Shining Knight

Rookie’s poise, competitive fire brightens Pistons’ future

Brandon Knight has done several things right for the Pistons his rookie year.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
Brandon Knight arrived at Kentucky highly touted and already known to NBA scouts. Then he struggled early in his freshman year on a team adjusting to the loss of five first-round draft picks before finding his footing over the season’s second half. The NCAA tournament was going to be big for him, the buzz went, if he still harbored a desire to head to the NBA as soon as possible.

Then Knight went without a basket against Princeton in the first round, missing all seven of his shots – until making the game-winner at the buzzer.

Lawrence Frank calls it the trait of “instant amnesia” – the ability to forget what happened on one play and move on to the next.

Knight has been the talk of Pistons training camp so far. It’s not that Joe Dumars and his staff are surprised by his talent – their delight when Knight unexpectedly slipped to No. 8 in last June’s draft was genuine – but, perhaps, by how quickly he’s exhibited a feel for playing point guard with all that it entails at the NBA level and by his utter lack of awe for his surroundings.

There are rough spots that still need sanding, for certain, as Knight’s six turnovers, to match his team-high six assists, and 2 of 9 shooting in Tuesday’s 90-89 preseason win at Cleveland revealed. But Knight’s quickness, floor vision and competitiveness are all abundantly clear. And his willingness – no, his enthusiasm – to put a game on his shoulders already impresses his teammates, who’ve been struck by his work ethic, learning curve and humility.

As Austin Daye said after knocking down the winning free throws Tuesday to cap a last-minute rally fueled by two key Knight plays, a rebound wrested from 7-footer Ryan Hollins and his aggressive pursuit of a deflected pass to set up the winning final possession, “It wasn’t even those plays that made me like him so much. I’ve always liked his game, but when he was not bashful to shoot that three to put us up two (out of a Pistons timeout with 28 seconds left), I like that. It’s good to have an aggressive point guard and someone who knows the game really well. Because I could tell at Kentucky, he really know how to play.”

Knight says he wasn’t always able to bury his bad plays, the sort of thing that at first blush sounds silly coming from a kid who just turned 20 three weeks ago, but speaks to his maturity and capacity to learn from experience. John Calipari said last season that of all the high-profile point guards he’s churned out recently – Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall – Knight was the one with the sharpest learning curve.

“When I was younger,” he said, “if I didn’t do something the right way, I’d definitely let it affect me. But through time and maturing, getting older, you learn that there’s more than one play in basketball. There’s a multitude, so I just have to learn to move on to the next thing and try to affect the game the next play.”

Knight is something of a Jack Armstrong-level legend in South Florida, blessed with not just phenomenal athletic ability but intellect, as well. At one of Florida’s most prestigious private schools, he posted a 4.3 grade-point average, considered playing at Yale, and routinely won games with flawless fourth quarters or game-winning shots.

When I asked him after Tuesday’s win if he didn’t feel at all wide-eyed at attempting the same heroics a week into his NBA career, his eyes did grow a little wider as he said, “Wide eyes? Like I don’t want to do it? No, I don’t care. That’s why I shot that shot. We were down. I thought it was going in. It’s just a part of playing basketball. If you’re in that position to take the shot, that’s what you work hard for. But it doesn’t have to be offense. It could be grabbing a rebound, getting a steal, a tip, a deflection. There are a lot of things that don’t show up, just so long as you’re affecting the game, helping your teammates.”

That’s a pretty impressive comeback for a rookie, but Knight does more than talk the talk, which is why his teammates have so quickly taken to him. His playmaking ability has been apparent to them since the first practice, but just as critically, so has his willingness to stick his nose into every fray. Even in the face of rookie mistakes – like the four turnovers Knight committed early in the third quarter, when Cleveland stretched its lead to 12 points – Knight has shown he can brush mistakes aside and find ways to contribute even if he’s not scoring points.

“No matter what the situation is for me, you’ve got to make sure you’re lifting the team up,” he said. “You’re coming in and trying to help the team get better, raise the energy of the team. It doesn’t have to be through scoring or getting assists, just your energy level, picking guys up, being a great teammate. I think that’s really important.”

The Pistons, historically, have been one of the NBA’s least frequent visitors to the lottery, and Joe Dumars would rather keep it that way. But in the last two years, the lottery has given them first Greg Monroe and now Brandon Knight, which by all indications appear like back-to-back home runs. That’s the best way to ensure avoiding future lottery participation.