Ex-Gator Lee buoys Knicks

Former Gator David Lee scored 25 points for the Knicks against Shaquille O'Neal's Suns.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 11:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 11:23 a.m.

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The first time he said it, it sounded like modest hyperbole. Coach Mike D’Antoni, praising David Lee’s scoring touch, called him “one of our better shooters.” It was late Wednesday night, and the Knicks had just upended the Phoenix Suns, so a little overexuberance was understandable.

But in the clear light of day, and after a good night’s rest, D’Antoni was still beaming over Lee’s 25-point effort and his surprisingly effective jump-shooting display. “He’s one of our better 15-foot jump shooters,” D’Antoni said Thursday, without a hint of embellishment.

It has been a rough half season for the Knicks, as their 17-24 record attests. But the D’Antoni era has already brought its share of surprises and shattered assumptions, which bodes well for the final 41 games.

They now know that point guard Chris Duhon, a career backup, is perfectly suited as a starter in D’Antoni’s system. They know that forward Wilson Chandler, who was tentative as a rookie, can be a supremely confident two-way player. But the greatest surprises so far may be Lee and rookie Danilo Gallinari.

When D’Antoni was hired last spring, the consensus was that Lee would not fit in his system, because D’Antoni likes big men who can shoot, and Lee could not. Then the Knicks drafted Gallinari, a smooth-shooting Italian forward, who looked like a perfect fit — and Lee’s probable replacement.

The Knicks still have a major contract decision to make on Lee, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. But there is little doubt now that Lee can thrive in D’Antoni’s offense, and that he can play in tandem with Gallinari.

Lee is effective as a strong, but undersize, power forward and center. Gallinari, taller but thinner, is playing exclusively on the wings. Both are capable passers who do not demand or dominate the ball.

The two can play well together “without a doubt,” D’Antoni said.

Lee worked diligently on his jump shot last summer, but it took time for him to become confident enough to shoot it consistently in games. He made five jumpers of at least 13 feet against the Suns. For the season, Lee has converted 23 of 58 attempts in the 15- to 22-foot range. He attempted just 45 shots in that range last season, making 15.

“I think he’s surprising a little bit,” D’Antoni said. “We saw that he had the jumper in September. He worked on it all summer, and he improved it. But mentally, I don’t think he was ready to take three or four shots in a row.”

Lee showed no hesitation on Wednesday, and his shooting touch forced O’Neal to step away from the paint.

Lee, who is averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds, still does most of his scoring around the basket and views himself as a hustle player first. But since the trades of Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford in November, Lee has become the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, behind Al Harrington.

The Knicks’ identity continues to evolve, but they are healthier, deeper and more versatile now than they have been all season, which bodes well for the next 41 games.

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