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Lancelot or Mordred: Who Exactly is Nathan Knight?

The former Atlanta Hawk brings untapped potential to his new squad. Just what should Timberwolves fans expect from their new big man? Let’s discuss.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Growing up, you likely heard of the Knights of the Round Table (or any fantasy series, really). What made those tales so enthralling was the origin of the hero. In most cases, the protagonist was a regular person who ascended due to chivalry, merit, and perseverance. They went out of their way to help others, fought for the greater good, and were rarely concerned with personal glory over the completion of the quest. Like so many of our favorite heroes, Nathan Knight has no business making the NBA, yet here he is with a legitimate chance to make a significant impact on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Avid draft fans may remember Knight from his days with William & Mary, while more devote NBA fans may recall one of his early-season double-digit scoring nights. Mostly, though, I doubt many fans had ever heard of Nathan Knight before he signed a two-way deal with the Timberwolves. Knight is a brilliant upside swing for the Timberwolves in dire need of a power forward, but the question remains: Will Knight be Lancelot, known for his skill, courage, and reverence, or Mordred, known for his animosity and betrayal?

Knight is entering his second season in the NBA after spending his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks on a two-way contract. Knight spent four years at William & Mary, where he averaged 20.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game on 52/30/77 shooting splits in his final season. According to Synergy, Knight’s points per possession ranked in the 91st percentile overall, 92nd percentile in post-ups, 92nd percentile in offensive putbacks, and 86th percentile around the rim in non-post-up situations.

Those numbers are slightly skewed due to the opposing level of competition, but Knight’s overall versatility stayed with him during his transition to the NBA. Knight only averaged 8.5 minutes over 33 games as a rookie, so his comprehensive stat line is less than breathtaking. However, when his numbers are extrapolated to a per-36-minutes basis, Knight averaged 16 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.2 steals, and a defensive rating of 106.9 (better than anyone on the Timberwolves). I’m not saying Knight will be that productive because production isn’t transferrable like that. Instead, what that illustrates is the level of impact Knight had while he was on the floor.

The most immediate area that Knight can positively impact is the Timberwolves’ defense. Thankfully, this is the area the Timberwolves most desperately need help in, as they had the third-worst defensive rating in the league last season. At 6’10” with a 7’2” wingspan, Knight has the size, length, and athleticism to be a versatile defender. While Knight can occasionally switch on the perimeter, he is at his best defending the paint and acting as a weakside disruptor, precisely what the Timberwolves need.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Knight played only 179 minutes according to Cleaning the Glass (they take out garbage time minutes), and his on/off defensive numbers are highly impressive. The following numbers are the difference between when Knight was on the court vs. off the court, followed by that difference’s percentile rank throughout the league:

  • Defensive rating: -0.8 (59th percentile)
  • Defensive eFG%: -1.9% (85th percentile)
  • Defensive TOV%: +0.9% (76th percentile)
  • Opponent shooting frequency at the rim: -3.2% (91st percentile)
  • Opponent FG% at the rim: -3.9% (87th percentile)

Knight isn’t a primary rim protector, but he can hold his own in the post and is a promising weakside disruptor. Knight is a quality leaper who reads his rotations well and uses every inch of his length. Here, Knight shows off his impressive post defense. As the ball enters the post, Knight forces his man to catch it well outside the paint. The ball-handler faces up and attempts to drive middle. Knight perfectly slides his feet and bumps the ball-handler, which pushes the ball further from the rim. The ball-handler attempts an off-balance floater, but Knight’s reactions are quick enough that he blocks the shot. After the offensive rebound, Knight contains the spin move, stays vertical on the shot contest, and secures the defensive rebound.

Knight can hold his own in the post, but his primary influence on the defensive end comes with his weakside disruption. Knight typically does a great job of timing his rotations and being in an excellent position. Even though Knight isn’t a traditional rim protector, his weakside disruption is precisely the type of help the Timberwolves need to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns.

Here, Knight does a great job of timing his rotation. Knight sinks towards the baseline as Pascal Siakam rolls to the rim. Knight stays level with Siakam while also keeping an eye on the ball. As Malachi Flynn drives, Knight waits to make his rotation. Knight’s timing here is crucial. If he goes too early, then he leaves Siakam open for the lob. If Knight waits too long, he risks missing his rotation entirely and giving up the layup. Instead, Knight patiently waits for Flynn, meets him at the rim, and blocks the shot.

