Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece giving an X’s and O’s perspective on how the Erie BayHawks could play this year when the G League bubble season opens up next month. While that piece took some time, it wasn’t difficult to explain in the written as the team’s roster made sense and you can immediately imagine how the team could play when they take the court. That understanding increased after looking at film from the 2019-20 season and realizing how the system that Pannone implemented in that year can fit in with the new batch of players.
However, that wasn’t exactly the case with the Westchester Knicks when they released their roster on January 21st. My first reaction was a sense of intrigue as it features a lot of players that are so used to being the centerpiece of the offense. The biggest example of this is how eight (!) players on their roster; Jared Harper, Louis King, Bryce Brown, James Young, Simi Shittu, Myles Powell, Theo Pinson, and Justin Patton who had a Usage Percentage (USG%) of 20% or higher last season. Two of the lone exceptions on that list would be Skal Labissierre and Dennis Smith Jr, who should be important parts of the Knicks roster given their experiences in the NBA.
2021 Westchester Knicks roster
|Tyler Hall||G||6'5||209||Montana State||Returning|
|Andrew White III||F||6'7||210||Syracuse||Returning|
|Tra-Deon Hollins||G||6'2||195||Omaha||Returning (via trade)|
|Bryce Brown||G||6'3||198||Auburn||Returning (via trade)|
|Simi Shittu||F||6'10||208||Vanderbilt||Returning (via trade)|
|Myles Powell||G||6'2||195||Seton Hall||Affiliate|
|Theo Pinson||F||6'5||212||North Carolina||Two-Way|
|Justin Patton||C||6'11||241||Creighton||Draft (rights belong to Wisconsin|
|Dennis Smith Jr.||G||6'3||196||NC State||Assignee|
While an eternal optimism can see those facts and believe that’s a sign that the Knicks have an extremely talented roster filled with guys with the level of offensive talent that allows teams to be comfortable with them carrying the offensive load. Is there some truth resting in that statement? Absolutely.
However things get tricky when you’re in the role of current Westchester head coach Derrick Alston and have to build a rotation with players that are used to being a centerpiece for their team. Although I’m definitely not the basketball mind of someone like Alston or assistant coach Jaren Jackson Sr, who have both been involved in basketball for decades, yours truly has still decided to take on the challenge of using film and info to make sense of this team and how they could look in the Disney bubble.
In Alston’s first year as the team’s head coach, Westchester averaged 101.9 possessions per game, which placed them 23rd in the G League in pace. That pace didn’t exactly help out their offense as the Knicks put up 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which placed them 19th in the G League. That below-average nature was simply the cause of lack of weapons that you can rely upon on a night-by-night basis. Besides guard Lamar Peters, who shined in his rookie year, the other two players that averaged more than 15 points per game for the team, Ignas Brazdeikis and Ivan Rabb, missed more than ten of the team’s 41 games through their status as a two-way player or assignee.
That obviously won’t be the case this year as every player on the team’s roster is expected to stay within the Disney World during the shortened season. This should give Coach Alston the comfort with being able to utilize the high level of talent that surround the roster. Although the roster is going to be completely different besides Andrew White and Tyler Hall returning from that 2019-20 season, the on-court approach that Derrick Alston utilized should be similar, despite how their big brothers are now coached by Tom Thibodeau, who wasn’t in that position when Westchester last took the court.
Last year, the Westchester Knicks ran a lot of five out motion sets where the action begins on the side. Whether it was side pick-and-rolls or ISOs, these approaches were meant to exemplify the mobility of the bigs, drivers and open up spacing opportunities for the shooters that are positioned on the wing or corners. Although the above statistics show that the team didn’t have much success, that approach still made sense when you realize the drive-and-kick ability of Lamar Peters, mobility of Ivan Rabb, and the shooting prowess of players like Hall and White.
A visual example of how this worked last year is seen in the clip below where Kadeem Allen and Rabb work together beautifully in a pick-and-roll, which finishes with Allen making a great feed to the roll man. The five out approach really helps make this play work as the facilitator has multiple passing options which include the roll man (Rabb), or the two shooters (White and Hall) that are stationed on the opposite corners.
As we mentioned at the top of this piece, one of the main concerns that came out when Westchester’s roster was released is how the offense will work with so many players that are taking control of the ball. However, an approach dedicated to using side motion sets with a lot of spacing could help tide those concerns. That’s especially the case with the rotations that you’re able to make from this roster.
For example, it might be hard to find a player that’s most capable of working as the handler in these sets than Knicks two-way player Jared Harper. Last year as a rookie with Northern Arizona, 5’11 guard shined as someone that can be a patient passer in the pick-and-roll, explode to the paint and kick it out to an open man, and be good enough from deep, he shot 37% from 3 as a rookie, where opponents can’t give him too much space.
