With the Hawks, Danilo Gallinari is One Step Away From Making Adaptation Pay Off
Danilo Gallinari talks through the details of where he started and the progress he's made thus far.
KL Chouinard @KLChoinard
Before this series against the Hawks, the last time the New York Knicks took part in the NBA Playoffs was a stretch of three consecutive appearances from 2011 to 2013.
Hawks Assistant General Manager Landry Fields remembers the first of those teams well. When veteran forward Amar'e Stoudemire scored 32 points in his preseason Knicks debut in Milan, Italy, Fields was a rookie trying to make a strong enough impression to ensure that he would stick on the roster after being drafted by New York with the 39th overall pick in the 2010 Draft.
Danilo Gallinari, then a spry, third-year small forward and one of the main reasons that the Knicks were in Italy in the first place, hit five threes and scored 24 points against Olimpia Milan, his hometown Italian League team for whom he played two seasons as a teen prior to getting drafted with the #6 overall pick in 2008. The Knicks also had another member familiar to Milan fans: Head Coach Mike D'Antoni, who had once played for the team alongside Gallinari's father, Vittorio.
Even though he was six weeks older, 22-year-old Fields looked up to 22-year-old Gallinari and tried to emulate him.
"I just remember watching Gallo and just saying, 'Gosh, if I could get to that level.' The intelligence that he played with and the consistent effort that he played with were things I looked up to in Gallo. We're about the same age. Those were things where he didn't have to say much to me, but I could just watch and get a real look at what it meant to be an NBA player."
Fields soon won over D'Antoni and quickly became an NBA player in his own right, starting a team-high 81 games at shooting guard and earning a 1st-Team All-Rookie nod alongside John Wall and Blake Griffin. And a Knicks team that was unlike a lot of its predecessors – one centered on a deep, young core consisting of Gallinari, Fields, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and 28-year-old Amar'e Stoudemire started its way on a path to success.
Asked recently about his favorite moments playing in Madison Square Garden, Gallinari's short list centered around those 2010-11 Knicks and their high-powered offense. "Of course the last season before the trade, it was a lot of fun,” he said.
In the 2020-21 Hawks, Fields sees shades of that Knicks team from his rookie season.
"I kind of do. I think that these guys on this particular (Hawks) team all understand what their role is. Every NBA athlete has an undergirding level of ambition for who they want to be in this league and what they want to do. Part of good coaching – and I think that Coach Nate (McMillan) has been able to provide that right now – is just getting all the guys working together for the common goal and understanding where they fit in that mix. These guys have done an incredible job."
"We were on that pathway my rookie year in New York. The ball was moving. Everything was kind of flowing. Guys understood who was who. Gallo was Gallo, Amar'e was Amar'e, Ray Felton was Ray Felton. We all had our niche in it, and the team was doing pretty well. It wasn't a perfect team, but the flow and the chemistry we had with Mike D'Antoni and how he (wanted to play) was definitely similar. That's something where you want to see where that is going to end up in the long run."
In the end, it didn't happen. After some ups and downs and a midseason hot streak that saw them win 13 out of 14 games, the Knicks traded Gallinari to Denver as part of a massive three-team, 11-player trade that centered on bringing superstar Carmelo Anthony to New York. In a way, the move was a no-brainer for the Knicks. If you don't have a superstar in their prime, and you can get one, you make the trade. At the same time, it also makes sense that the cogs of a young, productive team tasting success for the first time would want to see the vision through to fruition. They missed that chance.
The trade to Denver was the first of a number of fateful twists in Gallinari's career. After the trade, the Knicks and Nuggets both earned three consecutive postseason berths, but Gallinari only got to play in two of them with Denver. When he and the Nuggets won 57 games in 2012-13 with a team that also included Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, Gallinari missed the playoffs after tearing the ACL in his left knee late in the regular season. The injury forced him to miss all of the next season, and by that point, the Nuggets were a drastically different team.
In total, Gallinari missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons before making them the last three with the Clippers, Thunder and Hawks as an appreciably changed player. The sweet shooting stroke and the savvy play remained the same, but he was a power forward instead of a small forward, and a strong player instead of a quick one.
In the recent turnaround that pointed the Hawks toward the playoffs, some of the stingiest defensive lineups that the Hawks have fielded have featured Gallinari in the frontcourt, which at times may seem counterintuitive. He isn't getting above the rim to dissuade shots like Clint Capela or John Collins, and he isn't speeding back in transition to break up opposing fast breaks like De'Andre Hunter or Solomon Hill. He will, however, execute the halfcourt defensive gameplan to a 'T' and shade opponents to their weaknesses. McMillan credits him with giving the players whom he guards "a cushion" and using that space to prevent them from getting past him – and subsequently forcing the defense into rotation. Against the Knicks, the Hawks have made stopping Julius Randle a focal point, and they have trusted Gallinari with much of that burden at the point of attack.
"Part of it is just the evolution of the game and how teams are playing," Fields said of Gallinari becoming a full-time power forward. "Gallo, he's so smart – and with his size; he's a legit 6-foot-10 – so he doesn't have to be the quickest guy. He's very cerebral and has the ability to anticipate (the moves of) certain players."
The other part is that opposing power forwards want next to nothing of guarding Danilo Gallinari, who because of his offensive skill, has a convincing case as the best Italian basketball player ever.
"I feel like he can score anytime, everywhere," Capela said. "It's just so easy for him from any spot when he gets the ball. He doesn't need to move a lot to score the ball, so that's a big plus for us."
Gallinari does, however, need to move with the ball some – he is an elite free-throw drawer – and he credits a more aggressive approach toward driving to the rim with turning his series around in Games 3 and 4. In the two wins, Gallinari made 10 of 17 field-goal attempts and all eight of his free throws. The successful weekend put Gallinari just one win away from the first postseason series win of his five-team, 13-year NBA career.
In a lot of ways, Gallinari now finds himself in a situation similar to the one he shared with Landry Fields back in 2010. Though he himself is older, the team is young. It is filled with promising talent, especially on the offensive end, and captained by a heady veteran coach. Gallinari and his team are both thriving.
One thing, one very big thing, is different, however. The Hawks don't need to make a seismic change in the search for a superstar. They already have one in Trae Young. The first four playoff games have made that fact apparent now more than ever. In a way, the Hawks get to have their cake and eat it, too. They have a star and a supporting cast. They have collegial personalities and an established hierarchy of roles. In that larger scheme, Gallinari gets to just be Gallinari, a respected veteran who fills an important role off the bench.
John Collins said that Gallinari has been more vocal since the playoffs began. What does Gallinari say?
“I talk to them more about basketball and the game plan, that’s what I’m focusing on and want them to focus on," Gallinari said. "Everything else is just something they have to go through and experience,” Gallinari said. “[There is] nothing that I can say now, I think it’s just something that is good to experience.
Games 1 through 4 have been quite the trip. Game 5 might be an even better experience.