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Knicks notebook: Brandon Jennings an early favorite for NBA Sixth Man of the Year

Brandon Jennings makes a no-look pass against the Timberwolves earlier this seasonGetty Images

The Knicks are on a bit of a roll lately, winning three straight and eight of theirlast 11 contests. And while the usual suspects are at the forefront of the victories, it’s been the play of a relatively unknown bench that’s helped spearhead the charge – in particular, one former high draft pick who’s turned into a super-sub.

Most NBA fans know who Brandon Jennings is, considering his much ballyhooed high school-to-Europe-to-NBA story. But what most may not realize is the amount of sacrifice and ego-checking the former All-NBA Rookie First Teamer has undertaken since signing a below-market, one-year/$5 million deal over the summer to join the Knicks. Jennings will use this season to rebuild his brand and reclaim his status as one of the best and most electrifying point guards in the league – and there’s no better place to do so than in New York.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek beams any time Jennings’name is mentioned. And following Sunday’s gritty win over the Sacramento Kings, Hornacek had nothing but praise for his backup point guard.

“He gave us a big lift,” Hornacek said, touting his pre-game premonition that Jennings was to play a pivotal role. “I saw [during shootaround] … He said some things, [that] I knew he was going to be good.”

Jennings was more than good, as he knocked down all seven free throw attempts in the second half, en route to 13 of his 19 points in the final two quarters.

Known as a gunner, Jennings has been efficient in his new role. He signed with the Knicks (11-9) touting a well-earned reputation as a volume shooter. Prior to this season, Jennings was always the No. 1 point guard on any roster, starting 416 of his 460 appearances and averaging 31.3 minutes, while putting up an average of 15 shots per game. But since coming to New York, he’s changed his game and has become a really valuable bench asset – and an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year.

Anyone who’s followed Jennings’path may do a double-take when seeing how seamless the transition has become to being a pass-first sixth man. Including Sunday night’s tilt, Jennings has come off the bench in every game and has averaged 21.7 minutes, just 6.4 field goal attempts, 3.1 assists, and 7.7 points per contest.

It hasn’t been an easy transition, but Jennings’s sees the bigger picture – for himself and the team.

“At first it was a challenge, [but] I’ve accepted it,” he said. “I know my role is to play defense, come with a lot of energy, set guys up, [and] play hard ... I don’t have to score a lot. I can set the table. Not that it means I still can’t score. I have to sacrifice my game for the team. I’m playing with some of the best scorers in the world. I definitely changed my game and found other things I can bring to the table.”

Jennings is definitely setting the table, as he leads the team in assist percentage (percentage of made field goals that a player assisted on) by a wide margin at 32.4 percent. For perspective, before this season, Jennings’career average assist percentage was 30.2 – and he’s doing this without starter’s minutes.

But while Jennings may be the best reserve on the Knicks, he isn’t the only super sub at Hornacek’s disposal. Guys like guard Justin Holiday, rookie forwards Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez, and center Kyle O’Quinn have all stepped up recently – and that’s not even including the boost they’ll further get when forward Lance Thomas begins playing regular minutes again following an ankle injury that kept him out for three weeks.

There are nine new faces on the Knicks this season, including a new head man and new assistants, so it could be a scary proposition for the rest of the Eastern Conference that New York is starting to gel and receive significant contributions up and down its roster.

“I think we’re becoming more comfortable with one another and understanding each one of our abilities,” noted Carmelo Anthony.

It’s been a breath of fresh air for the Knicks – and its faithful -- to finally field a team that isn’t so star-heavy and can contest with any team 1-through-15 on its active roster. And if the reserves continue to ascend, it’s just a matter of time until the Knicks once again become a factor in the conference.

Knicks notes:

-The Knicks’ recent stretch of winning 8-of-11 is the best record in the Eastern Conference over that span.

 
 
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