Last season, the Knicks were able to get contributions from several unlikely sources, including Shawne Williams. Williams, a former first round pick of the Indiana Pacers when Donnie Walsh was at the helm, was a scrap heap reclamation project who was expected to get extremely limited minutes behind Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields, and Billy Walker. He spent the first 17 games of the season racking up DNPs, prompting Will Leitch to ponder whether he was even on the roster anymore in his always-entertaining Knicks Power Rankings.
We all know how the story played out. Williams worked his way into the rotation to become a key cog in the Knicks’ first run to the playoffs since 2001 by hitting open jumpshots, spacing the floor, and playing tough defense on the perimeter and in the post. When his contracted ended, Williams warmed Knicks fans’ hearts, saying he didn’t want to play anywhere other than New York in the 2011-2012 season. Of course, the Knicks front office is only loyal to people who are wildly incompetent (see: Thomas, Isiah), so Williams was left out in the cold as the Knicks played footsy with Jamal Crawford. Ultimately, the Nets swooped in with a bigger offer and Williams signed with New Jersey.
Coming into this season, it was unclear who would provide the production that left with Williams. Walker’s defense and decisionmaking are spotty, at best. Fields hit a rookie wall after the Carmelo Anthony trade, leaving significant doubts about his ability to improve upon the flashes of brilliance he showed in his first 50 games. Renaldo Balkman can’t shoot a lick. After Saturday night’s win against the Kings, it appears that Josh Harrellson – aka Jorts – might be exactly the player who can fill the void left by Williams.
Jorts, selected by the Hornets with the 45th pick in June’s draft and then traded to the Knicks, was an afterthought for many Knicks fan, including me. He was remembered as the loveable, lumbering big man from Kentucky’s Final Four run. It was assumed that his memory would evaporate into the ether with Kevin Pittsnogle and other shambling college big men who were appeared destined for a life of trailer parks and tales of glory days long past. It was doubtful whether he would even make the team.
When the labor cold war ended and the Knicks opened training camp and the abbreviated preseason, something strange happened: Jorts looked to be a useful NBA rotation player. More impressively, his range extended out the 3-point land where he shot 3-9 in two games against the Nets. Unfortunately, he looked tentative and lost in the first 3 games of the season. However, in the Knicks’ win over the Kings, Harrellson had by far his best games as pro, scoring 14 points while shooting 4-8 from behind the arc. He played solid defense, showing the ability to stay in front on John Salmons on the perimeter early in the game.
Then, in Monday’s night’s disappointing loss to the Raptors, Jorts reverted back to his old ways, clanking all 4 of his three-point attempts, including a shot off the side of the backboard that would have come closer to the rim if he’d kicked it. Encouragingly, Jorts hustled down the floor after two of these misses and drew a charge on the ensuing possession. Generally on the defensive end, he was abused regularly by Andrea Bargnani who beguiled the rookie with upfakes and post moves that you don’t see in the SEC.
That said, Jorts has shown glimpses of being a capable fill-in for Shawne Williams this season. He has flashed some range from deep and good hustle and headiness on defense. Right now, he’s probably in over his head with Jeffries and Stoudemire injured and is being exposed to a certain extent, as rookies often are. Make no mistake about it, Harrellson is a limited player who can fulfill a limited need, but role players are important cogs to winning teams. As a 3rd or 4th forward at 15 minutes per night, Jorts can provide serviceable relief to Stoudemire and Chandler at both power forward and center, while spacing the floor for the other bigs to work and playing solid, if slow-footed, defense. When a team has committed as much cap space to as few players as the Knicks have, they have to find ways to wring extra value from cheap assets like 2nd round picks and veteran wash-outs. Last year, New York was able to do just that, getting major contributions from Shawne Williams and Landry Fields. As the season progresses and the rotation rounds into form, Josh Harrellson will likely be counted on to help in small but meaningful ways. This will be more by necessity than design, as reserve forwards Jared Jeffries and Jerome Jordan are not viable rotation players for a playoff team. He will suffer some growing pains and the rollercoaster performances that come with learning how to play in the league, but by season’s end I think it’s possible that the Knicks will be relying on Jorts to come through with substantial performances in signficant minutes and he appears to have many of the tools to do so.