Beneath Porzingis' white-hot offensive outings and the lockdown play of rookie Frank Ntilikina lurks another narrative in New York; the veteran leadership of Jarrett Jack.
There's a lot about the 2017 Knicks that few could truthfully say they saw coming. Kristaps Porzingis has taken a huge offensive leap, though there were many pundits who already thought he would be something special after his rookie season. Despite chatter of his bust potential, the rookie Frank Ntilikina is proving to be a defensive stalwart, but then again most guards with 7-foot wingspans tend to be. However, the one thing that has truly come out of nowhere in New York this season has been veteran guard Jarrett Jack's newfound proclivity for racking up assists, the pinnacle of which has to be this absolute dime to Porzingis:
It's beyond just having a near-unguardable KP to throw it to as well; a quick look at Jack's stats for this year highlight a focused effort on taking fewer shots and sharing the ball around. After removing the outlier of his 2015 season with the Brooklyn Nets (in which Jack only played in 32 games), Jack is averaging more assists per 36 minutes (7.7 per game) as a 34-year old than he has in his entire 12-year NBA career.
Even though his reputation as a gunning shoot-first point guard preceded him when he signed in the off-season (I explicitly remember thinking when reading that we signed him that we had just replaced Derrick Rose with another guard who wouldn't pass to Porzingis), he's made a concerted effort to heave the ball less now as a Knick. His 6.3 field goal attempts per game are nearly less than half of what he attempted in his last season in Brooklyn (11.2 FGA), and at least from what I've seen, all of those shots come from the flow of the offense rather than Jack going rogue. The only really garish shot he's taken this year was this pre-season abomination:
Another element that Jack has unexpectedly brought to the table is his veteran leadership, especially on the defensive end of the court. He's incredibly vocal, calling out defensive rotations and pointing to where his teammates should be on the floor. Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr and Doug McDermott all range from poor to outright atrocious defenders, and yet all three have shown more poise and effort on D this year (though it's still a leap to call any of them a plus defensively), which has to at least be partly due to Jack barking out rotations like a fun-sized Kevin Garnett.
So where did all this come from? My original thinking was that Jack, after tearing his ACL with the Nets and enduring a slow rehabbing process, playing in only 2 games the year previous, had something of a change of heart. Like he was visited in the night by the Basketball Ghosts of Seasons Past, or whatever. The real answer is a lot more simple - Jack is the only player on the Knicks squad without a guaranteed contract, and come November 13th, the day Joakim Noah returns from his PED suspension, New York will have to get rid of somebody in order to meet the 15-man roster requirements. A guy who plays his tail off when his back is against the wall is exactly the kind of veteran presence you want for such a young team, and a great role model for rookie Ntilikina to learn from.
Currently, their options are either giving the flick to Jack, and risk shattering the incredible run the Knicks have been on, or waiving another player and eating the cost of their guaranteed contract (most likely either Kuzminskas, who's been publicly unhappy about his bench-warming role, or Sessions, who's been flat terrible when given playing time). Jarrett Jack is on a mission to ensure it's the latter rather than the former, and this decision may indeed shape the rest of the Knicks season.