DETROIT — Energy makes John Starks special. No New York Knick is as explosive taking the ball to the basket. Sometimes that energy, and the high level of emotion that feeds it, can get him into trouble. Three games ago Starks set career highs of 39 points and 13 assists, and then in his next game he was booted out with two technical foul calls.
You never quite know what to expect from Starks, and yet the Knicks, who visit the Detroit Pistons Friday night at the Palace in Auburn Hills, would be in trouble without him. A tough defensive player, he has become the main support system to Patrick Ewing on offense. But even within a game, Starks is unpredictable.
He had an ugly third quarter in Milwaukee Wednesday, going scoreless. But in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks rallied from a 13-point deficit to outscore the Bucks, 23-9, and win, Starks scored nine of the 23. He also made two free throws with 2.6 seconds left that provided the 91-90 victory.
So what is to be believed about Starks? While he can be an inconsistent performer within the framework of a game, the overall numbers conclude he has greatly improved and could be on his way to consistently being an impact player in the NBA.
In his first 28 games, 20 of them coming off the bench, Starks averaged 12.5 points and shot 39.1%. In the past 22 games, 13 as a starter, Starks has been averaging 22.7 points and has shot 47.4%. Along with the improved shooting percentage, Starks has scored 20 or more points in 15 of those 22 games.
He definitely is stepping up. Pat Riley sees it. "His control and shot selection are improving," the coach said. "He's coming more and more prepared every night. I think he's taking the responsibility of what it takes to be a starter."
While Starks is averaging 28.4 minutes of playing time for the season, that figure has been on the rise. "We've started to depend on him for 35 to 40 minutes," Riley said. "So he's got a lot of time to make his game work, and he doesn't have to rush it.
"John had a reputation as a gunslinger, a guy who came off the bench and was just a streak scorer. But he's got to play a total game now and he's been doing that for us. He's raised his game to another level."
The finishing touches will be up to Starks. At 27, there is time for improvement. Physically, he's outstanding. Mentally, there appears to be room for maturity. When Ewing was asked if he thought Starks was on his way to being a star, the center replied, "He's having a very good year."
That wasn't the answer to the question, and when pressed, Ewing was noncommittal. Asked if he would prefer to wait before making that judgment, Ewing nodded. Starks didn't fault his teammate's assessment.
"I want to be a consistent player, a consistent scorer," Starks said. "I hope I can put the reputation of being streaky behind me. Right now I can feel real good about my game. But I have to continue to work hard, to continue to shoot the ball well and stay on an even keel. I think I'm doing a good job of that now."
In the past two games, Greg Anthony hasn't played in the fourth quarter. In Milwaukee, the starting point guard played only four minutes in the second half. Yet Riley maintains he is not unhappy overall with Anthony's play. "He does have to improve his free-throw shooting percentage (67% to Doc Rivers' team-leading 86%). It's critical the point guards make them in the last quarter because they're going to be handling the ball. So Greg has to keep concentrating there. But as long as he defends and distributes the ball well, he's going to play a solid role with this team."