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June 17, 2018

Sixers prospect preview: Does Kevin Knox have the most upside of wings in 2018 draft class?

In advance of this June's 2018 NBA Draft, the Sixers have a lot of preparation to do in order to narrow down the field of candidates who will be available at the No. 10 pick. They haven't asked for our help, but I will provide it for the fans in the form of scouting reports on a mix of players who (realistically) could be available when the Sixers are on the clock at No. 10.

Not every one of these players we will profile at PhillyVoice is someone I would advocate drafting, and in fact, a large part of this exercise will be forming and explaining my personal view on players who exist on either end of the plausibility spectrum. You will (hopefully!) read about guys like Mikal Bridges, viewed as a near-consensus target, and wild-card picks like Zhaire Smith, raw but talented young men who might represent a bigger home-run swing.

By the end of this process, my hope is that you feel a little bit stronger about whatever beliefs you have about these guys, or that I have challenged what you thought you knew about the various players on the board.

Up next on our list: Kentucky's Kevin Knox, who returns for a second workout in Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon after participating in a group workout last week.

The measurables

Age: 18 (Turns 19 in August)

Height: 6'9"

Wingspan: 6'11.75"

Weight: 212.6 lbs

College averages (1 season): 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 44.5/34.1/77.4 shooting splits

The offense

The makings of a killer combo forward

As one of the youngest players in this draft class, Knox has already shown off a lot of skills that teams hope for players to develop by the time they hit their early to mid 20's. There is a clear path toward him for him to become an effective scorer at the next level, combining outside shooting with an array of moves closer to the basket.

It was a little harder to show that off at Kentucky than it might have been elsewhere. Many people believe Knox is more of a modern four than he is a three, but Knox played almost exclusively at the three for Kentucky last season and declared himself to be a three when he came in for his first Sixers workout last week. As a result of that decision and the various pieces around him in Lexington, Knox spent a lot of time as the only floor spacer for the Wildcats.

That all has to be taken into consideration when discussing his three-point percentage (34.1) and his likelihood to shoot at the next level. But his size is going to allow him to get his shot off fairly easily at the next level, and the combination of his mechanics and success at the free-throw line indicate he has more to offer there. 

If you watched him during his biggest scoring outbursts of the year, Knox can do just about everything when he has it clicking. His performance against West Virginia — a 34 point, seven rebound effort that powered Kentucky to a win over a top-10 opponent — was one of the better individual efforts in college basketball all year. Unbothered by hard closeouts from the Mountaineers, Knox lit it up from the outside and did a fine job attacking defenders off the dribble once the threat of his jumper was clear.

For a player his size, Knox is able and willing to get out and run in transition, which will fit well on a Sixers team powered by Ben Simmons. He is constantly looking for the ball on the break, and makes incisive decisions in the open floor.

There are flashes of game intelligence even in these frantic situations — after a defender lost his footing against Knox in a transition play against Arkansas, the young forward drifted back to the three-point line instead of settling for a mid-range jumper.

Knox should be able to finish in traffic at the next level, and he has a fairly advanced floater/runner game for a player his age. With a head of steam going he's an extremely difficult player to contain, even if he lacks the top-end athleticism you'd want in a scoring wing. He has already shown comfort playing away from the ball, and the Sixers desparately need scorers who have that in their bag.

He has a very smooth game, which he put on display in his first workout with the Sixers — Knox scored, was fouled, or assisted on a basket on six straight possessions we watched during a scrimmage, for whatever minuscule value that's worth. Rumblings around the league suggest he has been exceptional during workouts, which confirms some of the buzz that has surrounded him all year. Conversations with scouts suggested to PhillyVoice that he's valued a lot more highly amongst NBA teams than he has been by general public consensus, and is pretty firmly a top-10 guy.

Are his shortcomings contextual, or a sign of things to come?

It is worth noting this again: the numbers are what they are, and on a relatively high volume of three point shots Knox was a slightly below-average shooter. The pressure on him to shoot won't be much different at the next level, and he will have to prove he's capable of being the reliable floor spacer who opens up the floor for Simmons and Joel Embiid.

There is a very real possibility that Knox would be better served playing his minutes at the four in the NBA rather than at the three. His athleticism limitations would be less exposed there, and he would probably have an easier time attacking those sort of defenders off the dribble from the perimeter.

But that's not likely to be an option on this Sixers team, at least not as it's currently constructed. Dario Saric is going to get the lion's share of the minutes at the four, and Simmons should spend more time there as the Sixers get Markelle Fultz back up to speed. Positional fluidity is a good thing and gets overthought a ton these days, but slotting Knox into a definitive role isn't as easy to do as it is for, say, Mikal Bridges.

