The Knicks Could Score Big if They Get Russell in NBA Draft

Phil Jackson made enough bad moves in his first full year heading up the Knicks that you just want to cover your ears when NBA commissioner Adam Silver walks to the podium next Thursday to announce what Jackson does with the fourth pick in the NBA draft.

Then again, if Jackson comes away with D’Angelo Russell, it could -- we stress the word, could -- be the best thing to happen to the Knicks in a long, long time.

There is no guarantee that Russell will still be on the board after the T-wolves, Lakers and Sixers make the first three picks in Barclay Center. The way things are shaping up, according to several general manager’s and scouts, Minnesota will take Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns at No. 1 and then the Lakers will tab Duke center Jahlil Okafor at No. 2.

In that scenario, the suspense starts at No. 3, where the Sixers are in desperate need to take Russell, the Ohio State guard. Some experts, including Warrior consultant/resident genius Jerry West, see Russell as the most talented player in this draft.

But no one has a clue as to what the Sixers, forever tanking and going nowhere fast in their rebuilding under GM Sam Hinkie, will do with their pick. There is a lot of speculation that they’re going to take Kristaps Porzingis, the 6-11 Latvian who has been playing in Spain. Porzingis dazzled in a recent workout for NBA team in Las Vegas, for what that’s worth.

If Philly takes a big man for the third straight season, then the Knicks could -- there is that word again -- score big with Russell. Scouts agree that he’s a top passer and has the “it’’ factor going for him. Of course, Jackson’s top priority is to find someone who can play in his sacred Triangle offense, which is ludicrous in this day and age, and might not even matter in another year or two if he’s not still in charge of the Knicks. He and the team have options to end his 5-year, $60-million deal after next season, so there’s that element to add to the vexing equation.

Russell has a chance to be the kind of scorer and facilitator as a playmaker who is now all the rage in the NBA. Before the Finals, ex-Knicks and former Warriors coach Don Nelson, the leading proponent of “small ball,’’ before just about anyone else was thinking of approaching the game without big men, said that “point guards now are more important than centers. You build a franchise around those guys.’’

From a very small sample size, his one and only season at Ohio State, when he averaged 19 points per game on 45 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 5 assists per game, Russell appears to be that kind of talent. He's a big guard who can get you points, but can also find teammates for scoring opportunities, just as Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Chris Paul, among other elite players, do for their teams.

“Russell is very crafty with the ball,’’ one veteran scout told me. “He’s a good passer and a decent shooter, too. The only thing that scares me is that he’s not a big-time athlete. The league today is all about scoring athletes. That’s why I would take Emmanuel Mudiay if I were the Knicks.’’

Mudiay is rated the next-best guard in the draft to Russell. He played last season in China after originally committing to stay at home in Dallas and to play for Larry Brown at SMU. Mudiay and Russell are both 6 feet 5 inches tall and Jackson has always liked big guards. But Mudiay is considered a better athlete than Russell. On the minus side, the scout said of Mudiay, “He really struggles when it comes to shooting. He needs the transition game to succeed.’"

Well, the transition game is not what Jackson is looking to emphasize. Not when he wants to walk the ball up the floor and has Carmelo Anthony, who needs to play in a halfcourt game.

This is not the Warriors we’re talking about. With Curry, they pushed the tempo en route to winning the NBA title for the first time in 40 years. We're talking about the dysfunctional 17-win Knicks and Jackson, a wild card if there ever was one.

So there’s no telling what he’ll do with the No. 4 pick. For all we know, he just might trade it.

Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence 

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