Is Ignas Brazdeikis ready to play for the Knicks?

Jackie Powell

WHITE PLAINS, NY — Before heading into the locker room for game time in Westchester, Ignas “Iggy” Brazdeikis is always the last Knicks player left on the court. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s even become customary for young fans to catch sight of the 2019 New York Knicks second-round draft pick as they get their tickets scanned at the Westchester County Center, home of the Knicks' G League affiliate. Last month, prior to a game against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, a parent asked a young child, “Who’s that?” while casually observing Iggy’s warmup. 

The child responded with excitement and a high timbre in his voice: “That’s Ignas Brazdeikis!”

The young fan clearly knows him, but exactly who is Ignas Brazdeikis and how has he become a top 20 scoring threat within the G league who nets 20.9 points per game? What made him worth it for the Knicks to trade up and draft him? Brazdeikis, who was the 2018-2019 Big Ten Rookie of the year, averaged under 15 points per game along with field goal percentages nearing 40 percent from beyond the arc and above 45 percent overall in his one year with the Wolverines.

And by the way, he still feels “good” about that decision, “No regrets.”

What made Brazdeikis incredibly special to Michigan recruiters and to New York scouts is his ability to score, but what it’s also what makes him even more difficult to defend. Iggy dribbles, drives and passes with his right hand, but shoots with his left.

“For us, he brings basketball IQ,” Westchester Knicks coach Derrick Alston said. “He’s a downhill threat. Really good finisher. What I think he’ll bring to the [New York] Knicks is more of that. Really good in the open court, getting downhill into the rim and then he just has to be more consistent with his shot, but he’s a really good shooter.”

Development is evident

Against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the 2019 second-round draft pick began his warm up with a film session on the bench with Westchester assistant coach Allen Deep. That session is followed by set of stretches and lunges with Westchester’s strength and conditioning coach Mike Atkinson.

With a blue resistance band around his knees, he bends and stretches, bends and stretches while he’s clutching a basketball. Atkinson gives him a playful shove which is followed by an attempted three-ball from the Canadian with the band still around his knees.

But that’s only the beginning of Brazdeikis’ diligent regimen. Next, three balls and then inside the arc to fine-tune his mid-range game. Each iteration matters regardless of the resulting ricochet or swish.

When I first saw Brazdeikis play while observing the coaching stylings of Lisa C. Willis in early December, I thought his game relied too heavily on isolation ball, which is becoming more and more blasé for NBA teams. The coaching staffs of the Knicks organizations collectively noticed that and have worked with the Canada native on expanding his game.

“His development has been huge, from the first game he played with us, which he had 35 [points], but it was more of an excitement type thing compared to how he’s playing now,” Alston said. “Just understanding how to play at this level, which preparing for the NBA level: when to make the pass, when to shoot, when not to be overly aggressive, when to make plays for his teammates...Being a willing passer and just playing with a bit more pace in transition and getting off the ball and those are things he’s been doing.”

For Iggy himself, he understands his curriculum at Westchester, and that altering his game can only help whatever team he’s on at the professional level.

“Just continuing to make the right decision on the court at all time,” he said when asked about his development. “And helping the team win in every way that I can.”

I pressed him on what exactly is the “right decision,” and he replied that it’s about scoring the ball and doing “stuff that helps the team win,” which includes and isn’t limited to kicking the ball out to an open teammate and taking charges while on the other side of the floor.

Brazdeikis has become a willing passer, and the statistics illustrate that factoid. From November to January his assists per game metric took an exceptional leap in which he initally averaged under one dime to dishing out over four a game. In Febuary, however, this exponential increase in assists halted, which is symbolic for his overall productivity as of late. A bit inconsistent. He’s also been in foul trouble lately. In one weekend of home games, he fouled out twice in the middle of the fourth quarter.

But Alston equates that to the long All-Star break which took his small forward out of his rhythm. 

“Now he’s really starting to get his legs back under him and like I told him: ‘Hey, play the right way. Make plays for your teammates. We’ll just try to pick you up.’ Today I thought it played well. He got into some foul trouble... but everything for him is a learning experience. Now he’s learning how to deal with All-Star Break. He’s learning how you come back, how to deal with fouls, all of these situations that he’s in are really what is going to help him develop.”

Brazdeikis has a tendency to argue calls with referees, a possible symptom of being a first-year. Alston has been working on keeping his spirits lifted and providing the right motivation when necessary. 

“I’m always trying to teach him to make the right plays, fight the frustration,” he said. “The referees are here developing just like we're developing as coaches, just like you’re developing as players. You can’t let them take you out of your game. That’s a big part of it, he’s been doing so much better with that.”

For Iggy, the learning curve has been all about how he takes care of himself (his “body” and hismind”) and transitioning basketball to being his day-to-day priority. “It’s just a lot more travel. My life is basketball now. There’s no more school.”

