Is Brandon Knight progressing? Yes, but it's complicated

Since I’ve been writing about basketball, I can’t remember a young prospect more polarizing than Brandon Knight.

I don’t like to get into the whole ‘eye test’ vs. ‘advanced stats’ debate simply because anyone who advocates solely one way or the other when it comes to player evaluation is clearly not doing it right. NBA front offices are virtually all incorporating some form of advanced metrics into player scouting, so it’s pretty foolish for fans to try and draw any conclusions about players without both watching a lot of film on that player and delving deep into what the statistics say or don’t say about what you’re seeing on the court. You can’t draw meaningful conclusions if you only look at the statistics. And you can’t draw meaningful conclusions if you think advanced stats are for big nerdy NERDS who should just WATCH THE GAMEZ! You need both, and it’s so clear at this point I don’t even like to acknowledge that there’s a debate any more between the two extreme positions.

The problem with Knight, though, is he’s the rare player who is fully embraced by one extreme and who has no believers at the other extreme, so it’s hard not to mention that alleged ‘debate’ in any Knight discussion. If you evaluate Knight using only the eye test, he looks like a fantastic point guard prospect. First and foremost, John Calipari does not recruit players who are not elite prospects physically, so he has that going for him. Say what you will about Calipari, but I trust the man’s eye for elite talent like few others at the NCAA level. Knight has prototypical size and quickness. He’s strong for a guard and has long arms, which combined with his quickness, make him look like a good defensive player. He has a quick release on his jumper and he’s the team’s best 3-point shooter. His work ethic is obvious both through multiple accounts of those who watch him up close and by the fact that, physically, he looks bigger and stronger than he did as a rookie. This season, just by watching Pistons games, he’s often looked like a player who has made a big jump forward in his development — he’s looked more aggressive and his assists and shooting percentages are up significantly from his rookie season. Knight also has a flair for the dramatic late in games, and those moments tend to stand out in peoples’ memories more than mistakes or mediocre play. If I were to make an educated guess on Knight’s progress based just on what I’ve watched, I’d feel confident saying he’s improved significantly.

But as I pointed out above, it’s impossible to make an educated evaluation of a player these days without paying attention to the statistics, and although Knight’s stats are better, they don’t make as convincing a case for dramatic improvement as the eye test does.

Not all the stats are unkind to Knight this season. His shooting percentage is up to a respectable 43 percent. His 3-point shooting — already a very good 37 percent as a rookie — is in the low 40s this season. He’s getting to the line more and finishing better. He’s averaging 6.7 assists per 36 minutes compared to 4.2 per 36 last season. His assist percentage has jumped from 21 percent to 31 percent. He’s putting up solid rebounding numbers for a guard and he’s had decent increases in advanced stats like PER, true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes.

Those are all improvements that should not be overlooked. The problem, however, is that Knight is a point guard. A point guard the Pistons are counting on to be a franchise cornerstone, in fact. As a rookie who didn’t have the full responsibility of handling the ball and running the offense, he still turned the ball over a lot — 2.9 times per 36 minutes/17.1 percent turnover percentage, to be exact. As a second-year player entrusted with a more significant responsibility in running the offense, those numbers have gone up pretty dramatically  — 3.8 turnovers per 36 minutes and a 21.9 percent turnover percentage. That’s the one area of his game where the stats and the eye test align. For all of the visual improvements to Knight’s game, it’s still easy to see that he had a tendency to get out of control, make ill-advised passes or make passes a split second later than he should be, which usually result in a turnover or deflection, and the stats back that up.

The heightened turnovers are somewhat explainable, though. Lawrence Frank didn’t unveil all parts of his offensive or defensive systems last season because the lockout gave the team limited preparation and practice time. This season, Knight not only has a bigger role in running the offense, but he’s likely being asked to run more sets or at the very least a system that has wrinkles in it that weren’t used often last season. Knight is still a young point guard and turnovers are an issue for most young point guards, particularly ones who are trying to become less shoot-first and better at running a halfcourt offense as Knight is attempting to do.

What is less explainable, though, is Knight’s dropoff in defense. Knight’s defensive rating was 109 as a rookie and it’s slightly worse at 110 this season. He’s getting significantly fewer steals too (.7 per 36 minutes last season, .4 this season; 1.2 percent steal percentage last season, .7 percent this season), a disappointment considering his quickness and long arms, which should theoretically help him get into passing lanes.

It would be foolish to say that Knight hasn’t improved this season. His improved shooting is certainly a great development if he can maintain it. But I’m not ready to say what he’s improving towards. In all honesty, the more I watch Knight, the more I see a shooting guard. Ben Gulker of Detroit Bad Boys had a great comparison for him on Twitter a few weeks back, suggesting Knight with maximized potential could be a Jason Terry type of player. If I were making a prediction on Knight right now, I wouldn’t bank on Knight as a longterm point guard. With his shooting, imagine if he played with a pass-first point guard and could be more of a catch-and-shoot player? He could excel in that type of role. He’d be small for a shooting guard, but not so tiny that he couldn’t compete at the position. He handles the ball well enough and passes well enough to occasionally make plays for others, but as a shooting guard, he wouldn’t have either of those things as his primary responsibility.

I wouldn’t say that there’s no chance Knight develops into an above average starting point guard in the league. He’s still very young and still learning one of the two most complex NBA positions to play. It wouldn’t be a complete shock to me if a light suddenly went on for him this season or next and he became a competent lead guard. But even though he’s shown some improvements from last season, I think it’s premature to assume that the light is going on for him right at this moment.

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