It didn’t take long for Isaiah Roby to notice the trademark of a New York Knicks practice.
The group was early in training camp, running what would otherwise appear as a go-through-the-motions drill: five guys running offense against zero defenders. The point is for the players to learn the team’s plays … or so it would appear.
Not long into the drill, head coach Tom Thibodeau stopped it.
“There’s gonna be defense there,” Thibodeau told the squad. “You gotta pass overhead. You gotta pass around.”
Roby, a big man fighting for one of the Knicks’ three open roster spots, and the others got the message quickly.
“He wants it to be crisp. Not to say we weren’t going hard, but it’s just five-on-zero, so you’re not worried about passing like there’s defense,” Roby said. “There are so many different ways where he’s like, you guys gotta be on your stuff all the time.”
This is the Thibodeau way. Ask people who have played for him what makes his practices different and a common answer arises.
“His attention to detail in practice is high and I appreciate it,” Roby said. “They always say, you wanna practice harder so that the games are easier, and Thibs embodies that.”
It should come as no surprise then that whether or not Roby makes the final cut could come down to how he does in Tarrytown, not at the arena. Practices in October could determine November and beyond.
The 25-year-old power forward’s contract is non-guaranteed, which makes him one of many inside an organization loaded up with position battles. Sure, the Knicks know their nine-man rotation, and eight of those players were in New York last season. The greatest strength of a team expected to compete for playoff positioning is its depth. But there is drama at the fringe of the roster, where 20 percent of the final product remains unfinished.
The Knicks employ only 12 players on guaranteed contracts, three short of the maximum. Only five other NBA teams are as empty. It means at least two and maybe three of the six players fighting for full-time jobs could find a home in New York. And Roby has competition.
He and DaQuan Jeffries, who was around last season, are on similarly structured contracts, both non-guaranteed for 2023-24. Four more (Ryan Arcidiacono, Charlie Brown Jr., Jacob Toppin and Duane Washington Jr.) are on training camp contracts. (For sticklers about contract jargon, these are “Exhibit 9” and “Exhibit 10” deals.)
Unless the Knicks shuffle elsewhere, at least half will be gone by the time the regular season begins next week. It’s possible the slashing could come soon, considering New York plays its final exhibition Wednesday evening, though games ending doesn’t necessarily mean there are no more opportunities for someone to pop.
After all, there are still off-days, and those are what Thibodeau cares about most.
“It starts with practice,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not that those guys don’t have an important role. They do because they help your team get ready each and every night. And so, you want them to be mentally engaged with the team.”
There are two extreme schools of thought for filling out the end of an NBA roster.
An organization could take the young unknown, someone who if all goes right may have the upside to become a rotation player one day. Or it can go the other way and hold onto whoever will hound its regulars at practices for the six to nine ensuing months, even if that player won’t add much on the court.
Thibodeau has often opted for the latter type of player — though they are, of course, not mutually exclusive.
But this is why, say, Arcidiacono’s presence at Knicks training camp is a tradition like no other. The former Villanova point guard wasn’t just college teammates with three of the Knicks’ current rotation players: Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo. He’s also played with the majority of the roster — if only because the Knicks keep bringing him back.
Arcidiacono is on a short list of players Thibodeau teams have signed three times, joining coach’s pets Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, who followed Thibodeau to his stops in Chicago, Minnesota and New York.
It’s an odd piece of trivia, but it also makes perfect sense given the subjects involved.
The Knicks signed Arcidiacono, now 29, to a 10-day contract in January 2021. A season later, they inked him to the same type of deal, then held onto him for the remainder of the spring. Last season, he made the roster out of training camp, but for salary reasons, New York had to include him in the trade for Hart, and he finished the season in Portland.
Now, Arcidiacono is back. And it’s no wonder why.
“I don’t want to overlook this because I think it’s critical,” Thibodeau said. “What (Arcidiacono) brings to our team is huge. The way he practices — practices are his games, and you feel it. You feel the energy from pre-practice to practice to post-practice, and that’s not something we take for granted. We know how important that is for the group.”
It doesn’t take inside sources to figure out the psyche of Thibodeau; the man cares most about the culture.
Thibodeau is hardly the only coach who thinks this way. Lots of competitors have spun sucking the life out of starting point guards in practice into decade-long careers, though he does go about it in a manner that would surprise no one familiar with his character. But Thibodeau is hardly the only member of the organization with a say in who stays and who goes, though he is involved in the decision. There is team president Leon Rose and the rest of the front office. And there are various reasons to keep any of these six.
Arcidiacono is an unofficial Thibodeau liaison. Jeffries is another longtime Thibodeau favorite. The coach speaks with the same type of enthusiasm about Jeffries’ practice habits. Roby is a stretch four on a team whose only natural power forward is Julius Randle, which could give him a leg up on the competition if only for positional need. Charlie Brown Jr. guards so well that he’d probably be the one swiping the ball from Lucy. Duane Washington Jr. provides instant offense. Jacob Toppin is a long-armed leaper who strives to be the most versatile defender on the court.
“It’s really true. It’s going to be a difficult decision,” Thibodeau said. “That’s how close they are. They’ve all done a terrific job.”
If the Knicks fall in love with more than three of the six, they could get creative, too. All of their two-way spots are occupied. They currently have Nathan Knight, Dylan Windler and Jaylen Martin signed to two-way contracts. But they could waive any of those three (more practically Knight or Windler, since Martin is on a multi-year deal) to make room for one of the six, then sign, say, Toppin or Washington Jr. to a two-way.
They could go in another direction, too. Waiving season is upcoming and, for all we know, they’re clasping their palms together, praying for another team to release some unheard-of wing they’ve secretly obsessed over for years. If that happens, and they claim that guy, it takes away a spot for one of the players already in New York.
The Knicks rested five of their biggest names Tuesday on the first night of a back-to-back, which opened up playing time for some of these six. Three became part of the rotation for the evening: Jeffries, who played 22 minutes; Roby, who played 16; and Arcidiacono, who played 15. Brown Jr. entered for the final two minutes of the game.
Remember, even in a supposedly positionless league, positional overlap will matter. The Knicks are loaded with guards 6 foot 5 and under. They already have three point guards: Brunson, Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride. In that sense, holding onto both Arcidiacono and Washington Jr., another couple of small guards, would be unlikely.
Then again, if they both make Brunson’s life miserable for every practice, Thibodeau may have no other choice.
“It’s hard because you only have four (preseason) games and there’s a back-to-back so essentially it’s three. And you have 21 guys,” Thibodeau said. “You have to bring along your rotational-type players. You want to get a look at everyone. So for a lot of these guys, the practices are their games. So you’re evaluating them that way and that’s critical for us.”
(Photo of Isaiah Roby: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)