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Are the Knicks Using Isaiah Hartenstein the Right Way?

One of the newest New York Knicks, Hartenstein has found himself confined to the paint rather than capitalizing on the playmaking abilities he discovered last season.

Though positionless basketball has become increasingly normalized throughout the NBA, the role of the center maintains a strong hold on the imagination of those who walk through Madison Square Garden's hallowed halls. 

The antics of Patrick Ewing and Willis Reed ... Mark Messier, if you're a fan of the ice ... decorate the modern MSG concourses to this day, and the modern New York Knicks continue to use the interior to paint (pun intended) their future. An eventful offseason saw the Knicks re-up with both Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims while Isaiah Hartenstein came over from the Los Angeles Clippers.

While Robinson and Sims adhered to the commonly accepted tropes of the center ... be big, get rebounds, put it back in if you have the power and opportunity ... Hartenstein developed a reputation as a playmaker during a breakout season on the opposite coast. He averaged a career-best 8.3 points and 2.4 assists and had an efficiency rating of 22.0 (another personal high) which led to the Knicks shoring up their depth to the tune of a two-year, $16 million contract. 

Upon his New York arrival, Hartenstein sounded ready to stretch the floor and pick up where he left off in Los Angeles.

"I felt like I can bring something that they didn’t have, to help them win," Hartenstein said in September. "It’s not like I’m learning how to shoot the ball. I think that’s one thing that me and (head coach Tom Thibodeau) talked about, helping spread the floor.”

Hartenstein, however, has mostly remained confined to the paint in the early going, with Thibodeau tasking him to become more of a traditional center like Robinson and Sims. His standard statistical averages are mostly the same, but he's averaging nearly six minutes than what he was working with out west. The decline in assists has been particularly alarming, down to 0.8 over his first 18 showings. 

Fouls have also been an issue for the 2019 G League Finals MVP, putting up a career-worst 2.8. Those issues afforded an opportunity for Sims to break into Thibodeau's nine-man rotation during the Knicks' recent western swing, where they went 3-2 and took down elite competition from Utah and Denver. Hartenstein was thrust into the starting lineup upon Robinson's Nov. 4 injury in Philadelphia but averaged only 18.5 minutes over the five-game trip. 

Upon the Knicks' return home, Hartenstein has stressed that he holds no ill will toward Thibodeau for his apparent insistence that he becomes a Robinson/Sims clone. He, in fact, sounded interested in seeing what he could take from their respective games as he seeks to build his own.

“It’s adjusting to a different role where it’s playing more like them, I guess, not more of what I’m used to,” Hartenstein said this week. “That’s been a little more difficult. So I’m just adjusting to more of a Mitch role, where I’m just rolling into the pick-and-roll.”

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“I want to do whatever the team needs to win. If that’s playing three bigs, if that’s playing small, I’m going to do whatever the team needs me to do to win.”

Hartenstein sounded more annoyed with his health issues than any strategic woes. Not only was he one of several Knicks who battled a slight flu bug on the trip (Julius Randle admitted he was also affected after a 34-point performance in last week's win in Denver) but he admitted that he has been dealing with an inflamed Achilles throughout the season.

Issues with his Achilles limited him to 15 minutes in the final leg of the road trip, a Monday win over Oklahoma City that saw Robinson make his return to the starting five.

"I was just trying to give it everything I had with the amount of ability I had and my Achilles being like 80 percent the whole season," Hartenstein said of his road trip. “I think everyone has been contributing. Jericho is definitely an NBA player, and what he brought to the team especially, maybe when I wasn’t at full capacity. I think he did a good job of holding it down. … Mitch has been doing a good job, too,”

While the Knicks (9-9) could perhaps use some versatile work in the interior, they're handling their business in the rebounding department Hartenstein and Robinson's medical woes. Entering the league's brief Thanksgiving pause, New York currently ranks third in rebounds per game (46.2) and seventh in second-chance points (17). 

The Knicks return to action on Friday night at home against the Portland Trail Blazers (7:30 p.m. ET, MSG). 


Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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