Few things this season have been constant for the Milwaukee Bucks. Head coach Larry Drew has had penciled in 27 different starting lineups. Players have missed a total of 267 games to injury, illness, suspension and league paperwork. Nineteen different players have seen court time.
From the beginning of training camp, little could be counted on.
Yet if there was one metronome to the year, at least at the Cousins Center, was Brandon Knight staying long after practice was over, shooting.
Even as Knight missed games with own list of injuries, the 22-year-old would partner up with assistant Josh Oppenheimer, and take shot after shot after shot.
It’s symbolic, really.
"I would say, everybody learns or develops a mentality from somewhere," Knight said. "I don’t think they just ‘get it.’ They go through certain things in their life that gives them a certain frame of mind, a certain mentality. And in my household, it was just everything you do, you compete for it at a high level. If you’re not competing, don’t do it."
"Try to be the best, try to be a perfectionist at everything that you do, and at the end of the day, if you give 110 percent, then you can be satisfied. If you know you haven’t done all you can do, then you’re going to come home and say ‘I didn’t give my best today’ and not be able to sleep at night."
What shaped him though? What pushed Knight to become one of the most decorated high school basketball players in the last 30 years, a player who told John Calipari he’d come play for him at Kentucky – but that he wasn’t committed to him.
What about him led him to be named a team captain in his freshman campaign at Kentucky, as he led the Wildcats to the Final Four?
It started at home, first in his home, with his parents Ephraim and Tonya. Education and expression through art were as important as athletics. He attended Pine Crest School, a highly regarded private prep school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., known as much for producing future actors, CEOs and scholars as well as professional athletes.
It started in his driveway, too, as a first grader. An older cousin would beat him incessantly at one-on-one, sending Knight into his house, crying.
Then, he would come back out, and shoot. And shoot. And shoot.
He would try again, and fail again.
Until finally, that cousin lost. One child reveled in the victory, seeing the payoff for hard work. He also saw his foil retreat, give up and never play again.
"That kind of pushed me over the edge as far as getting better at basketball," Knight said. "I saw that, how quickly things changed with that, and that’s kind of been my mindset ever since – I can outwork any player in the league. I know that. Just based on what I do and what I hear people do."
But to hold on to that, at such a young age?
"You don’t want to go into the house crying every day," he said. "It kind of sticks with you. That’s where that drive for me comes in."
That drive was tested in high school when it looked as if basketball would be taken from him forever.
What's amazing is that a significant life trial has become just a footnote, really, in a stellar career at Pine Crest. He earned back-to-back Gatorade National Player of the Year awards, joining only LeBron James and Greg Oden. He won two state championships, was Florida’s Mr. Basketball and was a McDonald’s All-American.
Almost no one remembers he missed the bulk of his junior campaign because he returned in time to win another state title.
Knight still doesn’t talk openly about the surgery he had on his spine in 2007, when it was revealed that protective cerebrospinal fluid, a colorless fluid that protects the brain and spine, was somehow obstructed and collected in his spine.
The result of that obstruction is the formation of a syrinx, which captures the fluid within the spinal cord. Knight also developed a cyst because of that fluid buildup. Left undetected, it could permanently damage the spinal cord.
Knight realized something was wrong when he couldn’t feel the difference between hot and cold water, and was fortunate – some people live for years without knowing they have a syrinx, and the damage is irreversible.
It was caught, and fixed, and Knight only missed 19 games.
That part of his story has been broached occasionally between Florida and Kentucky, but he typically downplays its impact on his life.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t large, however.
"A lot of people really don’t know the, uh …"
Knight paused, his eyes looking around for the right context.
" … the meaning of it. I’m just … "
He cleared his throat.
"I’m just thankful. Thankful for the opportunity. It could have went either way. That’s why I say you’ve got to be thankful for every opportunity you get. That’s why I know I’m here for a reason."
As one of the top recruits in the country, every program knocked on Knight’s door. Kentucky and John Calipari landed him – but on his terms. Because of a rumor that Calipari might leave for the NBA, Knight signed only an aid agreement with the university. That meant he would not be bound to the university should the coach leave.
It never came to that, and Knight declared for the NBA draft after his lone season in Lexington. The Detroit Pistons made him the eighth pick in the 2011 draft.
Knight led the team in minutes played in the lockout shortened season, earning a spot in the Rising Stars game over the All-Star weekend and was an NBA All-Rookie first team selection.
Last year, he was second on the team in minutes played, but he never felt comfortable. He was often paired with Rodney Stuckey in the back court, but veteran point guard Jose Calderon was acquired at the end of January.
Unfortunately, he became more known for his challenge of Los Angeles Clippers forward DeAndre Jordan on a dunk attempt than anything else his first two years in the league. But anyone who knows Knight couldn’t have been surprised that while he stands 6-feet, 3-inches, he wasn’t going to give the 6-11, 250-pound Jordan a free pass.
"I just don’t care," Knight said. "I’m a guy that’s going to make the right basketball play. That’s just my mentality. Play hard. I have a competitive edge. I just don’t like giving guys things. If you’re going to get something, you’re going to work for it. That’s just all that is."
