Kevin Knox took the microphone before the New York Knicks’ season finale. The rookie addressed the crowd, thanking them for their support and vowing to improve this summer.
Fans at Madison Square Garden roared with approval.
Nearly a year ago, these same Knicks devotees greeted the former Tampa Catholic star with a chorus of boos. They bemoaned the selection of Knox, who went ninth overall, the highest pick ever from the area.
The pre-teen Crying Knicks Fan gave an exasperated shrug on ESPN. Spike Lee grimaced before reluctantly applauding.
Knox knew his every move would be dissected by loyal followers not quite sure how to view a lottery pick counted on to be the face of their franchise.
He had to score points, not only in games but with critics.
Eventually, Knox did both.
A few times this season, Knox posed for pictures with the Crying Knicks Fan (known only as Jordan), including the home finale.
“We laughed it up about what happened on draft night,” Knox said. “He now says I’m one of his favorite players.”
Knox also met Lee during a road game. The filmmaker said he is looking forward to seeing Knox in a Knicks’ uniform for years to come.
To truly win over skeptics, Knox had to perform.
He did so in spurts.
At times, the 19-year-old struggled with the physicality of the NBA. Other times, he shined, putting up numbers worthy of someone selected so high.
In December, Knox scored 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Charlotte, joining LeBron James as the only NBA players with at least 25 points and 15 rebounds in a game as teenagers. He also was named the NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December after averaging 17.1 points and six rebounds.
Two months later, Knox played in the Rising Stars game as part of the NBA all-star weekend.
Playing on a team devoid of veterans, Knox had a pivotal role, allowing him to go through a series of highs and lows as he learned by trial and error.
The team became even younger during the season with the trade of Kristaps Porzingis and the release of Courtney Lee, moves made to create cap space this summer. In the final month of the season, the Knicks’ starting lineup besides Knox included another rookie, two second-year players and a third-year player.
The results showed. The Knicks finished 17-65, equaling the worst record in franchise history set by the 2014-15 team. They also finished with the worst record in the NBA for the first time since 1985.
“One of the biggest adjustments is dealing with a lot of ups and downs in the NBA,” Knox said. “There’s a lot of points in the season where you’re not playing good basketball at all. And there’s points where you’re playing at a high level. I just want to make sure between those ups and downs I’m staying positive and staying in the gym.”
Knox lives in White Plains, about 45 minutes from the city, with his cousin, Jarnell Hughes.
“My cousin is there to work out with me and basically keeps me company,” Knox said. “A lot of people told me I would be lonely a lot and needed somebody to talk to so he’s basically there for me.”
There were low points interspersed between the highlights. Knox dealt with an ankle injury that sidelined him early in the season and had to regain his starting spot after going through some midseason slumps.
Knox improved throughout the season. In the final 10 games, he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s been a successful rookie season,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said after a road game against Orlando earlier this month. “(Knox) went through all of the wars and battles that I wanted him to go through. The ups and the downs. He handled it with real poise. Everytime he went down he came back fighting again. I feel like right now he’s playing some of his best basketball.”
Days after the season ended, Knox returned to Tampa. He has watched every NBA playoff game, looking for ways to improve.
“I’m just watching, trying to pick up pointers,” Knox said. “Hopefully, at this point next season, I’m out there on the court playing in the playoffs instead of watching at home.”
Contact Bob Putnam at email@example.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.