Kyle O’Quinn is here to save the Knicks!

If only they’d let him…

There’s a tepid uneasiness surrounding the Knicks these days.

It’s hard to put a finger on. There aren’t many symptoms of a broken locker room; the players seem to get along well and the camaraderie appears genuine. As Courtney Lee told the media last week unprompted, “I’m still confident in the group, man.” Remember, this is the same group that started out the season 14–10 and climbed out to the third seed in the Eastern Conference in early December. They just went toe-to-toe with the Spurs and won. The talent is still there.

But they’ve dropped 24 of their last 33 games and the losses have been trying on trust and chemistry. Making matters worse, the starting point guard went AWOL last month, the team president continues to goad his star player into wanting out, and the team owner recently accused an all-time fan favorite of alcoholism.

It’s been a comedy of errors. But perhaps the most innocuous and most costly of all errors has been head coach Jeff Hornacek’s inexplicable rotation mismanagement when it comes to Kyle O’Quinn.

Tethered to Joakim Noah’s exorbitant contract and intense personality, Hornacek has doubled down on Phil Jackson’s disastrous four-year investment from last summer and has featured Noah in the rotation over O’Quinn against better judgment.

Just a quick glance at the stats proves it clear that the Knicks are considerably more successful when O’Quinn plays prominent minutes over Noah. In fact, New York is 14–10 when O’Quinn plays 17 minutes or more but just 9–23 when O’Quinn plays 16 minutes or less.

“It’s obvious what I’m capable of doing,” O’Quinn acknowledged. “But at the same, coach is the head of the ship.”

In early December, O’Quinn saw his first semblance of starter minutes in a Knicks uniform. Over an 11 game stretch starting in late November, O’Quinn played 20.2 minutes per night (the most minutes he’s averaged over an extended stretch since signing with New York) and helped lead the Knicks to an 8–3 record. He convincingly outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns and Hassan Whiteside in the process and arguably looked like the Knicks’ best player in certain games. Since then, however, he’s been relegated to backup duty — where his confidence has stalled and his mistakes have been illuminated.

Short leashes and skepticism have curiously persisted throughout O’Quinn’s basketball career. He received just one Division I scholarship offer out of high school — to little known Norfolk State. He wasn’t a typical scouting misread; rather O’Quinn’s scouting reports seemingly went unwritten altogether. How else could you explain schools unanimously passing on a big man with obvious strength and skill?

Norfolk State’s prescience paid dividends: O’Quinn led the 15-seed to a Cinderella upset over the 2nd seeded Missouri Tigers in the NCAA Tournament in 2012. His 26 points and 14 rebounds grabbed the headlines, and his likable personality stole the show in a post game interview with Craig Sager.

Fast-forward five years and the NBA hasn’t been nearly as smooth of an upward climb for O’Quinn. For every step forward he makes as a player, personnel changes and decisions out of his control seem to knock him two steps back. He’s a fiery personality and is willing to speak out when he feels misused. Even still, by all accounts, O’Quinn is a good teammate and has his heart in the right place.

“It’s just basketball,” O’Quinn explained. “Basketball is a game of changes — a game of runs. I think my [confidence] comes from when I’m on the floor. When I’m off the floor I can’t do much. As far as my playing time goes, you would have to ask Coach Hornacek. You know, I have no control over that. But I’m a 100-percent believer in believing in whatever the coach does. He’s the captain of the ship.”

Still, for whatever reason, the captain of the ship can’t seem to commit to O’Quinn long enough to let the big man steer. Which is a problem, because O’Quinn — more so than any player I’ve ever scouted — feeds on rhythm and external trust for energy and confidence. And when they’re absent, he becomes tentative and less effective.

Given the freedom to play his game in a featured role without having to look over his shoulder, O’Quinn shows all the tools of a star player. His 20.93 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) suggests he already plays with star-level efficiency. In fact, many advanced stats with more nuance than PER suggest O’Quinn should be a star in the NBA. He’s physically dominant, impressively aware, and immensely skilled. That combination is exceedingly rare and in vogue in 2017. So where’s the disconnect?

The Mid-Major Big Man Fallacy

When I asked Knicks’ teammate Ron Baker about his first impressions of O’Quinn from training camp, Baker didn’t hesitate: “You don’t see a lot of players from non-BCS skills with that body frame and that skill.”

Interestingly, when I prodded scouts and executives around the league for opinions on O’Quinn, his Norfolk State pedigree remained a major talking point — and an apparent handicapper on his perceived potential. “He’s made a nice career for himself — for a mid-major guy,” qualified an anonymous Eastern Conference scout.

While guards from mid-major schools regularly thrive in the NBA, big men from mid-major schools aren’t granted many opportunities. Big men as a whole see fewer possessions on offense and are often outmuscled by veterans at their position. It took Whiteside stints in Lebanon and China before landing in Miami. Of the top 35 leading scorers at the center position in the NBA, only Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and O’Quinn came from mid-major schools.