Without the highest-end athleticism, Knox could end up struggling to get to the basket and score in spite of his touch and size. He shot over 67 percent on shots at the rim at Kentucky, but 53.1 percent of his makes there were assisted, and there were times where he struggled to finish over or around length. NBA spacing will make getting where he needs to go a little easier, but the rim protection gets a heck of a lot better.

There's also the major question of how much Knox wants to be a go-to scorer. His standout performances were just that, he has a tendency to drift within games or settle for shots rather than hunting better ones. How much of that is contextual? That's not easy to say, and he wouldn't be the first Kentucky player to put it together and break out of a more restrictive role to dominate at the next level.

The components are there for him to be an excellent offensive player in the NBA, but it's also possible that he never quite gets there on a lot of key skills and falls short of becoming the key cog teams hope he'll grow into. Knox settles for lots of tough shots early in the shot clock, and that's a habit that is a lot more frustrating to watch if the looks aren't falling.

The defense

Size and mobility are intriguing, even if the numbers aren't there yet

There was not a whole lot of evidence to suggest Knox is going to be an impact-level defender at the next level during his lone college season. However, with the size and lightness on his feet that he has, Knox is certainly capable of being a successful and productive team defender.

Knox's ability to contest shots on perimeter rotations is impressive for a guy his size, and he's able to cover space in a hurry when he sets his mind to it. Alongside the already jumbo-sized players in Philadelphia's lineup, Knox would give them an element of size and fluidity they were missing from their bench all of last season, and the hope would be that would eventually be added to the starting lineup.

Though he might not have elite burst, Knox has more than enough quickness laterally to keep opposing players contained on the perimeter. The question is whether he's going to exert enough energy to make that a reality, or whether he'll simply be content to produce on the offensive end of the floor without worrying too much about defense.

That's not meant to sound harsh, but it's the reality for Knox on defense at this point in time. His steal and block numbers paint the picture of a player who doesn't make a lot of impact plays there, even if he is probably a bit better than those stats suggest.

Does that matter as much on this Sixers team? Perhaps not. With Simmons and Robert Covington already in the fold and Embiid anchoring things behind them, having a less risk-prone defender within the perimeter group might not be the worst thing in the world.

Questionable effort, concerns about role 

It should go without saying that it's concerning for the same motor questions dogging Knox on the offensive end to exist on defense. This suggests it's not necessarily just a lack of focus or a product of role, but perhaps a commentary on his level of engagement with the game.

There have been no concerns vocalized about his character as a person, and most in the know suggest he's a good kid and a hard worker. How else does a 6'9" guy develop skills like he has at this age? Still, combine his lack of attentiveness away from the ball with being less than thrilled about playing through contact, and you have a cocktail that raises a few eyebrows.

This is where those concerns about positional role really come into play. If he ends up playing predominantly at the three, is he going to be physically and mentally prepared for the challenge of trying to check the league's top wings? Will he bang with guys in the post on defense if he ends up playing the four? Both are fair questions, and those only make it more difficult to figure out exactly how you'd get max value out of him on this specific team.

Even in a best-case scenario, it feels unlikely that Knox will ever be an impact-level defender, and the optimistic case is for him to be right around average. That would be a perfectly acceptable outcome if he delivers on his offensive potential, but it's always dangerous to bet on guys who have to produce all their value at one end of the floor. When teams go smaller in the playoffs, having him at the three could expose his burst (or lack thereof) and force the Sixers into tough lineup decisions.

On offense, Knox can potentially help dictate matchups. Whether he can settle into a productive place on the other end remains to be seen.

Does he make sense for the Sixers at No. 10?

The Sixers would not have brought Knox in for a second workout if there wasn't a lot of interest in adding him to their current group. He had some of the most impressive flashes of any prospect this season, and with youth on his side you could argue he has some of the highest upside in the draft.

Concerns about his motor or "love for the game" don't track for me as much as they do for others. Knox straight up took over games at points throughout the season, and I think his inconsistency was more a product of his role and some skills still in development that could be fixed over time. With a slightly better handle — Knox is more of a straight-line driver than anything at the moment — there would be a lot less questioning his approach to the game.

None of that should be glossed over. Just yelling "Youth!" over and over again is not a compelling dismissal of his current flaws. He will need to answer the bell at the next level and show he's not content to just slide in and out of games, particularly if he's drafted to take on a heavy scoring burden for Philadelphia.

Still, his craft level suggests that he certainly cares about getting better, and he would bring some desparately needed shotmaking and taking to the Sixers. In the range they're drafting in, I think he has as compelling a case as anyone to be the pick at No. 10, if he happens to last long enough for them to have that option.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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