Five Questions on the Knicks Hiring of Kenny Payne

Jonathan Macri

Anyone who has followed the Knicks for long enough is privy to more than a few cautionary tales about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of making too much of a new hire based solely on their resume or press clippings.

We've been there and done that. Even the best of the best have walked through MSG's hallowed doors and for whatever reason, all of their previous career accomplishments seem to get washed away amidst a sea of incompetence and ineptitude.

So as the Knicks officially welcomed the first assistant coaching hire of the Rose regime, it's important for everyone to take a deep breath and not get ahead of themselves. 

The reason that might be particularly difficult this time around is because when it comes to Kenny Payne, the resume and press clippings don't just say that the Knicks hired a difference-maker, but perhaps the difference-maker in all of college basketball.

When you read things about "the player whisperer" who was voted the number one assistant coach in the SEC that "once guys leave Kentucky, some talk more about Kenny Payne than they do about John Calipari," as Rivals.com analyst Corey Evans relayed to Kentucky.com's Ben Roberts, it's tough to remain neutral about the hire. 

It isn't just faint praise either. As The Athletic's Kyle Tucker detailed in October, some of the NBA's very best players still return to Kentucky in their spare time, not to reminisce with Payne, but to be trained by him.

Despite speculation that this was just another baseless attempt by James Dolan's Knicks to hire someone merely as a draw to free agents, New York is bringing Payne aboard first and foremost as a coach. Based on the anecdotal evidence, they're getting a damn good one. As one former player told Tucker last year, "Kentucky is a great program and they’ll find a nice guy to replace him, but guys who go there after he’s gone would be missing out on one of the best player development coaches I’ve worked with."

But to pretend like this is only about Payne the coach is also naive. The player who said those kind words above? That would be Anthony Davis, the Laker star who has a player option coming up this summer, and who has the option to sign a 1 + 1 extension that would allow him to re-enter the market again in 2021, then eligible for a nine-year max - the highest contract available to NBA players.

With this complicated backdrop in mind, let's look at the five biggest questions surrounding Payne's hiring, starting with who made it in the first place.

5. Is Tom Thibodeau on board?

Before the Payne hire became official and contract details were still being worked out, a league source confirmed that Payne had been in contact with Thibodeau before he had even officially been offered the job, not only about the prospect of joining his staff, but to give input on certain players as well.

From that perspective, it's hard to imagine that the hire doesn't come with the full blessing of the new head coach, especially given his longstanding relationship with Leon Rose. Even if the connection itself comes from William "Worldwide" Wesley, who Payne has known for decades dating back to their roots in South Jersey, Thibs' comments at his introductory Zoom presser seem to indicate that everyone was on the same page when it came to filling out the staff.

He would be wise to be on board. Thibs, in many ways, is the equivalent of John Calapari in Kentucky - a larger than life figurehead who keeps his plate too full to tend to the softer side of coaching. This was perhaps the major knock on him at Minnesota, and one of the causes of his downfall.

In that sense, Payne should make the perfect compliment. As Coach Cal put it himself, the players "see me bigger than I am. Sometimes they need an ear. And the guy they know cares, they know is there for them, that’ll tell them the truth, is Kenny Payne. He’s been vital for these players. Vital."

If Thibodeau remains as committed to the X's and O's as his reputation suggests, Payne may wind up being as important a compliment to him as he has been for Calipari over the last decade.

4. What does this mean for Julius Randle?

We've read reports from SNY's Ian Begley for months that there are some within the Knicks organization who feel they need more shooting from the power forward position. Given how New York was dead last in the league in frequency of 3-pointers taken last year, this shouldn't come as a shock. 

Thibodeau would also seem to be on board with this philosophy, as he noted at his opening presser that offenses which feature four-out, one-in or even five-out were clearly indicative of the way the NBA is heading.

So what then to make of Randle, a big man who Payne coached at Kentucky and helped become a top-ten pick in the NBA draft after just one season, but who hit only 27.7 percent of his long balls last season?

According to Coach Cal, Payne's effect on Randle will be "immediate," and while it's possible that Calapari knows nothing of New York's plans moving forward, it's just as likely that he at least has a clue about what they have in store.

