Though they all come from very different backgrounds, have different skill sets and different roles within the team structure, one thing that Chris Copeland, Pablo Prigioni, JR Smith and Steve Novak – each prominent members of the New York Knicks bench unit – have in common is that they all waited a long time to find what they’ve found in New York: the perfect NBA situation.
Copeland, the 28 year old rookie out of Colorado, went undrafted in 2006 before signing with the Fort Worth Flyers. Despite averaging 18.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per-36 minutes and shooting 46.2% on 3-pointers in his 19 games in the D-League, the NBA offers never materialized, so off to Europe he went. Copeland would eventually make stops in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium between 2007 and 2012 before turning down guaranteed six-figure deals in Europe to play for the Knicks summer league team and fight for a roster spot in preseason. Against the odds (coming into preseason there were at least three non-guaranteed players who were considered more likely to make the roster than Copeland), he finds himself a sometimes integral part of the Knicks bench unit.
Though he often doesn’t know how much he’ll play in a given game, if at all, or what role he’ll play if he does, Copeland always stays ready. He credits Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas – the “three wise men,” as he calls them – for that. “The biggest thing [they’ve taught me]? I think mental preparation. Staying ready. That’s one thing they stay on me about, because early on I wasn’t playing as much. They believed in my ability and said my time is gonna come, and I just stay ready and stay mentally focused.”
While many of the Knicks have clearly defined roles, Copeland’s is more up in the air. At different times this season, Copeland has started and come off the bench. He’s played heavy minutes, he’s played light minutes, and he’s not played at all. Sometimes, most notably when filling in for an injured Carmelo Anthony, he’s been a featured scorer. Other times, he’s more of a complementary player.
In the first half of New York’s win over the Spurs on Thursday, Copeland was used in a multitude of ways. “Some situations, I may be a pick and roll guy. The next play down, I may be a shooter. Just depends,” he said. He knows that when he’s on the court, scoring is the way he can make the biggest impact, but he doesn’t necesarily know or care how it will come on any particular day. “For me, it’s all about whatever keeps me on the floor. I think I can score so many different ways it doesn’t really matter where I’m put.”
He also knows that to keep himself on the floor, he’s going to have to improve on defense. “My biggest thing is just learning the rotations. One on one, I’m usually okay. It’s just about being in the right spots. That’s what [sometimes] hurts me. To be in help side. I’m getting better. I feel like I did a decent job today. It’s just, I gotta keep listening and learning,” Copeland said after his 18-minute stint against the Spurs in Thursday night’s win.
While Copeland brings versatile scoring and outside shooting, fellow rookie Pablo Prigioni – the 35 year old Argentinian who spent the last decade-plus playing professionally in his native country and then in Spain – is counted on for his pesky defense and prolific passing. At 35, Prigioni is the oldest rookie since the 1949-50 season, and third-oldest of all time. While Copeland always planned on coming to the NBA, it took some prodding from fellow countryman Manu Ginobili for Prigioni to make the decision to cross the pond.
Prigioni was a decorated player and longtime starter in Europe, but in America his role has shrunk. In the absence of the injured Raymond Felton, however, he’s due for an increase in playing time over the next few weeks. “I will try to give my best until Ray comes back, and then when he comes back, go back to my role on the team and continue to try doing my best, you know, from [that] role,” Prigioni said after his excellent game against the Spurs, one that saw him tally a career-high 9 assists and lead a powerful second-half run that essentially put the game away.
When Felton got injured and learned he’d be out for an extended period of time, Prigioni says he told Felton, “Ray, It’s gonna be hard without you because you create a lot for this team. Not only with your points, but you get a lot of attention when you attack the basket. Me and Jason, we [mostly] play defense, we really don’t play like you. So it’s gonna be tough for all this time without you.”
He’s right about that. While Felton sometimes gets caught up in taking mid-range jumpers off pick-and-rolls, he draws much more attention from the defense when he turns the corner and gets into the lane than either Prigioni or Kidd. Without him, the Knicks offense could take a dip. But if Prigioni plays with the same attacking style he did against San Antonio, the Knicks will be just fine. All night long, he probed the lane and found open roll men, spot-up shooters and cutters after sucking in the defense. “I try to be aggressive and attack the basket. If I can finish, I finish. If not, I try to pass the ball. Even if I want, I can’t do what Ray can do, you know? What I only can do is try my best, and put all my best [effort] for the team.”
Though he put on a feverish passing display against the Spurs on Thursday, much of Prigioni’s value this season has been derived from his defense. Prigioni has the third best on-court defensive rating on the team behind only Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby, and the Knicks allow 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Prigioni on the court than when he’s on the bench. The Knicks are sitting smack-dab at league average in defensive rating right now, but with Prigioni on the court, they allow just 98.0 pts/100, which is equivalent to the third best unit in the league, just ahead of the surging Clippers. If you’ve watched any Knicks games this year, you’ve undoubtedly seen Prigioni hounding point guards up and down the floor, and repeatedly trying to swipe inbounds passes when the opposition isn’t paying attention. He victimized the Spurs in this way on Thursday, and it turned into a fast break dunk for Carmelo Anthony.
