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Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Mozgov turning heads at Knicks camp

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- On the final day of training camp Wednesday, one of the newest Knicks knocked down a 17-footer from the corner, finished a post move with a soft left-handed touch shot, threw a behind-the-back pass off the dribble to an open teammate on the perimeter, then dove onto the floor to save a ball from going out of bounds.

This all happened in the space of about 10 minutes, a combination of skill, hustle and agility rarely seen over the past, lost decade that has defined the New York Knicks as one of the NBA's perennial losers.

The player making the plays?

No, it was not Amare Stoudemire, the new alpha dog on an almost totally revamped roster.

Nor was it Raymond Felton, the new co-captain and floor general.

They were the moves of 7-foot-1 rookie Russian center Timofey Mozgov, who coach Mike D'Antoni has singled out as the biggest surprise of training camp.

"Just because we didn't know anything about Timofey, he's showing that what we saw on tape, and what we saw when we worked him out, was good," D'Antoni said. "He's an athlete, and he's getting better every day. His instincts on defense are real good, his offensive instincts are good, he knows how to set people up, and he keeps getting better with his shot, getting more confidence."

Of the 16 players in training camp, only five were with the Knicks at the conclusion of last season. And one of those five, Eddy Curry, has spent the past several days watching practice sitting on a table in the corner of the gym after reporting to camp out of shape and straining his right hamstring in one of the first scrimmages.

Curry did not accompany the Knicks as they left Wednesday afternoon for Milan, Italy, where they will play Armani Jeans Milano on Sunday in their first preseason game before traveling to Paris for an exhibition against the Minnesota Timberwolves next Wednesday.

So instead of keeping track of how much pasta and how many baguettes Curry can fit inside his oversized frame, the Knicks will be watching to see how their new international man of mystery can adapt to the NBA game.

"I played against [Mozgov] already in the European Championship," said center Ronny Turiaf, one of the 11 new faces. "And I had high expectations for him before he came here. So you guys didn't know what you were getting. But I knew what the Knicks were getting when they got him."

Mozgov figures to start the season coming off the bench behind Turiaf, and he may have to compete for minutes with Anthony Randolph at the center position if D'Antoni sticks with past practice and goes with a short rotation.

But D'Antoni has indicated he is going to change up his game somewhat, at least in the early part of the season, to see which mixes and matches of players work best together.

He has already said Randolph will defend everyone from Rajon Rondo to Dwight Howard, but it is likely that the 21-year-old acquired in the David Lee trade will be coming off the bench and seeing his minutes fluctuate from night to night, depending on the opponent and the different matchup difficulties other teams present.

D'Antoni said he has not yet settled on a starting lineup, with the shooting guard spot the biggest question mark.

The coach did allow that Wilson Chandler will probably get the nod Sunday in Milan, but Roger Mason will have a chance to compete for the job -- as will Kelenna Azubuike when he returns from rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee sometime in November. Also, backup point guard Toney Douglas will be teamed alongside Felton at times.

Stoudemire will be the starting power forward, Felton will run the point, and Danilo Gallinari will be the starting small forward for the Knicks, who have stated that their goal for this season is to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. (They haven't won a postseason game since 2000.)

This year's team is not only taller and longer than Knicks teams of recent years, it is constructed of what the franchise hopes will be building blocks toward a rosier future after having sacrificed the past two seasons to gain control of their salary cap situation.

And though the Knicks have been active in trade talks with the Denver Nuggets in an effort to acquire Carmelo Anthony, they would be perfectly satisfied to see Anthony spend another season in Denver and then become an unrestricted free agent. With Curry and his $11.7 million salary coming off the cap, the Knicks will have the flexibility to make a max offer to Anthony next July -- provided the league isn't shut down by a lockout.

For now, D'Antoni said, the focus during the preseason will be "to keep coming together, keep improving. It's more of us discovering who we have and what they can do and try to utilize their talents and put them in a position to succeed."

For Mozgov, who was discovered by the Knicks' director of international scouting, Kevin Wilson, that'll mean preparing him for the inevitability that he will be a foul magnet on his first tour through the league, and teaching him that the respect he has already earned from his teammates will be difficult to come by in a league that treats rookies, especially foreign rookies, harshly when they first arrive.

For Felton, it'll mean making him more of a passer in the mold of Steve Nash, now that he has a player in Stoudemire who can play above the rim, going 12 or 13 feet high to receive passes.

For Gallinari, it'll mean getting him to find a balance between being a 3-point shooter as well as a player who can post up the smaller defenders he'll face on a regular basis.

For the rest, it'll mean pushing those players to make themselves worthy of sticking around long-term as this new beginning unfolds.

"The desire to be the best has come through. I didn't have to do any of that, it started from Amare and Raymond and it kept going right on. And now it's just plugging in the pieces and making sure they get better offensively and defensively, and we'll do that. But it starts with them. They want it, and that's what they've demonstrated, and it makes me sleep a lot better at night." D'Antoni said. "They have a purpose: Their purpose is to make the playoffs and make New York buzz. That's what they want to do."