You’re not going to see Brandon Knight on the cover of SI just yet. You’re not gong to spit out your drink because of any of his passes. He lacks the hype, the flash and frankly, the production of the young point guards you hear the most about. But quietly, he’s making an impression in Detroit.
Before the Pistons faced the Raptors on Wednesday, they’d won seven of their last ten games and Knight had played no small part. There was the career high 26 points and seven assists against Milwaukee. The 23 and 10 plus six rebounds against Sacramento. The 24 on 12 shots including 4-5 from beyond the arc in Cleveland. If Toronto coach Dwane Casey wasn’t already following him because of their Kentucky connection, his play would have forced him to pay attention. “Everybody knew he had the speed and quickness, but the three-point NBA shooting is something that was lacking,” Casey said of Knight, who is making 38% of his threes as a rookie. “And now he’s got that, so for years to come he’s going to be one of the top point guards in this league and Detroit’s lucky to have him.”
Perhaps more impressive than that endorsement and the point totals listed above is the fact that Knight had a total of two turnovers in those three games. In Toronto, he didn’t turn the ball over a single time. This was his fourth such game in February, impressive for any starting point guard, let alone a rookie who averaged three TO’s a game through his first month as a pro.
“Playing the point guard in the league is a very tough position. Probably the hardest in the league,” said teammate Ben Gordon.
“As the season’s been going on, he’s been making better decisions,” Gordon continued. “Sometimes just making the simple play is the great play for him. Early on in the season it seemed like sometimes he would try to do a little too much, but now he’s becoming a little bit more poised and he’s not having those same turnovers and things like that he did earlier on in the season.”
Ben Wallace describes Knight’s first few games as those of a typical rookie. Coach Lawrence Frank asserts that his growth over 35 games has been exceptional. “He’s gotten better throughout. He’s a very diligent worker, a quick study,” he said. “Anything that he needs to learn, he’s a sponge for it. Constantly wanting to grasp knowledge and apply it. Very, very impressive person.”
You can add Frank to the list of Knight’s coaches who rave about him as a person and a player. Less than a year ago, John Calipari called him “the most conscientious, hardworking player I’ve ever been around.” Pine Crest high school coach David Beckerman said, “I’ve been doing this 40 years, and he’s one in a million, no doubt. Every coach dreams about getting one, not only with his skill, but he has a great deal of things that go far, far beyond basketball.”
Knight was a straight-A student since third grade and he helped his Wildcats teammates with their homework. As an eight-year vet, Gordon is now the one giving advice, but he doesn’t hide his admiration for the 20-year-old. “He’s a great kid to be on a team with, man. He works really hard,” he said. “He understands that he’ll continue to get better and pick things up if he’s just a sponge and listens to pretty much what all the older guys have to say and he’s done that. He takes it and puts it into use and you can see that concerted effort in him every day, every game, trying to get better, so it’s a real breath of fresh air to play with another young talent like that.”
The unwavering support of those in the locker room is in contrast to the doubt expressed by a segment of Pistons fans. Despite Detroit’s February hot streak, it is last in the Central Division at 11-24. Some have lost patience with management and are uncomfortable with Knight’s below-average PER. Like most first-year players, he’s inconsistent — a night before the 26-6-10 game against Sacramento, he had a 6-3-1 game in Boston. Some pine for a more natural creator, as Knight spends a lot of time playing off the ball with Rodney Stuckey or Tayshaun Prince initiating the offense.
While his overall numbers invite some criticism, expectations need to be tempered — Knight is a Piston because of his upside. Standing 6’3 with elite quickness and a 6’7 wingspan, he has the tools to become one of the best defensive point guards in the game. His release is effortless. His handle, strong. To Wallace, it is not a matter of if Knight will harness all of his considerable talent. “No question,” he said of seeing All-Stardom in Knight’s future. “Without a doubt. For a number of years.”
When you consider that Knight spent just a year in college and is more project than prodigy as a passer, a leadership role is a lot to ask. But Wallace said that’s exactly what his team has demanded. “We just tried to tell him his role is to go out and lead this team,” Wallace said. ”And as of late he’s been doing a great job of going out there and leading us, getting us out in the open court, getting us easy buckets on the break and making sure everybody’s where they need to be… He’s a lot farther along than we expected him to be at this point in the season.”
“It’s difficult,” Knight said of accepting that kind of responsibility. “But it all comes with hard work. Once guys know that your heart is in the right place and that you want the best for the team, then that makes it a little bit easier.”
It’s rewarding to see your name in the national headlines. It’s fun to see a million YouTube hits on one of your plays. But these things aren’t as significant as appreciation and recognition from your peers. “It means a lot just to know that guys that have been in the league, have done what I’m trying to do, have won championships say that stuff about me,” Knight said. “I just want to continue to do that and continue to earn their respect and trust on the team.”
A select few players dazzle, dunk and dish their way into the average fan’s consciousness during their first campaign. Most are only acknowledged by those closest to them. It’s normal to give everyone else some time to catch up.