The Knicks’ season begins in less than a month. We couldn’t possibly be more excited — finally, a Knicks team with barely an Isiah Thomas fingerprint on it! — so we’ll be counting down the eleven most important Knicks twice a week until opening night on October 27. The best sign we can give you: Eddy Curry isn’t among the eleven. Today: guard Kelenna Azubuike.
One thing you might notice immediately about the above picture of Knicks guard Kelenna Azubuike — and the most important thing you’ll notice overall — is that he’s not wearing a Knicks jersey. That’s because he hasn’t worn one yet. He isn’t healthy.
Azubuike played only nine games last season for the Warriors — he came over, like Ronny Turiaf and Anthony Randolph, in the David Lee trade — because of a torn patellar tendon, and he’s still not ready to play. He’s not even practicing with the team yet, and he’s not exactly sounding optimistic that he’ll be ready by the first regular-season game.
So, why he is so high on our countdown list? Well, first off, we picked the order three weeks ago, when we thought he’d be farther along in his rehab, so there’s that. But Azubuike is, put simply, the ideal shooting guard for this team. He shoots better than Wilson Chandler, runs the floor better than Roger Mason Jr., drives the lane better than Danilo Gallinari (who isn’t a shooting guard anyway) and plays defense better than any of them. That’s Azubuike’s specialty, actually; he’s a superior isolation defender and his height and reach make him precisely the guy they want on opponents’ top scorer with the ball on the last possession. He’s also a former D-League stud who averaged fourteen and a half points a game when he was healthy a couple of years ago, so he can score. He also rebounds well for a guard, which is vital for a team that already has shown hitting the boards is going to be a problem. Plus, he was this close to playing for England in the 2012 Olympics, which doesn’t mean anything but is still kind of cool.
None of this matters if he isn’t healthy, though, and this sixth-place ranking of importance is based on nothing but upside. (The Knicks have lots of upside, with the downside typically being, “the Knicks playing the way the Knicks have the last decade.”) If he can get to 100 percent at any point this year, he’s both a weapon and a shield for Mike D’Antoni; you don’t want him to be taking the last shot, but you want him guarding the guy who does. If he never gets to 100 percent, the Knicks are missing a perimeter defender and rebounder they obviously need. He’s on the last year of his contract and will be playing for his future (he’s already 26). It all depends on that patellar tendon. If you look back at this list at the end of the season and say, “Wha? Kelenna Azubuike is No. 6? That was a horrible pick!” then it’s unlikely he has played much, and it’s far less likely that the Knicks will reach the level D’Antoni and company think they can.