It didn’t take the New York Knicks long to learn what life under Tom Thibodeau will be like.
The team convened Wednesday for its first practice under Thibodeau, who was hired last month, during the voluntary minicamps each of the eight teams that weren’t invited to the NBA bubble in Florida are able to conduct in their home markets. And, in typical fashion, Thibodeau’s media availability afterward was pushed back multiple times to accommodate a practice that ran longer than scheduled.
“Usually the first day there’s teaching that goes on,” Thibodeau said with a smile when asked about the delay. “It was a good first day, in terms of what we were able to get accomplished.
“It took us a while to get out here. We stayed in the city. The start time was a little delayed as well.”
Thibodeau, regarded as one of the league’s hardest workers, was excited about the chance to work with his team for the first time, albeit under the rather unusual circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic. These bottom-rung NBA teams are not only taking advantage of their first chance in six months to work out their players in group settings, but they are doing so with the knowledge that, with the draft and free agency set to take place in November, this is not what next year’s team will look like.
“I think that’s a big challenge in the NBA: How quickly can you adapt?” Thibodeau said. “Because things always change in the league — whether it’s trade, free agency, an injury, you have to adapt quickly.
“So for us, the focus has to be on the guys who are here. And that’s what we’re doing. Every day we’re thinking about how we can improve as a team and how we can improve individually, and we want that to be our focus.
“We want to stack days together. We know it starts with fundamentals. We have to build that base, and then we’ll take it from there.”
For Thibodeau’s Knicks, that base starts with RJ Barrett, the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft. It was a disappointing rookie season for Barrett, who averaged 14.3 points per game but barely shot 40% from the field, hit 32 % of his 3s and shot 61% from the foul line — all while averaging only slightly more assists (2.6) than turnovers (2.2).
As a result, he failed to make either of the league’s All-Rookie teams, which were unveiled last week.
“It’s been great,” Thibodeau said of his initial impressions of Barrett. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“These are the initial steps. The offseason is critical for any young player. So obviously, you can get going on the development piece, which I think is critical. That holds true for all our players. But he’s been great, eager, he’s working hard. If he does that day after day, he will improve quite a bit.”
In addition to Barrett, promising young center Mitchell Robinson and whomever the Knicks select with the eighth pick in this year’s draft, there will also be a hope that Kevin Knox can improve after two rough seasons to begin his NBA career.
The Knicks hired former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne, who worked with Knox during his one season with the Wildcats two years ago, as an assistant to work under Thibodeau. But, not surprisingly, Thibodeau said there is one way Knox is going to get better: by working at it.
“There’s no magic formula where you’re going to get everything done in one day,” Thibodeau said. “I think it’s about establishing and building the right habits to be successful. So you’re putting in the foundation of an offensive system and a defensive system and how you’re going to go about your business.
“I think it’s all about building the right habits so the team can get better and improve as time goes on. Kevin’s come in and he’s done quite a bit of work. It’s the same thing. … I’m getting to know him and he’s getting to know me. It will take some time. But I like what he’s done so far.”
In addition to Payne, the Knicks also hired Johnnie Bryant off Utah’s staff, as well as former Knicks coach Mike Woodson, to serve under Thibodeau as assistants. And while he hadn’t worked directly with any of them before taking this job, Thibodeau said he was excited about the group of coaches that the team has put together.
“Johnnie’s someone I got to know a little bit when I was traveling around,” Thibodeau said, referring to his time spent touring the league’s teams over the past couple of seasons since being fired by the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I have great respect for the people in Utah. I’ve worked with [Jazz executive vice president] Dennis Lindsey in Houston, I’ve gotten to know [Jazz coach] Quin Snyder over the years, and I have great respect for what they’ve done.
“The thing that stood out when I went out to Utah and spent time with them was Johnnie’s teaching ability. So when I heard that we would have an opportunity to hire him — I have spent some time with him prior to hiring him — I came away very impressed with him. And Kenny is someone I’ve always talked to over the years about the upcoming draft, but I never really saw him teaching on the floor, but I had heard great things about him.
“So obviously, getting to know him has been a big plus also and for us to have the opportunity to hire both of those guys I think adds a lot to the staff. And having Woody and Andy Greer, I’m very pleased. I think we have great teachers on our staff.”
These in-market training camps are voluntary. And while Thibodeau wouldn’t say who is taking part with the Knicks now, he admitted that some players shied away from joining the team for the contact portion of camp over the next couple weeks.
“That’s been a challenge,” he said of getting everyone together on the court. “We’ve had a great turnout thus far. There was Phase 1 where we weren’t in a hotel, and we had terrific turnout for that. This next phase where there’s contact involved, some guys weren’t totally comfortable with that, and we totally understood that part of it.
“But they’ve also come in prior to that and spent quite a bit of time, which has been very beneficial for me. It’s given me a chance to get to know them and sort of establish how we’re going about our business. Also, getting a new staff in and giving us an opportunity to work together as well.”