Knight’s timely rotations are vital to quality rim protection but also general disruption and coverage for teammates, as we can see below. Knight is the lone defender in the paint, making him the defense’s last resort. Lou Williams completely zones out and gets torched on a back cut as the ball-handler attacks, something Timberwolves fans are too familiar with seeing from their perimeter defenders. Knight, however, reads the play perfectly. Knight’s prompt rotation results in him getting to the ball at the same time as the cutter. This move doesn’t allow the opposition to cleanly retrieve the pass and ends up in a turnover.

While Knight has real weakside rim protection upside, much of his weakside impact simply comes from him being in the proper position. Knight does an excellent job of tagging rollers, shading towards the paint, and recovering to his man. Knight’s constant movement and acute awareness tend to disorient the ball handler’s reads and vision.

Knight has substantial defensive upside for the Timberwolves because he fills their need for an athletic power forward who is a quality weakside disruptor. While most of Knight’s defensive metrics and tape are incredibly encouraging, some signs require a bit more contemplation when it comes to his overall defensive versatility. The following numbers are the difference between when Knight was on the court vs. off the court, followed by that difference’s percentile rank throughout the league:

  • Opponent corner three frequency: +5.1% (0th percentile)
  • Opponent overall three-point frequency: +11.8% (0th percentile)
  • Opponent corner three-point percentage: -6.3% (88th percentile)
  • Opponent overall three-point percentage: -2.9% (88th percentile)

These numbers are a tad perplexing because opponents hunt threes at will when Knight is on the court, but their success plummets. There are a few possible explanations for this inverse relationship in frequency and success.

The easiest one is that three-point defensive metrics are incredibly fluky. Whether for individual or team three-point defense, looking at solely the three-point percentage given up can be misleading. A more reliable indicator of three-point defense is the frequency, making Knight’s on/off differential somewhat concerning.

Another explanation was the quality of the Hawks’ interior defense when Knight was on the floor. As we saw earlier, opponents took much fewer shots at the rim when Knight was on the floor than when he was off. If teams are shooting less at the rim, then it makes sense that their three-point frequency would rise. If that is the case, then it is an even more remarkable feather in Knight’s cap for his defensive prowess as he helped deter interior attempts and limited the success of perimeter attempts.

Finally, it may be as simple as the level of competition Knight faced. Knight didn’t have a consistent role on the Hawks last season, so he wasn’t always facing the best players. It isn’t uncommon for deep rotation players to chuck threes more freely, and they are rarely the best shooters on the floor. This explanation is the least inspiring of the three, but it is worth mentioning.

I’m not saying that Knight doesn’t have the potential to be a versatile defender. However, that isn’t what the Timberwolves need from him. If Knight can continue to be a staunch interior and weakside defender, he will be a valuable piece in the Timberwolves’ defense.

This Timberwolves roster is loaded with offensive talent, so that isn’t why they brought in Knight. However, it is nearly impossible to be on an NBA floor and be a complete negative on offense now. While Knight isn’t an offensive phenom, there are some fascinating tools to work with but let’s first focus on where Knight struggles. That way, we get to end on a high note.

When Knight was on the floor, the Hawks’ offense was meaningfully worse than when he was off the floor. The obvious reason is that Knight didn’t play substantial minutes with the starters, so it makes sense that there was a drop-off. However, it is still worth noting the below disparity in offensive numbers from Cleaning the Glass:

  • Offensive rating: -4.3 (24th percentile)
  • eFG%: -0.3% (49th percentile)
  • Turnover rate: +5.5% (0th percentile)
  • Three-point percentage: -2.2% (25th percentile)

Knight was a highly effective scorer in college, but his turnover rate of 16.8 percent (16th percentile) and three-point percentage of 18.2 are concerning. Knight was a willing shooter, which is encouraging, but he never shot better than 31 percent in college. Knight likely is a better shooter than the 18 percent in his rookie season, but I wouldn’t expect him to transform into a stretch big any time soon. Additionally, Knight made many careless mistakes that resulted in an abnormally high turnover rate for his position. Knight had the occasional sloppy pass or dribble, but most of his turnovers resulted from illegal screens, stepping out of bounds in the corner, or shuffling his feet. These blunders are more fixable than bad passing and ball-handling, but they point to an aspect of carelessness.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Houston Rockets POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Thankfully, Knight won’t be asked to do much of that with the Timberwolves, who have a plethora of three-point shooters and ball-handlers. Knight will need to improve his outside shooting, though, so he doesn’t clog up the offense. As long as Knight forces defenses to respect his outside jumper to a degree, he can be a positive contributor.