Still, as Baker remarked, O’Quinn’s size is probably what fans and scouts see first when they watch him play. At 6’10 and 250 pounds, O’Quinn is a bruising and physical force. Even when his confidence wanes, he’s able to impact a game with his rebounding. Per 36 minutes, O’Quinn averages 13.1 boards. More importantly, O’Quinn ranks 13th in the entire NBA in Total Rebound Percentage (TRB) among qualified players. The league leaders in TRB% are Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Whiteside; it’s a pretty telling stat.

To compliment his rebounding prowess, O’Quinn displays surprising athleticism and coordination. How many big men have the awareness, confidence, and skill to pull off a coast-to-coast transition dunk like this?

O’Quinn’s also remarkably long. With a 7’4 wingspan, he’s developed into one of the league’s better rim protectors. Few big men rebound and block shots as effectively as O’Quinn. In fact, only Jordan, Whiteside, Rudy Gobert and O’Quinn boast rebound percentages of 20% yet also have more than 70 blocks for the season.

O’Quinn isn’t a good shot blocker simply because he’s long. Rim protection is all about timing, and few players in the entire NBA possess O’Quinn’s level of anticipation.

O’Quinn’s Sixth Sense

It’d be fair to say O’Quinn anticipates the floor better than any other Knicks player. On the offensive end, he’s not only a good passer, but he’s a shockingly clever orchestrator. Watch in this play as he scripts up Justin Holiday for a backdoor cut, and executes it. That’s the offense running through O’Quinn by design.

Awareness and understanding the opponent are built into O’Quinn’s DNA from his high school baseball days. He was a standout catcher who developed a reputation for gunning out baserunners on steal attempts. He sees crossover between the two sports. “Anticipation comes with any sport,” O’Quinn acknowledged. “You’ve got to have a jump start seeing that runner taking his first steps, getting my feet ready to throw him out at second. I guess they go hand in hand.”

Only 13 players in the NBA have 65+ blocks and 65+ assists on the year. And of the 13, all are recent or future All-Stars besides O’Quinn.

O’Quinn’s passing used to be a skill that’d get him into trouble. Overconfident, he’d regularly commit hair-pulling turnovers. This season, he’s dialed it back significantly. Despite playing nearly 100 more minutes already this season than last, he’s committed 10 fewer turnovers cumulatively.

For a guy with the talent and vision to pull off home run plays with regularity (which would presumably give him more recognition), O’Quinn has decided to tone his game down to limit mistakes. “It’s hard [to hold off on the flashy play],” O’Quinn admitted. “It’s hard. But at the end of the day you can see where it can get you. One of those home run plays may get you back on the bench. And now you’re sitting there not being solid. Not helping the team win. Over the course of 48 minutes, I think being solid is more appreciated than a flashy play.”

O’Quinn’s found a balance in “being solid” and “being flashy.” Because he sees the court so well and delivers such on-target passes, defenses must now anticipate cross court dimes like this:

And because the Knicks now play O’Quinn alongside a mix of respectable cutters, he can keep the defenses guessing with no-look backdoor passes like this:

It’s worth noting that O’Quinn’s development as a shooter significantly improves the calculus on his potential as a big man. Per Synergy Sports Technology, O’Quinn is shooting 38-for-80 (47.5%) on the season from 17 feet to 20 feet, which ranks in the 86th percentile among qualified NBA players.

With a quick release and legitimate 19-foot range, O’Quinn’s jumper opens up the paint for a Knicks offense that often grows stagnant and iso-heavy.

While it’s not quite LaMarcus Aldridge-level “automatic”, O’Quinn’s midrange touch is impressive. The sample size is large enough at this point that defenses are staying honest, which then opens up the paint for backdoor passes like these:

When you combine the rebounding, rim protection, passing, and shooting, it’s clear O’Quinn is one of the NBA’s most talented big men.

Unfortunately for O’Quinn and Knicks fans, it’s unlikely we’ll see a major shakeup in the Knicks’ rotation this season. With significant money already committed to Noah and a young building block in Willy Hernangomez playing well in the rotation, there are forces in play that are simply out of O’Quinn’s control.

But as rival teams constantly scour around the league for the next role player — turned — star, it amazes me that O’Quinn’s talent continues to go unnoticed. With two years and $8 million on his contract left after this season, he’s one of the biggest bargains in the NBA. And he’s languishing on the bench for one of the most disappointing teams in the East.

So while the Knicks look for answers, O’Quinn wrestles with the frustrations of going unappreciated and the desire to speak up for himself. I concluded my interview with O’Quinn asking what he wants out of his NBA career, O’Quinn paused, pondered, and confided:

“I want to be depended on night in and night out to do something on a winning team going deep in the playoffs.”

In other words, O’Quinn just wants a fair chance.