GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It’s hard to overstate how important player development is to the New York Knicks right now.
The club is in the early stages of a rebuild, looking for talented players to fit around Kristaps Porzingis while the star forward works his way back from a torn ACL.
In the best-case scenario, the Knicks build a young core around Porzingis that’s strong enough to attract free agents in the summer of 2019 or 2020, when they should have significant cap space.
New York has the wherewithal to add this young talent: They own all of their first-round picks going forward and likely will have top-10 picks in the next two drafts.
The trick, of course, is adding the right players and then developing them once you have them on the roster.
That’s where Craig Robinson comes in. Knicks president Steve Mills called Robinson, his old teammate at Princeton and, at that point, a Milwakee Bucks executive, over the summer with a job offer.
“I think I have the perfect job for you” was Mills’ pitch. The timing wasn’t great for Robinson because he was close to finalizing a home purchase in Milwaukee.
“Then he explains the job and I’m like, ooh, that is the perfect job for me,” Robinson, the brother of former First Lady Michelle Obama and brother-in-law of President Barack Obama, recalled on Wednesday.
After speaking with his family, Robinson accepted a position as vice president of player development and G League operations for the Knicks.
In a half-hour chat with a group of reporters Wednesday, Robinson, a former head coach at Oregon State and Brown University, discussed his vision for the Knicks’ player development program and how he’s converted the former president and First Lady to Knicks fans.
Below are excerpts of the interview with observations mixed in.
Q: What’s the organization’s vision for player development?
Craig Robinson: “What I love about both Steve [Mills] and [Knicks general manager] Scott [Perry] is that they understand how important player development is philosophically. It really is — I like to call it — it’s vertically integrating. We look at the New York Knicks’ player development, the Westchester Knicks’ player development, as if it’s 25 players trying to develop. Not like it’s some guys on the Knicks and some guys on the Westchester Knicks. I also like how they understand that to develop players on and off the court you need to be able to [help] them on and off the court. One can’t be done without the other. And that’s really important to me. The way I was raised, the experiences I’ve had — I think basketball helps you off the court and I think your off-the-court relationship helps you with your development. I think those two things were really attractive. I think if you see what we’re doing with the Westchester Knicks, you’re starting to see a little bit about how that’s starting to play out.”
The Knicks’ G League team has had success this season. Entering play Wednesday, the Westchester Knicks (30-16) owned the best record in the league. They’ve had five players (Isaiah Hicks, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Luke Kornet, Nigel Hayes and Trey Burke) sign contracts with NBA teams. Hicks had 29 points for Westchester in a win last Saturday that allowed the team to clinch a playoff spot. Both Hicks and Rathan-Mayes were in an environment in Westchester where they were allowed to play through their mistakes, which helped foster their development, said Marlon Harrison, the agent for both players. Success in the G League is nice, but the jury is still out on how the younger players on the NBA roster such as Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson have developed. One of their young big men, Willy Hernangomez, requested a trade earlier this season due to a lack of playing time and developmental opportunity.
Q: What does on-court player development mean to you?
CR: “I wouldn’t describe it in detail. But I would say there’s a lot of different aspects to the game. Not just shooting the ball, not just dribbling the ball. There’s basketball IQ, there’s defensive, there’s things that are hard to measure quantitatively that I think players can get better at with the right instruction. And just view it as an all-inclusive basketball skill development.”
Robinson says he’s focused on both on- and off-court development and that there is collaboration between everyone in the building, from Mills and Perry to the players. It’s worth noting that the Knicks had a solid player development record under Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher. Fisher’s assistants Dave Bliss and Josh Longstaff played key roles in helping players such as Langston Galloway, Porzingis and Lance Thomas develop in their early years with the Knicks. When asked about what he’d like to implement that’s different from previous groups, Robinson pointed to the “whole building” being part of the development process “rather just a small cadre of individuals whose specific focus is player development.” He also said he’s focused on helping players with career planning and financial literacy, which is something Mills emphasized during his time working for the NBA.
Q: Now that you’re with the Knicks, are Michelle and Barack Obama rooting for the team?
CR: “Yeah, they are. They are absolutely Knicks fans, but they are both Chicago Bulls fans. They wouldn’t stop rooting for the Bulls even when I was with the Bucks, so …. And I never had to worry about it when I was coaching college. But yeah, they are Knicks fans, they pay attention. So I get critiqued by the former president of the United States and the former First Lady.”
Q: Did you learn anything from Barack Obama about leadership?
CR: “The most I learned from him is how to deal with my sister. She’s not the easiest.” (Robinson laughs here, making it clear that he’s kidding.) “I’ll give him a lot of credit and I’ll give my experience in corporate America a lot of credit [for teaching me] the best way to help the people you want to influence is by having a true and genuine connection with them. The reason why he was such a good, in my opinion, leader is because people felt connected to him. And that was one of those things where as a coach I knew you had to be connected with your players before any kind of X’s and O’s because I always had tough jobs. I never had jobs where you could get all the recruits. I had all tough jobs. So you don’t get the best players, so you have to develop them. And the best way I found to develop them is to have this wonderful relationship that had nothing to do with basketball. And then you could get them to do anything for you.”
Q: Would you describe what you’re doing with the Knicks as a collegiate approach to player development?
CR: “I think, rather than say it’s sort of a college style, it’s more innovative. … We have these team-building exercises, but it’s more like working in a corporation that’s forward-thinking. But if you look at a company like Nike … there’s a lot of collaboration going on and a lot of internal development going on, so you grow your own leaders. I think you could say it’s more something like a Nike or a Google than it is a college.”
It’s clear that Robinson is confident in his vision for player development. That confidence was evident when Robinson was asked if he had any desire to return to coaching. He said it would have to be the “perfect” situation because of his love for his current job.
“It’s one of those unique opportunities to do something,” he said. “And if you look at how things are done around the league, no one is actually trying to do this the way we’re trying to do it. So it’s also got that aspect of being able to do something that is completely new and could be transformative in the industry.”
Robinson was hesitant to offer details on the Knicks’ approach to player development and he’s only been on the job for seven months. So time will tell if he can establish something special with the Knicks’ development program. Player development is something that many successful organizations around the league have excelled at for a while (the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, for example). So the Knicks have a long way to go there. But Robinson is confident that they will have success.
“I’m really excited about the future and I can be because I’m in development,” he said. “You’ll know I’m pretty straightforward. You’ll know if I don’t think this will work because it won’t be working and you’ll be able to see it. I really like the direction we’re going.”