A Fresh Start

Knight puts last season behind him, looks ahead with optimism for 2013-14

Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight is looking forward to a fresh start and optimistic about the potential of the young core that includes him.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)

ORLANDO – Brandon Knight’s second NBA season was a cycle of pain. It started right here, last July, when he played through stabbing plantar fasciitis in Summer League that dogged him throughout the off-season and cost him valuable training time. The only cure? Staying off your feet, which Knight never fully obliged, and so the pain in his foot never really ebbed, though it was sometimes surpassed by various other ailments, including a hyperextended knee and a sprained ankle.

Physical pain begat emotional pain. Losing didn’t help and neither did the dislocation he felt when Jose Calderon arrived via trade and forced his move to shooting guard. But as Knight sat with ice bags on his knees and ankles after a strenuous Summer League practice over the weekend, he felt re-energized and optimistic for his third season to get going. It starts with his belief in the young core and his initial response to the new coaching staff.

“With our coaching staff and how they push us so far, I love it,” he said. “How they motivate our guys, the things they say. It’s not necessarily about Xs and Os, it’s just how they deliver the message.”

As we spoke, free agents were flying off the shelves to other teams. A few hours later, the Pistons would be linked to one of the biggest names available, but Knight wasn’t sweating it out.

“Even if we don’t get somebody in free agency,” he said, “and I’m sure the front office is doing the hard work to find the right pieces, but I feel we have enough here to make an improvement from last year. I don’t want to sit here and talk about playoffs, playoffs, playoffs – that’s what it is every summer – but I feel we can make a vast improvement just with what we have right here.”

Knight gave that assessment after seeing the continuing evolution of Greg Monroe, growing more comfortable playing farther from the basket, and glimpsing the rapid learning curve Andre Drummond displayed as a rookie following the same course with an expanding offensive repertoire. He saw progress from second-year players like Kyle Singler, Khris Middleton and Kim English, and he was encouraged by the athleticism and promise of rookies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva.

Here were Knight’s thumbnail scouting reports on the rookies:

  • Caldwell-Pope – “Definitely a good defender. I know he’s going to be able to defend. The offensive part, as you become more comfortable – the first couple of Summer League practices, you haven’t really seen a lot of everybody – but he’s going to get a lot more comfortable. He’s very active and I can tell already that he’s good defensively.”

  • Mitchell – “Freak athlete. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. As soon as he hones it in and, like Mo (Cheeks) said, when he uses it in a substantive way, when he tones it, he can be very, very good. Some of the stuff that I see him do is ridiculous. I just admire watching that type of stuff because you really don’t see it that often. When it’s on your team, you like it a lot. Him and Andre (Drummond) are super explosive.”

  • Siva – “He gets after it. With the style of play he came with at Louisville, those guys get after it and they play hard the entire game. That’s the type of player we need on our team. He’ll definitely help us.”

    Siva and Knight had some intense one-on-one matchups through the five practices with their Louisville-Kentucky rivalry adding to the subplot. They met just once in college, since Knight played only his freshman season, and Kentucky won with Knight scoring 25 points.

    “I definitely remember that game, because that’s one game you have to win,” Knight said. “You have to win that game during the season against Louisville or the fans go crazy. And it was in Louisville, too. I know he felt bad after that game.”

Knight’s focus for the summer has been to get stronger – the team equipment guys had to give him a larger shirt when he showed up to work out in Auburn Hills in late June – and get healthy.

“I’m pretty good,” he said. “I’m just trying to take it easy here in Summer League, but my feet are starting to feel good. I’m just trying to make sure I stay that way this summer.”

Knight’s improved strength was evident in a few ways during Orlando practices, perhaps most noticeably for the way he defended, an area he also said is foremost in his mind for off-season attention.

The focus of his skill work, he said, is improving his mid-range shooting.

“I can shoot the three ball,” he said. “I just want to make sure I’m keeping teams honest by being able to shoot the mid-range as well.”

Arnie Kander told me shortly after the season that he would work with Knight on pace, not always going full speed every time but slowing down to set up defenders for his burst. He evoked players like Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, two greyhounds who know when to mix in a changeup or two. Over the course of some long conversations with new coach Maurice Cheeks, the same subject has arisen.

“It comes with game experience and practice,” Knight said. “Even Mo told me that during this practice, making sure I’m changing my speeds. It keeps the defense off balance, like Arnie said. I don’t have a problem, speed wise, keeping up with any guard in the NBA. So it’s just making sure I change my speeds. That’ll make them stay off balance a lot more and that’s what they do to other point guards. I think that’s a big key.”