While it’s easy to attribute the Knicks’ success this postseason to the additions of Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, we shouldn’t overlook the way in which the youth movement of recent Knicks’ draft picks stepped up during the Cavaliers series.
The biggest spotlight should be shone on RJ Barrett.
The former third-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft was one of the more highly-criticized Knicks players coming into the postseason. His 19.6 points per game were below his average from last year and while his overall field goal percentage improved, his 31% shooting from beyond the arc was the worst mark of his career. He also struggled on defense, ranking as the worst defender in the Knicks’ rotation based on FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric.
However, with Julius Randle hobbled by an ankle injury and unable to play both the fourth quarter of Game 4 and the entire second half of Game 5, it was Barrett who stepped up when the Knicks needed another player besides Brunson to reliably get a bucket.
He played aggressive and confident, attacking the basket and playing “downhill,” as head coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say. He scored a playoff career-high 26 points in the Game 4 win and then came back with 21 points, four rebounds, and four assists in Game 5.
He played tremendous all-around basketball during the series but came alive when it mattered the most, shooting 55.8% from the field and averaging 22 points a game in the final three games to help the Knicks advance with a 4-1 series win.
Another Knicks’ former first-round pick who took advantage of the opportunity presented by Randle’s absence was Obi Toppin.
The eighth pick in the 2020 draft, Toppin spent much of the year buried as the ninth man in a nine-man rotation, struggling to get over 11 minutes per game. However, in 22 minutes on Wednesday night, Toppin scored 12 points with two rebounds, one assist, one steal, and a +5 plus/minus. He brought energy and athleticism to the Knicks’ defense off of the bench and was an asset in transition.
OBI TOPPIN TRANSITION WINDMILL 💥 pic.twitter.com/aivF702vkV
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 27, 2023
However, no draft pick performed on Wednesday at the level that Mitchell Robinson did.
The 36th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, Robinson was a force for the Knicks in Game 5, scoring 13 points, with 18 rebounds, three blocks, committed two steals, and one assist in 36 minutes. Of his 18 rebounds, 11 of them were offensive, which makes him and Shaquille O’Neal the last two players to have 11+ offensive rebounds, 3+ blocks, and 2+ steals in a playoff game.
Also, he’s one of 81 players in NBA history to have 10+ offensive rebounds and 10+ points in a game and one of just 30 players to post 11+ offensive rebounds and 13+ points in the same game.
Anyway you slice it, it was a historic effort for Robinson, who has been frustrated at times this season with his limited role on offense but remains a true force on defense and on the glass. During the Cleveland series, Robinson averaged 9.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game as he dominated the Cavaliers’ pair of seven-footers.
Game 5 was also a bounceback game for Immanuel Quickley, who had been quiet on offense for much of the series.
The 25th-pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Quickley scored 19 points for the Knicks on Wednesday, with two rebounds, and one assist. After shooting 37% from beyond the arc during the regular season, Game 5 was just the second game in the playoffs in which Quickley made more than one three-point shot. While he got cold from the field in the fourth quarter, he was still the team’s third-leading scorer on the night.
What’s more, Quickley was a defensive asset all series. In fact, the Kentucky product leads all players in defensive win share so far in the postseason. He’s also first in defensive rating when it comes to players who’ve averaged over 10 minutes per game in the playoffs. When it comes to players who’ve averaged at least 20 minutes per game this postseason, Quickley ranks first in defensive rating and teammate Quentin Grimes ranks second.
Grimes missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, but the 25th-pick in the 2021 NBA Draft enjoyed his best season to date, scoring 11.3 points a game with 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
In the postseason, Grimes has been unable to get his shot to fall, hitting just 18.2% from the field and 11.1% from beyond the arc in two and a half games. However, his defense has been elite with that second-ranked defensive rating and the 9th-ranked defensive win share of any player in the playoffs.
In fact, the Knicks have three players in the top 10 in defensive win share so far this postseason: Quickley, Grimes, and RJ Barrett. Seeing Barrett’s name on that list is just another reminder of how tremendous he has been this postseason.
At the end of the day, Brunson and Randle will garner most of the headlines, and Leon Rose should be commended for trading for Josh Hart and signing Isaiah Hartenstein; however, the best move the Knicks have made in recent years may have been not meeting Danny Ainge’s asking price in the Donovan Mitchell trade his summer.
By holding onto Barrett, Grimes, and Quickley, the Knicks have retained a young corps that continues to get better and has grown into one of the most formidable rotations in the NBA.