Sports

Brandon Knight Is Sick of Starring in Other Players' Highlights

For too long, Brandon Knight wound up on the wrong side of NBA memes and on other people's posters. This year, Phoenix's young co-point guard is emerging as a star.
December 18, 2015, 8:47pm
Photo by Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Here is Brandon Knight, leaping over his own bench to save the ball from going out of bounds, only to tumble over the seats and have an entire tray of water fall on him.

Here is Brandon Knight, going toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving in the Rookie/Sophomore game, getting ruthlessly crossed over, tumbling to the floor, looking at Irving from below as his shot swishes through the net.

Here is Brandon Knight, with a wide-open lay-up to win the game and then blowing said lay-up. Here he is, his life flashing before his eyes as DeAndre Jordan crashes down on him and smashes the ball through the hoop, and then walks away to make the face that launched a thousand GIFs.

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This is Brandon Knight as we know him: unfortunate, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, the long lost Baudelaire child. Or, anyway, it was.

Knight seems to have a different author writing his story this season; it's like Robert Ludlum, in full Bourne mode, snatched the pen from Daniel Handler. The merciless Lemony Snicket-esque procession of crossovers and facials are gone, and in their place is Knight spinning poor Marcelo Huertas around like a dreidel, or sending Paul Pierce to the ground in a sprawling heap of limbs, or rather prosaically putting up twenty points per game and change.

It's not as if Knight was a bad player when he fell victim to the aforementioned series of unfortunate events—far from it. Knight was a legitimate All-Star candidate in the Eastern Conference last season and a fine player the year before that. Despite that, no matter how well Knight played, bad shit just kept happening to him.

He'd try to take a charge—valiantly, if perhaps also foolishly—only to end up on a poster. He'd make the game-winning lay-up in overtime, but all anyone would remember was the lay-up he blew that could have won the game in regulation. "It seems like a lot of people look for me to be in bad situations," Knight told me last February when I asked him about those unfortunate highlights.

A normal human being would understandably have his or her psyche crushed after just one of these incidents, but it's just as understandable that Knight would remain undaunted. NBA players, or any professional athlete for that matter, need bulletproof self-belief just to make it to the highest levels of competition. Once they're there, winding up as a supporting actor a poster or two is no big deal. Knight is no exception.

"It happens, we laugh about it, we move on," he said. "People who are around the game, people who know the game, know those plays are irrelevant. Players know what happen in the game. Players get dunked on. Your peers, they know if you can play or not."

To paraphrase the bard, if they didn't know, now they know.

Knight's emerged as the Suns hoped he would when they traded for him last season, giving up a potentially precious first-round pick acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers to do so. He only averaged 13 points, 4.5 assists with an unpleasant 43 effective field goal percentage in his 11 games with the Suns last season. This year, with a full summer to recover and learn the offense, he's posting career highs nearly across the board: 20.4 points, 5.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and an 18.8 PER. (His net rating is still -1.9, but one thing at a time.)

Work yourself into a shoot. Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Hornacek's two-point-guard system operates under the assumption that at least one half of the Knight–Eric Bledsoe tandem will get hot every game, with the Suns riding whichever guard that may be as their closer. More often than not, Knight has been that guy, scoring 5.5 points per game in the fourth quarter.

On November 20, the Suns rallied from a 17-point deficit to take a tenuous four-point lead heading into the final frame. They needed someone to bring them home, and on that night Knight was spectacular. He put up 17 points in the fourth quarter, 3-for-4 from deep, including the final nail in the Nuggets' coffin. In total, he scored 38, a career high and his third 30-point game in a span of eight days.

There is another side to the fascinating self-belief of professional athletes. A player may at all times think they're the best on the court, but these players will still never be satisfied with their accomplishments. They could score 50 points or block 15 shots, they could win the title on an incredible shot that television stations around the world would broadcast on repeat and children in playgrounds everywhere would try to replicate, and still it would not be enough. For such players, there is always something more to achieve, some next obstacle to overcome, some other person to prove wrong. The standard is perfection, which is ridiculous and unattainable and unfair, but also what it takes to keep them running up that hill.

NBA players may now know Knight is for real; it is already clear that he is much more than a punch line. Die-hard fans may recognize this, too. When you search for Brandon Knight on Vine, though, the first videos to surface are still his mishaps, not his successes. This is his wrong to right. Everything he does is done, at least to some extent, to undo all this. His is a very difficult job. A large part of that job is finding a way to make it even more difficult, to move the finish line progressively farther out.

"Is this your best game?" a reporter asks Knight after his 38-point outburst against the Nuggets.

"No," he says, shaking his head. "No."