Two other guards that can really shine in the side pick-and-roll scenarios would be assignees Dennis Smith, Ignas Brazdeikis, and G League veteran Tra-Deon Hollins. Although he’s never been a good shooter, Smith can still be a threat through being an explosive guard that can work towards the rim, dish it out to the perimeter, or throw pocket passes to Skal or Patton. On the other end, Hollins combined elite defense with fantastic facilitating, as he averaged 7.9 assists per game with a 2.2 Ast/TO ratio. The Omaha alum is more of a patient facilitator that does a great job of finding the exact moment to push the ball to cutters and roll men.
To complete this trio, 6’7 Knicks prospect Ignas Brazdeikis used last season to prove himself as a capable point forward that impressed as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls. With Westchester, he proved himself capable of being patient with roll man and waiting for the right opportunity to push the ball, probing to mid-range and kicking out to a shooter, or using the open lane to drive towards the paint and using his 6’7, 221 pound frame to finish at the rim.
Those qualities could really be pushed to another level this year by working in pick-and-rolls with skilled young bigs like Skal Labisseire, and Justin Patton. Whether it’s Patton in the G League or Skal in the NBA, both players are threats that defensive bigs have to stick with. For Patton, he can explode to the rim as an alley-oop threat while Skal is a mobile 6’11, 235 pound big that can catch the ball inside and pop to hit an 18-foot jumper.
While those two players are definitely talented enough to work with the 1st unit, either of those players can work on the court for all of the 48 minutes due to the presence of Simi Shittu and Louis King. Shittu is a 6’10, 240 pound big that’s entering his 2nd season in the league. As a rookie with Windy City, he impressed as someone that was able to roll to the rim and snag offensive boards.
Also in his sophomore season, the 6’9 King can work as a reliable stretch 4 that a facilitating guard can work the ball to. Although he only shot 33% from beyond the arc as a rookie with the Grand Rapids Drive, the Oregon alum can still shine from deep as he shot 42% on 96 total catch-and-shoot attempts, according to Synergy Sports.
In addition to King, Westchester has plenty of options that they can put on the opposite end of the side pick-and-rolls. Two of the more familiar options to head coach Derrick Alston, Andrew White and Tyler Hall, both stood out as phenomenal perimeter threats during the 2019-20 season, having shot 39% and 41% respectively from beyond the arc. When it comes to newcomers, the quality of weapons get even stronger with the trifecta of Theo Pinson, James Young, and Bryce Brown.
Like the duo of White and Hall, all three of these players excel in more ways than catch-and-shoots. For Pinson and Young, they’re returning to the league on a more full-time basis for the first time since the 2018-19 campaign. During that season, both players shot better than 40% on catch-and-shoots, according to Synergy Sports. Speaking of excellent threats on the weak side, 2nd year guard Bryce Brown was an excellent marksman from deep as he shot 43% on 121 total catch-and-shoot attempts, according to our friends at Synergy.
The fact that all three of those new arrivals shot better than 40% on catch-and-shoots is extremely impressive in itself. However, their skills go far beyond just launching up long range bombs. All three of them are more than capable of taking the ball off the dribble when a defender closes out to either attack the rim or take a step to the left or right and put up another three.
In particular, Pinson is a special case as the two-way player for the Knicks is capable of driving to the basket or even probing to the paint and kicking the ball out to a player standing in the dunker spot or another man stationed out on the perimeter. That knack as a passer has been shown during his run with the Long Island Nets as he’s averaged 5.9 assists per game with a 1.77 Ast/TO ratio during his 43 games in the league. Those skills are a big reason why he should be a major asset for the team if/when he makes his way over to the Orlando bubble.
While the Knicks’ roster is a perfect match for the spread side pick-and-roll action that this piece has been dedicated to, another base set that Westchester could really thrive in would be floppy. As University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson describes in the video below, floppy sets occur when bigs set pindown screens out on the elbows for a guard to win to maneuver off-ball from the paint to get an open mid-range or perimeter look.
Now when it comes to Westchester, this could be a money set given the amount of players on this team that can really shine in catch-and-shoot opportunities. One player that can really benefit from this set is rookie guard Myles Powell. Although he only shot 31% from beyond the arc as a senior for Seton Hall, the guard was actually fantastic at being able to utilize screens.
That was seen last year as he shot 39% on 120 attempts after working around screens, according to Synergy Sports. Along with being a threat to nail catch-and-shoot attempts on the wing or elbow, he’s quick enough off-the-dribble where he’s capable of utilizing the space caused by the screen to drive to the paint.
While the amount of high usage players on Westchester’s roster, imagining how the team could look on the court may seem daunting. However, the way that Alston’s system is designed should do a lot to get the most out of its players during the upcoming season in the Disney World bubble. The combination of the solid offensive system and the incredible level of talent throughout the talent should allow the Knicks to be one of the most exciting teams to watch when the G League returns on February 10th.