popular” “music” has been phased down in favor of more sports-specific garglemesh like the Ole Ole song; some of it is that the between-quarters local entertainment is just as local but vastly more entertaining than previously (a marching band with choreographed dance moves is very preferable to child singers talent contest, believe me), some of it may just be that I caught a holiday matinee against a beatable team- who can say? The bottom line for me was that I mildly enjoyed the atmosphere instead of grumpily tolerating it. Thumbs up for that change.

– I will say that whoever decided that there had to be an extremely loud, generic, 1991 vintage hip hop beat under the players talking about Martin Luther King on the big screen should rethink their approach, however.

– One thing about the live experience is that some on-court moves stick out a lot more clearly from some angles which aren’t available on TV. I’ve seen Derrick Rose two or three times previously this season, but I hadn’t picked up on how often he uses one particular go-to move: a quick stutter step drive fake as he brings the ball up which gets him two steps under the 3 point line and freezes his defender, followed by a fade to his left and usually a totally open jumper from there which he’s very accurate with. He probably used that move 7 or 8 times in this game.

– I realize I’m echoing Bill Simmons on this one, but he’s right: you do pick up on body language and interactions between team members a lot more when you’re there live, which was part of why I went today- I wanted to see how Gallinari was being integrated into the team, especially since he’s getting rotation player minutes in all 4 quarters right out of the gate instead of being broken in slowly with cameo appearances here and there. More below on that aspect specifically, but in general I’d say I was very happy to see what looked like real camaraderie among the players today: lots of hand-slapping and encouragement, communication without fingerpointing, hard play despite coming off of two fugly losses, attention to the coach- all you could really ask for. Throw in the crowd being into the game and supportive of the team today and you have a lot of positive energy around the franchise at the moment. It’s actually fun to be a Knicks fan again.

– The Bulls, meanwhile, looked like 12 random guys who met in the parking lot before the game. Stench of death on that team. Two coaches later they seem to have all the same problems they had under Skiles, including sitting 25th in the league in TS% and being no fun whatsoever to watch. No one on that team enjoys going to work except maybe Drew Gooden, who’s almost unnaturally chipper.

-Mike Dan Tony’s little trick of defending the point with Jared Jefferies is starting to get noticed by advance scouts and adjusted to. Jefferies got the call for that duty again today and in response the Bulls consistently started their possessions against that look with a sort of scrape-screen up top near the 3 point line designed to force the switch and get Jefferies off of the point. On the upside it took a few seconds off the clock of each Bulls possession, but the countermove was mostly successful at getting a guard back onto Rose.

– I’m mostly not a fan of Dave Berri’s analysis for a host of reasons, but he’s absolutely right about Joakim Noah. Even in a loss he was probably the best player on the court today (+4, only Bulls starter with a +) with 18 boards (7 offensive) and 3 blocks in only 29 minutes, and I’m not just saying this because we briefly attended the same high school. Nope. Honest. Wouldn’t do that.

– Big Dave Lee was 3-14 in this game. Some of that was just bad luck and iffy finishing around the basket, but some of it was also him resorting to that jumper of his. According to 82games.com, he’s currently taking 29% of his shots from that range for a .363 eFG%; last year he was taking 26% for a .405 eFG%. That’s better than 06-07 (23%, .289), but it’s still not productive. In probably related news Chris Duhon’s back is obviously bothering him and while he played well today he did so by relying on his own jumper and some two man game stuff with Lee in the post, rarely running the screen/role with Big Dave which has been so effective at times this season. It’s worth keeping an eye out to see if Lee’s FG% takes a hit in some sort of clear relationship to Duhon’s staying away from that play, which at least in theory may result in Lee taking more jumpers.

That Guy watch: I was sitting next to two Very Important People who arrived one after another in the late first and early second quarters and spent large chunks of the game screwing around with Blackberrys and paying little attention to the game, which elicited barely a murmur from the pair of them. On a holiday. For a matinee. While they were drinking. Got to be kidding me.

Jersey of the Day: a kid not older than 12 wearing a Houston Oilers Earl Campbell shirt. I have no explanation whatsoever for this.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So all that out of the way, how’s the Rooster looking? After all, with the exception of maneuvering in the trade market for cap space, the development of Gallinari is probably the most important thing happening this season in regards to the long-term health and development of the franchise. Bearing in mind that I was as Sean will attest strongly in favor of drafting this kid, so far I have to say I’m quite impressed with him.