Knight improving his outside shot is an obvious advantage because good shooters lead to good offenses. I doubt Knight ever reaches the level of shooter that expands an offense, but if he can hover anywhere close to league average, it would open up so many avenues for him. When defenders closeout on Knight’s shot, he is highly adept at attacking and finishing at the rim. He has the explosiveness to finish above the rim, the agility to adjust on the move, and the touch to finish off-balance. By simply forcing the defense to think about contesting his jumper, Knight’s offensive game will take a drastic leap forward.

Since Knight will be used exclusively off-ball on offense, his off-ball movement will be crucial to his offensive impact. We saw him acutely relocate on the perimeter, but he is also an intelligent cutter. Knight’s cutting is an equally effective tool to get him attacking the rim, as is his ability to attack closeouts. Not only is it as effective, but it is also more practical since he isn’t guaranteed to be an improved shooter.

Here, Knight does an excellent job of creating an easy basket. After rolling out of the screen, Knight begins to float out to the corner. Knight sees that his defender is fixated on the ball as the ball swings and Bogdan Bogdanovic drives. Instead of staying in the corner, Knight back cuts his defender and finishes with the easy dunk.

Again, Knight shows a keen understanding of his strengths and how to take advantage of vacated areas of the floor. The ball yet again swings to Bogdanovic, who collapses the defense by quickly attacking the lane. Knight could stay on the wing, but as an 18% three-point shooter, he knows he is more effective around the rim. Knight promptly fills the area his defender just vacated and is rewarded with the big dunk.

The final offensive area Knight can positively impact is acting as a dynamic screener. Despite being a careless screener at times, Knight has the skill and athleticism to be a versatile weapon in the pick-and-roll. Knight isn’t the prototypical vertical spacing lob finisher, but he does roll hard and can finish above the rim, as we can see below. After setting a firm screen, Knight aggressively rolls to the empty lane. Knight is rewarded with a swift bounce pass, and he explodes off the floor to finish before the defense can rotate.

Knight’s screen and athleticism are the main reasons for the result, but the offense’s spacing is the true explanation for the vacated lane. As Knight rolls, neither of the weakside defenders rotate or tag him. This lapse can be attributed to a defensive blunder, but the defense is wary of stray too far from the shooters. The Timberwolves frequently play a five-out system with numerous shooters on the floor but have lacked a great roller. D’Angelo Russell has a history of thriving in the pick-and-roll with a quality rim runner. When you combine that with the trigger-happy shooters on the team, Knight could have plenty of opportunities like this in the future.

To be a genuinely versatile screener, though, Knight must also be a threat on the pop. Once again, we circle back to “if Knight can improve his shooting, then…”. Thankfully, Knight has shown some success in this realm. In his last season at William & Mary, Knight scored 1.043 points per possession (58th percentile) when he shot off the catch in the pick-and-pop.

Here, Knight wisely finds his teammate despite the heavy defensive pressure. As Kevin Huerter drives, Knight’s defender must collapse to him. Knight begins to cut and similarly fill the void as we saw before but quickly relocates to the top of the key once he sees Huerter kill his dribble. Knight sets his feet and knocks down the jumper.

Realistically, it is unlikely that Knight makes a significant impact on the Timberwolves because of his two-way status. However, we have seen numerous players given unexpected responsibilities in recent seasons. There is no risk in the Timberwolves taking a flyer on Knight. He has the defensive foundation they need from the power forward position and the offensive arsenal that can succeed on minimal usage.

Rooting for players like Knight is easy to do because they have no business making it this far to begin with. Knight has already reached career heights that an infinitesimally low amount of people ever get the chance to do. Knight has the tools and potential to substantially impact the Timberwolves rotation if he’s given the opportunity.