What the Knicks Need Is Out There, but the Nets Can Snatch It Away

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It will take a lot more than one N.B.A. draft for the Knicks to climb their way back to respectability. They have proven as much in recent years.

An abridged history:

They used the fourth pick of the 2015 draft on Kristaps Porzingis, and he was fun for a while, but the Knicks were still terrible and then he tore a ligament in his knee and now he plays in Dallas. In 2017, the Knicks used the eighth pick to select Frank Ntilikina, a guard who spent much of last season collecting dust on the bench for a team that finished with the worst record in the N.B.A. Last year, the Knicks went with Kevin Knox at the ninth overall pick. He has shown potential — a glimmer of hope amid a river of gloom.

On Thursday night, the Knicks took another swing at adding talent through the lottery, drafting R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-7 wing from Duke, with the third pick. He appeared to be a popular selection among the Knicks fans who found their way to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the draft.

“I’m glad that the city wants me here as much as I want to be here,” Barrett said at his news conference.

Barrett, 19, could turn out to be a terrific talent, but player development takes time and there are no guarantees. In the meantime, the Knicks are banking (again) on free agency, which has seldom worked out for them. It was a more appetizing prospect than usual until just a couple of weeks ago, when Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors — perhaps the most prized potential free agent this summer — ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in the N.B.A. finals.

Even if Durant signs with the Knicks in free agency — which many around the league considered a strong possibility before his injury — he faces an extended rehabilitation, and the Knicks are likely in for another long season of public posturing about patience.

And if Durant doesn’t sign? It depends, of course, on Plans B, C and D: the free agents who would be willing to eat into the team’s most important asset, which is cap space. For now, the Knicks at least have the option of building around young players like Knox and Barrett, and there are worse strategies. They have tried most of them.

The Nets, by comparison, have become a model of stability under the stewardship of General Manager Sean Marks and Coach Kenny Atkinson. Brooklyn had a quiet draft, trading out of the first round for additional cap space, which may prove valuable this summer, before acquiring two players in the second round: Nic Claxton, a center from Georgia, with the 31st pick, and Jaylen Hands, a point guard from U.C.L.A, with the 56th pick.

Like the Knicks, the Nets are eyeing free agency. (Speculation continues to brew that Boston’s Kyrie Irving is considering a move to Brooklyn.) And like the Knicks, the Nets have money to spend. So in that sense, Thursday’s draft was a low-key prelude to the real drama ahead.

In the second round, the Knicks moved up to acquire Ignas Brazdeikis, a Lithuanian-Canadian forward, with the 47th pick. As a freshman last season, Brazdeikis was Michigan’s leading scorer, averaging 14.8 points a game. He is also familiar with Barrett, having played with him on Canadian national teams.

Scott Perry, the Knicks’ general manager, said the team had identified three players at the top of the draft — Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Barrett — who had separated themselves from the pack. With that in mind, Perry said, the Knicks were pleased to take Barrett with their pick.

“He’s always sought out challenges that he knew would allow him to become a great basketball player,” Perry said. “We like his attitude, and we think he has some room to grow.”

Barrett, who grew up outside Toronto, was a celebrated recruit coming out of high school — more celebrated, in fact, than Williamson, his teammate at Duke. But Williamson emerged as a college phenomenon and was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans with the top overall pick in Thursday’s draft.

If he was overshadowed by Williamson in his lone season at Duke, Barrett was still a highly productive player, averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Perry cited Barrett’s perimeter shooting as an area where he would like to see improvement. Barrett shot just 30.8 percent from 3-point range in college.

“That’s something that he knows and recognizes,” Perry said in a teleconference with reporters during the draft. “But he has the form and the mechanics where, with a lot of work and repetition, that this is something that’s very attainable for him.”

For his part, Barrett said he was thrilled to be going to the Knicks. His grandfather was a longtime fan — “We used to watch the Knicks growing up, and he would always tell me I was going to be a Knick,” Barrett said — and his father, Rowan, the general manager for high performance with the Canadian men’s national team, played at St. John’s.

“You’re going to see a lot of exciting things from me,” Barrett said.

As the Knicks continue to grapple with so much uncertainty of their own making, they can only hope that happens sometime soon.

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