Hot rookie Lee gives N.Y. three of a kind
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 3:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 3:17 p.m.
David Lee did not magically morph into Bobby Jones on Monday night, but his Jonesian efforts left a vapor trail that could alter perceptions of an otherwise ghastly Knicks season.
The Lee file
The team's 2005 draft, already strong, looks considerably stronger. The oft-criticized trade for Malik Rose last February - which also netted the draft pick that became Lee - looks smarter. And coach Larry Brown's latest rotation overhaul looks less quixotic.
Such was the power of Lee's 23-point, 15-rebound performance in Monday's 140-133 triple-overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns. The Knicks' record remains woeful at 8-21, but their long-term outlook brightened a bit.
All three of their rookies have now produced 20-point games, and their other major acquisition, Eddy Curry, has shown recent flashes of dominance.
Brown's recent decision to install Lee as his starting small forward had seemed curious. The 6-foot-9-inch Lee is a brawny big man who has never played the perimeter. He came to the Knicks with limited shooting range and no experience guarding athletic wing players.
Yet there he was Monday, knocking down 20-foot jump shots, throwing down fast-break dunks and guarding the hyperathletic Shawn Marion. For the first time, Brown's comparisons - he has said Lee reminds him of Jones, a multitalented former All-Star - seemed apt.
"I think it's a great comparison," Billy Donovan, who coached Lee at Florida, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Bobby Jones was a great runner in transition, he was a great athlete on the floor. I believe as David continues to grow, his shooting will get better. He's a very versatile guy."
The Florida coaching staff was buzzing Tuesday morning after hearing of Lee's breakout game. Beaming pride was the reaction, however, not surprise.
"I'm not surprised that he's playing small forward, and I'm not surprised that he's playing well, because he's a great kid and he's always been about the team," Donovan said. "He's always been an unselfish kid."
It had been a difficult season for Lee. His conversations with Donovan were tinged with frustration. The 30th pick last June, Lee began the season on the inactive list, played sparingly for two weeks, then was deactivated for seven games. He was buried on the depth chart at power forward.
"I don't care how old you are, there's a level of humility that comes with that," Donovan said.
Meanwhile, the Knicks' other two rookies were taking turns in the spotlight. Channing Frye, the eighth pick in June, won rookie of the month honors in November. Nate Robinson, the 21st pick, hit a game-winning 3-pointer against Philadelphia on Nov. 26.
Only Brown's frustration with his other small forwards, Trevor Ariza in particular, opened a path for Lee. All he had to do was learn a new position on the fly after playing primarily center and power forward at Florida.
"To come into the NBA, it's a big enough shock as it is, and to learn a new position, I'm just glad I have good teammates like Quentin, Qyntel and Trevor and those guys in practice to make me better," Lee said, referring to Quentin Richardson, Qyntel Woods and Ariza.
The Knicks knew Lee was a forceful rebounder, a solid ball-handler and a skilled passer. His jump shot is a more recent addition. Lee said he rarely shot from beyond 12 to 15 feet in college. He opened Monday's game with a comfort-zone shot, posting up for an 8-foot hook over Marion. Lee followed that with two 20-foot jumpers.
"I've been really working on my jump shot," he said. "As you guys know, that was my weakness coming in here. I didn't even hit one 3-pointer in college. A couple of those tonight were right on the college 3 line."
There were also a couple of crowd-pleasing dunks to show off Lee's athleticism, and by the end of the night, he had made 10 of 11 shots. He had a double-double in regulation - 17 points, 10 rebounds.
The greater challenge for Lee will be defending the league's top perimeter players. In his three starts at small forward, Lee has struggled to keep up with Milwaukee's Bobby Simmons, Orlando's Grant Hill and the Suns' Marion, who scored 39 points.
"He's got some areas where he has to improve," Brown said, "but he gives you energy, he tries."
If Brown remains committed to the Knicks' youth movement, Lee will get his chance to improve defensively. His tireless rebounding and selfless play should keep him on the court.
"He will do other things to help you win games without scoring," Donovan said. "Sometimes David is more effective when he's not the focal point of your offense, because he can rely on so many things. He can hurt you with the pass, he can hurt you with offensive rebounding, he can put the ball on the floor."
In Monday's three-hour battle of attrition at Madison Square Garden, Lee did all of that. "I knew sooner or later my time would come, and I was just going to try to make the most of it," Lee said. "I didn't know if it'd be now or next year or three years from now. I had no idea. But I'm just lucky to have a chance to be in there and have a chance to help my team win."
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