His biggest highlight of the evening, though, came on an alley-oop pass to J.R. Smith in the half court offense. If that doesn’t look like your traditional alley-oop lob, or if you don’t understand how J.R dunked it, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Prigioni said of Smith, “Oh, I like him a lot. Doesn’t matter how you pass the ball. He will catch. I don’t know how he dunked the ball … I don’t know. I think the pass was too low. But he go up. He catch. He’s amazing.”
When asked if he thought Prigioni was getting more comfortable in the NBA as the season goes on, Smith responded “Definitely. I think he’s, especially tonight, he was more aggressive. Looked [for] Melo. Looking for his shot. Penetrating and faking guys out, making it seem like he was at least gonna shoot it, then finding guys like Tyson, myself, Novak, so that’s big for us.”
Smith, a 27 year old from New Jersey on his fourth (though he’s only actually played for three teams, he was a Chicago Bull for six days during the 2006 offseason) NBA team, has found himself in a perfect situation this year in New York. He credits Carmelo Anthony with keeping him in line a bit after acting out much of last season. “[He] definitely [speaks up off the court.] Especially to me. Last year, I had a wild streak going. I was all in the clubs and everything. This year, he told me to just calm down. Buckle down with it. I’m not so sure, a year or two years ago, if he would’ve told me that.”
Whatever he’s been told and however much of that advice he’s heeded, it’s working. Smith has looked a different, more focused version of himself on both sides of the ball this season. Where in years past, his attention to detail would often wane, for the most part this year, he’s been locked in for every minute. What’s changed? “The motivation. The drive I have. Just be as simple as I can, not try to be as complicated,” Smith said. You can certainly see that out there on the court.
With the exception of a poor shooting stretch in early December, Smith has played under control. He’s taking and making good shots as the leader of the second unit offense. “Herb and Woody, they’ve been working with me after practices. Trying to get my feet ready, getting ready to score the ball. Get to where I’m not just taking shots, take good shots.”
Though his scoring buoys the bench, where he’s really impressed this season is with his effort and competence on defense, rebounding and passing. Long thought of as an indifferent defender, Smith has oftentimes been asked to guard the opposition’s best perimeter player, especially in the games since Ronnie Brewer’s shot stopped falling and his playing time was cut accordingly. He’s been up to the task, and when he spent some time on Tony Parker Thursday night, he did an admirable job. As far as defensive strategy goes, Smith said “We want to protect the paint. That’s our biggest thing. Two seven-footers out there to start the game now, so protecting our paint was the biggest thing. At the same time, don’t send them to the free throw line either. Not trying to commit fouls, and if they do, then commit hard fouls.”
Like Copeland, Smith doesn’t much care where or how he’s used on offense, because he knows he can contribute in a bunch of different ways. “When I got Steve [Novak] out there, I really like being in the pick-and-roll. When Steve’s not out there, I like being more of the spot-up guy, that one person that they really respect out there behind the three.” Knowing he’ll be used in a myriad of different ways has helped vary Smith’s game. He’s averaging a career-high tying 2.8 assists per game this season, many of those looking for Novak when he comes around the screen on a pick-and-roll or when he’s leading the fast break. Smith again credited Anthony with instilling more of a passing mentality in him, “He’s showing that making the extra pass and making the extreme effort on defense [helps the team]. It’s a lot easier to play [that way]. The game is just fun.”
While Copeland, Prigioni and Smith may have different roles or be expected to do different things on a night-to-night or even possession-to-possession basis, everyone knows exactly what Steve Novak is on the court for: to shoot. Novak, too, took the long road through the NBA before finding his perfect situation in New York. He spent five seasons as a little-used bench player in Houston, Los Angeles (with the Clippers), Dallas and San Antonio before the Knicks picked him up off the scrap heap for the league minimum before last season. He barely played at the start of the year, but right around the same time as Jeremy Lin started seeing the floor, Novak did too. It paid off.
He ended the season as the league’s best three-point shooter at 47.2%. As Smith alluded to, the two of them developed a special chemistry, with J.R. constantly looking for Novak out of the corner of his eye, knowing that if he delivered the ball in the right spot, it was more than likely that it would go through the basket very soon.
Though he’d been in a bit of a shooting swoon for the last few games (9-for-29 from three in his previous seven games), Novak broke out in a big way against the Spurs, nailing 5-of-8 three-point attempts, and even breaking out the discount double check celebration for good measure. He was so scorching from outside, he took credit for the improved shooting of another slumping Knick. “Oh, I take full credit. Yeah. I brought Ronnie [Brewer]’s three back.” Funny how that works.
Novak, like Copeland, is sometimes harped on for his defense, though some metrics show him being better on that end than one might expect. He’s more concerned with how the Knicks defend as a team than how he defends as an individual. The one thing they’ve been lacking, he says, is consistency. “I don’t think it’s something we don’t have. I think it’s just a mindset. I think we just can’t get away from it. I don’t know. I guess, we were winning a lot of games and we kind of took for granted our defense.”
Against the Spurs, the Knicks locked down and held one of the league’s best offenses to a well below average output. Whether they can keep that up remains to be seen, but Copeland, Prigioni, Smith and Novak will remain an integral part of what the Knicks are doing. Whether it’s offense or defense, scoring, passing or rebounding, they all bring different things. They’re all important for different reasons. They come from different backgrounds, took different paths to get where they are. But for now, they all work together in concert to move the Knicks toward their goal.