On offense he moves very well without the ball, curling off screens and flashing out when a teammate drives to provide passing options and spread the floor, as well as running the floor well on the break in terms of spacing. His shooting motion is smooth and effortless and so far this month he’s 6-11 from the field, 3-5 from three in 31 minutes. He seems roughly equally at ease either shooting off the dribble or spotting up, which contributes to his general profile of offensive versatility without being overwhelming in any one area. Right now he’s willing to shoot but also still clearly a little hesitant to force himself into the offense, becoming peripheral at times and going a couple of plays here and there without touching the ball. He seems to have good rebounding instincts, but gets outmuscled with some regularity and will have to get better at boxing out. He’s clearly got an eye for passing and throws some nice outlets off defensive rebounds including one to a breakaway Nate Robinson today, which is a skill which should stand him in good stead as he gets stronger and better on the boards. His athleticism, strength aside, is roughly as described: not special or overwhelming, but pretty good- more than enough to make his ballhandling an effective weapon off the dribble when guarded by a 4 or one of the less athletic 3s. Honestly, he reminded me a lot of Toni Kukoc in general profile as was his reputation, and if he ends up being that good when he hits his prime I’ll be thrilled.

Defensively he’s actually a lot better than the rumors would have had it, especially when you factor in that he’s a 20 year old rookie coming off an injury against players in midseason form in essentially his first real week of NBA games. His strength is also a major drawback on this end, which gets highlighted when he ends up guarding high level athletes: Andre Iguodala in the Sixers game and Tyrus Thomas today both destroyed him one on one and finished with huge dunks. On the upside Gallinari appeared unfazed after both incidents, continuing to play hard and not get either discouraged or angry, or trying to do too much to make up for the dunk. Also on the positive side he seems very aware of what’s going on around him, switching intelligently, never losing his man completely or really blowing assignments; I was quietly comparing him to Yi Jianlian during this game who he somewhat resembles as a player, and even though Yi is older and more experienced he doesn’t have a quarter of Gallinari’s understanding and poise on this end of the court. Gallinari also seems to be a useful clogger in the making with 2 steals and a block today in only 16 minutes, as well as a variety of tipped passes, slapped away balls and clogged passing lanes. What he sometimes lacks in individual defense he makes up for in this way as a team defender. He also seems to have some versatility on that end, guarding both 2 guards (Heirich, Gordon) and forwards (Nocioni, Thomas) today at various times. Fun fact: Yahoo’s box scores had him as a +7 against Philly and a +3 against the Bulls, for whatever that’s worth.

On the team chemistry front I’d prefer not to read too much into what I saw since obviously no fan can really know the whole picture, but things looked very good today. Gallinari was speaking regularly with other players, which suggests both that language is not an issue and that he’s committed to working as part of the team and his teammates are committed to helping him. There was a lot of hand slapping and such, and after his dunk there was the spectacle of him doing those leaping hip bumps with other players and accidentally almost sending David Lee headfirst into the bench. Some of this is probably facilitated by his versatility, as he actually played at shooting guard at times today which meant he wasn’t eating too badly into any other player’s minutes. At any rate I think it’s fair to say there’s no obvious issues on this front right now.

Overall I’m extremely impressed with Gallinari given his age and experience level. He’s obviously first and foremost a basketball player; I honestly think that if he were, say, 6’2 he might still have a future in the league as a journeyman point given how good his basketball IQ and shooting stroke are. In a league that sometimes still has to plead guilty to drafting glorified track and field athletes and hoping they can become basketball players, he’s a huge breathe of fresh air as a rookie. Compare and contrast, for an easy example, with Tyrus Thomas: the Bulls forward had a good shooting day going 8-11 with 10 boards against a weak defense today, but he was also guilty of 5 turnovers, 2 goaltendings and a variety of other dumbshoes plays which left him at a -9 for the game (I know that stat is limited, but it’s suggestive). Gallinari, as noted, had a pretty good line himself and was a +3. Thomas is two years older than Gallinari, was drafted two slots higher, has played 3 NBA seasons where the Rooster has played 4 NBA games, played only 8 minutes fewer in this game alone than Gallinari has in his entire NBA career, and I’m honestly not sure who was more useful today. I recognize that this sounds as though I’m getting carried away by Gallinari’s potential and to a degree that may be true, but what I’m really impressed with is just how much of that potential has already been realized- with this player it’s not a question of developing skills, but of honing them and finding the most useful ways to employ them within the context of the NBA game. That, along with his versatility, makes him the perfect player for the Knicks at the moment: a guy who’s good enough to be attractive in some measure to free agents as a teammate, has a varied enough game to create confidence that he can adapt to a variety of teammates and playing styles, and is willing and able to be effective with and without the ball in his hands. That’s about all you could hope for at this point.

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January 19, 2009 - Posted by | The NY Knicks |

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