Growing Pains

Knight’s rookie mistakes in full view, but he says experience will pay dividends

Brandon Knight has done several things right for the Pistons his rookie year.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
As a trumpeted five-star recruit, Brandon Knight shouldered an incredible load as a Kentucky freshman. He rarely left the court, and the offense always started with the ball in his hands, in what essentially was a six-man rotation John Calipari employed. When he struggled early in the season, questions arose: about the hype that accompanied him in coming from an elite Florida academic school, about his worthiness to follow in the Calipari point guard tradition that included Derrick Rose and John Wall, about his NBA potential.

By season’s end, Knight had led Kentucky to the Final Four on a string of late-game heroics and it was a shocker on draft night when he slipped past Utah at No. 3 and Toronto at No. 5 to get to the Pistons, picking eighth.

Rookie point guards are destined to struggle – Rose and Wall didn’t light up the NBA in their first few weeks, either – but Knight’s challenge was complicated by the lockout. There was no NBA Summer League for indoctrination, no August and September working on strength and conditioning drills with Arnie Kander or basketball skills with Pistons assistant coaches, and only the most rudimentary of training camps.

Brandon Knight was thrown into the fire without being handed a helmet, gloves and an ax. So his rookie mistakes are out there for everyone to see – but so is the talent and the competitiveness that lend Knight an air uncommon to the vast majority of NBA rookies. Because Knight had just one week of training camp and only two preseason games, the experimentation a rookie must endure to test what in his arsenal works and what must be altered has been conducted almost exclusively in NBA regular-season games.

Coaching helps, video review helps, practice helps … but nothing, really, approximates the in-game experience.

“You’re going to make some mistakes,” Knight said after Saturday’s 103-80 loss to New York in which he scored 19 points and played a season-high 40 minutes in his second start for the injured Rodney Stuckey. “The best experience and the best way to learn is through making those mistakes in the game.”

One of Knight’s favorite moves is splitting double teams. When it works, it gives the Pistons an immediate numbers advantage that Knight’s quickness is likely to exploit. When it doesn’t, it turns into a fast break the other way that is nearly certain to cost the Pistons two points.

“In order to split a show or a double team, there has to be separation,” Lawrence Frank said. “When you don’t get separation, you can’t split. That falls on both him and the screener, but also just reading it. When you’re connected defensively, that’s when you want to dribble around the guys as opposed to splitting them. In college, you can get away with it. In the NBA, teams are very, very quick to study your tendencies and they make it a point of emphasis.”

Frank and his assistants – Dee Brown and Steve Hetzel work most closely with the guards – work with Knight on the nuances of operating the pick and roll, among many other subtleties, before and after every practice and before every game.

“I have great assistants on the floor showing him different examples and there’s a lot of things from his position that you have to learn and understand,” Frank said, “from running a team to understanding who to throw it to, where to throw it, at what time do you throw it to him. Proper location, feeding the post, the angles you need, understanding the opposition personnel in terms of what they like to do. There’s a lot of stuff being thrown at him. Here he is, one year out and he’s struggled a little bit from three over the last couple of games, so you wean those things out and hone on the areas he needs to focus in on.”

In the middle of Frank’s overview, he touched on an overlooked aspect of a rookie’s orientation: learning the opposition. Most of the guards Knight has gone up against so far, perhaps other than Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, are players he’s rarely or never seen.

“Playing guys and knowing their tendencies – once you play against them, once you kind of get a feel for what they do and how they like to play,” Knight said. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that; what you can and can’t do. I feel like, in the game, those are the best ways to learn.”

In eight games, Knight is third on the team in scoring at 11.1 points a game and third in assists at 3.0. He’s shown quickness to the ball and a tenacity in going after, it, too, grabbing 15 rebounds in his last two games. His shooting percentage is hovering just over 40, a byproduct of taking mostly deep perimeter shots or tough runners.

“This is going to be a learning curve for Brandon,” Frank said. “It’s going to take some time and it’s not all on him. This is to be expected with a guy who played nine months of college basketball and had two weeks of training camp. But he’ll learn and he’ll get better throughout the year.”