But what’s Kadeem Allen’s advice for the one-and-done former Wolverine? He’s a New York Knicks two-way player with two plus years of experience. How difficult is it to move between rosters (NBA and G League) and try to form bonds and chemistry with two sets of teammates?

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball for real,” he said. “It’s a different speed when you come down here. Everyone is playing fast but up there guys know how to play the game more, there’s more space. Down here it’s about picking spots and being smart and playing hard but trying to prevent injury. I feel when [Iggy] comes down, he does exactly what he’s supposed to do.”

How to defend like Pippen? There's magic to do

Two days later preceding a matchup against the Maine Red Claws, Brazdeikis executes his warmup regimen. It’s exactly the same, although this time the second to last on the court was no other than the human prop of the 2020 dunk contest, Tacko Fall.

So what will it take for Iggy to be as broadly recognizable as Fall? While his 7’5” frame plays a major role in Fall's rise to NBA stardom, how and when will New Yorkers start to know Iggy’s name?

According to the late Kobe Bryant, who happens to be one of Brazdeikis’ favorite players from childhood, young players coming into the league today ought to “focus on the defensive end of the floor.”

Iggy’s defense is still a work in progress and apparently has been since his year in Ann Arbor. While reporting from ESPN’s Dan Murphy contends that his limitations on the other side of floor were chalked up to physical joint tightness, that doesn’t illustrate the full picture or provide a holistic approach to where Brazdeikis’ defense can go. Apparently at Michigan, Iggy loosened his joints via meditation and yoga. Still: there's more work to be done.

For Iggy, it’s not about what he’s doing, it’s about what he’s not doing. Against both Maine and Fort Wayne, he had difficulty denying penetrating passes and stopping the ball while he was on it. Iggy doesn’t follow the ball. Against the Mad Ants, he just stopped in the lane after a slight push off from Travin Thibodeau. Brazdeikis wanted a call and didn’t get it.

Against Yante Maten of the Red Claws, there was a clear mismatch between the two, but Iggy held his own until he didn’t attempt to keep his arms straight up and focus on swatting the ball rather than outmuscling a natural center.

What does Brazdeikis need to do to follow Bryant’s advice and emerge as a small forward with the defensive prowess of NBA mainstays like Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson?

Leonard is an elite on-ball defender and always finds a way to get his hands low and involved. If he’s not on the ball, then he advances and attacks toward it. He’s not worried about rebounding (which I’ve noticed Brazdeikis sometimes is). Leonard aims to retreat to the forward movement of the ball.

And Thompson’s ability to move quickly through screens is his secret weapon. He and Brazdeikis have the same wing span of 6’9”. Iggy has the potential to use those arms to attempt more blocks.

A prime example of defense is Scottie Pippen, and according to Bryant, everything Scottie was known for imputes masterclass defense. So aside from Pippen’s ability to take plays and space away, what’s his secret?

It’s energy. Plain and simple.

“It’s the activity...Too many players today just play defense to play defense,” Bryant said. “He’s attacking these offensive players. He’s going after it. He’s playing with an energy out there.”

But of course, there’s another learning curve for Iggy, one which Coach Alston is well aware of.

“Defensively, just like any young player who moves from college to this level, there’s no real zone defense off the ball, just being in positions and just seeing plays develop...Just having him be ready all the time. All young guys tend to when they are away from the ball, they stand up in relax. So to try to have him engaged. When things happen, and they happen very quickly at this level, you’re not a step behind.”

But the silver lining for Brazdeikis is his evolving ability to get into passing lanes and use his high basketball IQ to sought them out. Alston agrees. 

“I think that kind of a natural thing for him to use his length and his size and he’s a smart kid, he kind of knows where to be and how to bate guys into to throwing his way so maybe he can get a hand in there. “

If the Knicks are to call Brazdeikis up, they ought to play him. It would be a waste of his and New York’s time to not. And that’s what Westchester’s Alston contends, the 21-year-old needs “reps” and minutes. According to the first-year head coach, there’s some “trial and error” involved, and that’s okay.

“[Brazdeikis] playing down here is going to help him tremendously,” Alston said. “I already talked to him about it a few times and he was just saying when he does go back up, even in practice, he just feels so much more confident. He gets game reps and he knows, ‘okay this move works.’”

His defensive skills and cerebral maturity don’t grow while sitting. His ability to experiment and find his style off the ball doesn’t grow while sitting. Kevin Knox didn’t get that opportunity and it’s apparently taking its toll. His lackluster defense is showing. Brazdeikis shouldn’t follow suit.

Now who exactly is Iggy, really? Okay, he’s a versatile scorer who needs to continue to value and study the defensive side of the game. But according to Allen, he’s a bit of an enigma. I asked him if there’s something that I wouldn’t expect to know about the rookie. He couldn’t answer the question.

“I feel like what you see is Iggy,” he said. “He’s not trying to put on a front. He’s not trying to do something he doesn’t normally do. He’s just being Iggy.”