Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has always relied on former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne to get a strong grasp of upcoming draft candidates.
Now that he’s hired Payne to his staff, Thibodeau hopes Payne can unlock the magic from former Kentucky stud Kevin Knox, the Knicks’ 2018 lottery pick.
Squeezing out the potential from the Knicks’ last three lottery picks — Knox, RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina — are chief aims for the 2021 season, whenever it begins.
The start of it all are the organized team activities for the eight franchises that weren’t part of the Orlando bubble restart.
After one week of “individual’’ workouts, the Knicks have moved into a bubble, holed up in a Manhattan hotel. Wednesday marked the first of at least a week of group practices at their Tarrytown campus.
“Kevin’s come in and he’s done quite a bit of work,’’ Thibodeau said on a 16-minute Zoom call. “I’m getting to know him and he’s getting to know me and it will take some time. But I like what he’s done so far.’’
Bringing in Payne to reverse Knox’s halting career was a no-brainer, Thibodeau said. Knox’s second season was a mess, relegated to modest minutes, almost entirely off the bench.
According to sources, new Knicks vice president William Wesley, who was intimately involved with John Calipari’s Kentucky program behind the scenes as a consultant, pushed very hard for Payne.
“Yeah, and not just with Kevin, but with all the players,’’ Thibodeau said of Payne’s influence on Knox. “Kenny is someone — I’ve known John Calipari a long time and every year I would get Kenny’s input on all the draft candidates. I always thought he was very insightful and he knew the players extremely well. So I thought when we had the opportunity to get him that just made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels.
“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.’’
These OTAs are the first chance for Thibodeau to work with three new assistants he never had on staff before.
Former Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant, noted for his work with Utah star Donovan Mitchell, is a key cog in the Knicks’ new theme of emphasizing player development with on-court work.
As The Post reported, Bryant has worked almost exclusively with Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft who was snubbed from the league’s two all-rookie teams.
While Knox could still be traded in a package for a superstar, Barrett is a bedrock piece.
“It’s been great,’’ Thibodeau said of his first impressions of the ex-Duke star. “Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done. These are the initial steps. The offseason is critical for any young player. So you can get going on the development piece, which is critical. He’s been great, eager. He’s working hard. If he does that day after day he will improve quite a bit.”
Barrett’s shooting percentages and advanced analytics rate poorly. The 6-foot-7 guard shot just 61 percent from the free-throw line and 40 percent from the field. When pressed on what he’s working on with Barrett, Thibodeau deflected.
“I think for all players the offseason is usually a time where you can add to your game,’’ Thibodeau said. “Whether you’re a first-year player, second-year player or a 10-year player. You’re always trying to add and learn so that’s how you improve.’’
Bryant will be tasked with Barrett’s continuing education. Thibodeau got to know Bryant when he visited the Jazz during his hiatus after being fired in Minnesota in January 2019.
“Johnnie’s someone I got to know a bit when I was traveling around,’’ Thibodeau said. “I have great respect for the people in Utah. I’ve worked with [GM] Dennis Lindsey in Houston, I’ve gotten to know [Utah 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 came away very impressed with him.”
Wednesday, Thibodeau staged a two-hour practice and is looking at these voluntary OTAs as an extension of a 2019-20 season cut short. The Knicks last played on March 11.
The rub is some veterans will be free agents and won’t be around next season. As such, some didn’t stick around after the “individual’’ workout week ended, though free agents Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson did, according to a source. However, young center Mitchell Robinson left town for personal reasons.
Meanwhile, the start date of next season is up in the air — with dates ranging from January to March 1.
“We’ll figure out the things that we’re really good at and we’ll build that way,’’ Thibodeau said. “But right now we’re still digging through. We still don’t know what the personnel will be and technically this is still part of last year. We don’t know when training camp will be. So we lock into the player-development aspect. That’s a big challenge in the NBA — how quickly can you adapt?”
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