That’s the mentality he’s hand since early childhood, and it’s why this offseason he went back to Florida, to reconnect with himself and with what got him to the NBA lottery in the first place. He got bigger, stronger, but it wasn’t necessarily about that.
"This summer I just wanted to focus on myself and that’s why I went home," he said. "A lot of it was mental."
Then the trade happened, and while a new door opened Knight hoped it would take him down a well-worn path.
"I think in Detroit I kind of looked over my shoulder a little bit," he admitted. "But here I’m just trying to get back to playing the way that got me to this level."
A mixed bag
Upon his arrival, Knight and Larry Drew were peppered with questions about Knight’s role. Was he a point guard? Was he a shooting guard? Was he both? Did it matter?
He started the year as a point guard, but as the season wore on, Drew began experimenting. Sometimes Nate Wolters or Luke Ridnour would set up the offense, and Knight was the off guard. Sometimes, it was Knight running things.
"I think that only enhances his game," Drew said. "He becomes a guy not just where they have to be concerned about off the dribble but he also becomes a guy who comes off screens. The one thing that I’ll say to Brandon, I recognize the fact that he is a scoring point guard. I think I would do him a disservice by just keeping him on the ball the whole time. Let him utilize other aspects of his game, particularly off the basketball."
What position it did put Knight in was unusual. Here was a third year player, feeling like he found a home for the first time, but instead of playing alongside established veterans and developing his own skill sets, he was charged with helping others develop theirs at the same time.
"It is unique," Knight admitted. "Normally when a guy is developing he’s playing around other guys that have already developed or other guys that are in the same situation. There is not many times, I don’t feel, when you’ve got a guy that’s developing but is also put in the role of having to bring other guys along and help them develop as well."
The results, perhaps expectedly, have been mixed.
Knight enters the season finale with 1,260 points on the year. If he scores 20, he’ll pass Moses Malone’s 1991-92 campaign for the 10th best scoring single-season debut in Bucks history. He will set career highs in minutes, points, assists, rebounds and steals per game.
Knight’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is at a career high 16.3, but it’s just above the league average of 15.0. He was well below that average number his first two years in Detroit.
His win shares this season have doubled his previous two, his turnover percentage is way down and his assist percentage is way up, but his defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) and effective field goal percentage are at a career worst.
ESPN's new metrics are not kind at all, however, rating Knight as one of the worst players in the league in its Wins Above Replacement formula, ranking him 395th out of 435 players with a -1.02 WAR. (Larry Sanders, on the other hand, posted a 1.47 WAR in just 23 games and is ranked 163rd in the league).
In ESPN.com’s advanced metrics, Knight posted a -3.07 "real plus/minus" with his defensive RPM, or DRPM, being his biggest negative at -2.22. According to ESPN.com, that rates a "player's estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions."
That rates Knight as the 380th worst defensive player in the league.
Time will tell if Knight’s defensive struggles have more to do with the lower body ailments he’s played through this year than his actual ability to defend at a high level.
After all, upon arriving in Milwaukee, his new teammates noted his will to defend. Drew and opposing coaches have noticed it as well.
"I’m not going to back down from anybody," Knight said. "That’s not my nature. I wasn’t raised that way. So that’s just me being a hard head, a hard competitor. I just don’t back down, just let guys take what they want. If you’re going to go against me you’re going to know you’re going against me and it’s going to be a tough battle."
The new metrics say otherwise, however, at least for this year.
But the effort still counts for something, at least on a team that has required all healthy bodies to move around and play in unusual spots.
"He still embraces the challenge and takes the challenge against those guys," Drew said. "That makes him that much more of a valuable player because he can move around the floor and play different positions and can also defend different spots."
So what is Knight?
Bucks management will have to make that determination heading into the NBA lottery and free agency. Is he a point guard? Is he a shooting guard? Is he a future All-Star, or can he be a key cog in a championship machine?
"I just think he is a good basketball player," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I have known him since sixth grade, seventh grade. He played with (my son) Austin at least two years, maybe three in AAU. He has always been that way and him and Austin are very similar that way. When they played you didn’t know who was (the point guard) ... they just kind of played. They both like to shoot, but they are good. Brandon is terrific."
Who is he is a far easier thing to define.
It’s the guy staying long hours, putting up shot after shot.
Knight says he can only draw on what he’s been through and prepare for what is to come. And to him, it’s the best yet.
"Things can look really dark some days, but me just knowing I have a plan for me, an individual plan that will carry itself out, that’s what keeps me going."
"I’ve been through a surgery and I was still able to win two state championships after that. To be the third player to ever receive that honor in high school with Gatorade. To be able to make a Final Four. That’s what keeps me going."
"If I wasn’t supposed to be in this situation I wouldn’t be here. That’s all I can keep saying. Those things happen for a reason. A lot people don’t have those honors, you know? Me, I’m the type of the guy … the reason I don’t speak a lot about is because they’re in the past and I’m trying to accomplish new things. Those things happened for a reason to set me up for even better things at this level."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.