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New York Knicks

Knicks rookie Ignas Brazdeikis won't be overshadowed in New York

#Iggy

The Knicks brought Ignas Brazdeikis to New York City following the 2019 NBA Draft and introduced him to the media and, by extension, their legion of rabid but yearning fans. They sat him next to RJ Barrett, the team's No. 1 draft pick, and head coach David Fizdale because this is a proper way to do business, even if the team's two draft picks won't seem quite so equal when it's time to offer each of them a contract.

On that day and every other, Brazdeikis is likely to be outshone by his draft classmate. They play similar positions. They are the same height, roughly the same weight. Brazdeikis can't even claim to be the only Canadian drafted by the Knicks. Barrett, remember, led the nation to its first FIBA men's championship at the U19 World Cup in 2017.

There is a way, though, Brazdeikis can distinguish himself and make an impact in his rookie year.

And he probably will.

He'll do it by making a literal impact. "When I watched him last year at the Nike Hoop Summit, he blew me away with his intensity and toughness," ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla told NBA.com. "He's going to be an energy guy. He's going to have to get by on his toughness, his skill level - which is still a work in progress - and to try to improve his athleticism.

"When I think of him, I don't think of him just as a Canadian, but I also think of him as having the Lithuanian background. They play basketball with a sense of toughness that serves them well. That'll translate on the floor with guys that maybe are considered better athletes."

In his one season at the University of Michigan, Brazdeikis averaged 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and .392 3-point shooting for a team that finished second in the Big Ten regular season, runner-up in the league tournament and in the NCAA Sweet 16.

He entered the league at the same time as players ranked No. 5 (Romeo Langford at Indiana), No. 16 (Jalen Smith at Maryland) and No. 32 (Ayo Dosunmu at Illinois). There were 10 Big Ten freshmen ranked higher. Brazdeikis, at No. 74, wasn't even the highest-rated Michigan recruit. Forward Brandon Johns was seven spots ahead of him. But when the Wolverines took a summer playing trip to Spain, the player who would come to be known as "Iggy" led them in scoring.

That persisted through the regular season when he averaged two more points than any other Wolverine. He scored 24 against North Carolina in a statement-making non-league win, 20 in a road win against Indiana and 23 with five 3-pointers at Rutgers. Although Michigan State took down UM three straight times, Brazdeikis averaged 18.3 points and .500 shooting in those games. His teammates might have been wise to find him more.

"Iggy came out of nowhere," Matthew Maurer of NBA Draft Review told NBA.com. "By all opinions, he was a moderate prospect. If you were looking at the Big Ten, you were talking about Jordan Poole, some guys on the other teams. And then, after a couple games in which he was dominating, you were like, 'Wow, who is this kid?' "

Iggy was so good he seized a starting spot that appeared to be destined to belong to talented 6-7 sophomore Isaiah Livers, and his consistent excellence as a freshman led to him being named the Big Ten Conference rookie of the year.

This was no surprise to him. "Not even a little bit … My mentality stays true throughout," he said. "I try to be that player who makes plays and stays aggressive throughout.

"I know that every time I step on the court I feel like I'm the best player. I just trusted the coaches. I just came with the expectation I have to be the best player on the court every time I step on it, be competitive, be hungry and always make the right plays. I always visualized myself playing."

This approach will be more difficult to take with the Knicks. There will be games when the court contains such players as Steph Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Barrett, as well, although Iggy's approach to the game would dictate an absence of deference to any of them.

"The thing about him is the physicality he puts into every single play. He's a very strong finisher," Maurer said. "What stood out the most was the passion he plays with. He lives and breathes every shot. He never backs down. I love that about the kid."

Team president Steve Mills told the media at the draft news conference the Knicks did not expect to have a chance at Brazdeikis after choosing Barrett with the third overall pick. They had traded away their original second-round pick but were holding the 55th pick, far too late to grab a player they viewed as certain to be picked late in the first round. He was still on the board at No. 47, so the Knicks offered money and a switch of picks with the Kings to grab him there.

"When there was an opportunity to go get him," Mills said, "we decided that was something that was important for us to do. Because we didn't expect that opportunity."

Although he comes armed with size, confidence and an underrated shooting stroke, there are questions about what might be possible for Brazdeikis at the NBA level.

"Athletically, at the combine, he had a little problem with speed," Maurer said. "Defenders were cutting off his lanes. You could tell the fluidity he had in the regular season wasn't there. Defensively, I think he'll have a little bit of a problem.

"Defense is so subjective now because of the rules the NBA instituted, so he, by all means, he could find himself in an advantageous situation. But I worry about his lateral movement, and his end-to-end speed isn't great. It is going to be very hard to outmuscle him, but you've got to be able to switch, and that's the part I worry about. If he switches up with Klay Thompson, OK, he can guard that. If he switches up with Stephen Curry, that's where he'll have a problem."

One coach who faced Michigan last season said he was surprised Brazdeikis entered the draft. "I view it as, who really changes your gameplan defensively? Or offensively? Who are guys you have to deal with? That's how I look at their value. Maybe that's not the right way to look, but I know how I feel when I'm coaching. Iggy, he was third or fourth on our scouting report.

"You love his physicality and his toughness, but I think he lacks agility. And he was streaky with his shot, though he wouldn't be the first kid who was streaky with his shot and became better. But if you can't stay in front of guys, the points better outweigh the problems."

The other issue that might develop for Brazdeikis is that he might earn playing time. Yeah, that sounds like a good thing, and it pretty much is, but it may be different for rookies in such markets as New York and Los Angeles, which can run quickly out of patience with the rebuilding process.

Between 2014 and 2017, the Knicks and Lakers selected a combined six players in the top 10. Of those, only Frank Ntilikina still is with the Knicks, .and there has been plenty of buzz about the team trying to move him. Maybe that would seem to affect Barrett more, but Wichita State product Ron Baker went from starting 13 games and averaging 17 minutes as a rookie to being waived midway through his second season.

"Playing time as a young NBA player is a two-edged sword," Fraschilla said. "Particularly in New York, where they're rebuilding, you can be perceived as being one of the problems when they have a bad year, as opposed to fitting in as a rookie on a good team and not being asked to do as much.

"That allows you to grow into a true NBA role and run your own race."

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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