Randle himself - who recently, finally, completed Payne's famed treadmill workout at Kentucky after many years of trying - is a fan of the hire, so one figures he feels as if the two will have a working relationship in the near future.

Will that be as a starter? A sixth man? Only temporary until the Knicks can increase his trade value enough to deal him as a neutral asset? All that remains to be seen.

3. What about Kevin Knox?

More than anyone on the current roster, perhaps no one should be happier about Payne's hire than Knox. The birthday boy seemed quite pleased with the move, as he should be. 

For one, Knox has struggled immensely over his two years as a pro. He is the rare Kentucky product who has come into the league as a top draft pick and not found relatively immediate success.

Whether that's because the last Knicks regime engineered a virtually unprecedented reduction in his role in an attempt to save their own jobs or because he simply isn't taking to the NBA as quickly as many thought can't yet be known. But like Randle, Calipari feels Payne's effect on Knox will be felt quickly and in a significant way. That would seem to indicate Knox won't be dealt in an effort to immediately upgrade the win-now talent on the roster, as many have speculated since Rose was hired. 

On the surface, it's a smart move. It's hard to imagine Knox's value much lower than it is right now. Perhaps Payne, who told the Post's Marc Berman in June that he still thought Knox could become a star in the NBA, is exactly what the now 21-year-old needs to fix what ails him.

2. What role will he have in Player Development?

The Knicks ended last season with Craig Robinson in charge of player development and a paucity of coaches on the staff who were solely dedicated to this concept.

It seems as if much change is in the offing, and that Payne's hiring is the first domino to fall. A league source indicated that the Knicks are still unsure as to whether they will explicitly hire a replacement for Robinson, and may instead go with a committee approach to trying to make their players the best that they can be. They also confirmed that either way, the number of people dedicated to player development is likely to grow significantly in size.

A different league source with knowledge of the Knicks thinking confirmed that even if Payne isn't directing the player development program outright, he will be prominently involved in how it looks and feels within the organization. 

As was reported by the Daily News' Stefan Bondy, Payne's salary is over $1.5 million, which puts him in the upper echelon of the NBA's assistant coaches. Given that hefty sum, it's not unreasonable to thing that however big the Knicks eventually make the player development arm of their coaching staff, Payne is the one providing them with most of the direction.

1. Will his recruiting carry over to the NBA?

Fans were largely enraged at the suggestion from many in the national media that the Knicks' hire of Payne indicates they still hadn't learned their lesson. And to sure, whittling the hiring down merely to Payne's connections with the NBA's elite is as foolish as it is dismissive of his lengthy list of accomplishments.

But to stick one's head in the sand and pretend like the man many current NBA stars refer to as Uncle Kenny was hired irrespective of those relationships is naive. Players love Payne, and while the next superstar who chooses his NBA destination purely because of an assistant coach will be the first to do so, the Knicks are not in a position to be dismissive of any advantage, even a slight one.

The list of prominent players who have been recruited and coached by Payne is a long one, including Bam Adebayo, De'Aaron Fox, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, and of course, Davis.

Other than Davis however, all of those players are either under contract for at least four more seasons or are on teams that will hold their restricted free agency rights after their rookie contracts end. It is not as if Payne's presence will even grant New York a free agency meeting in the near future.

But in a league where stars are only bound by their desire to remain with the team they happen to play for at the moment, it's not unreasonable to think the Knicks will attempt to use whatever leverage they have in upgrading the roster. In addition, as Kentucky Sports Radio's Matt Jones told me on the latest Knicks Film School Podcast, virtually every one of the NBA's best players knows Payne well from the recruiting trail, even if they didn't end up signing in Lexington.

How much will it matter? Maybe a little, maybe not at all. But it's tough to ignore stories like Payne sitting court-side for an early Anthony Davis high school game, back before he was even a top-100 recruit, and identifying Davis as a special talent, as Jones relayed to me on the podcast.

For the Knicks, any recruiting assistance Payne can lend would seem to be icing on the cake. Their player development program needed as big a facelift as any in the league.

With the hiring of Kenny Payne, they're well on their way to making that happen.

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