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Brandon Knight’s mysterious decline since moving to the bench has him stuck

Phoenix Suns' Brandon Knight, top, fouls Toronto Raptors' DeMarre Carroll during first-half NBA basketball game action in Toronto, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

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Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight has gone from future All-Star on his arrival to Sixth Man of the Year contender at the start of this season to one of the most disappointing players in the NBA.

The story on Knight has been told many times. On the verge of making the All-Star team with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2015, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough finally cashed in a major trade chip — a future first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers — along with Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, to acquire Knight.

Make no mistake about it, Knight deserved that “near All-Star” title for his play in Milwaukee.

He was never truly efficient, shooting around 42 percent, but when he got hot, it was hard to stop him. He scored in a bevy of ways. From using his crossover to set up his jumper or his teammates to his own slashing effort to the rim, Knight was a dynamic offensive player.

In his first two seasons in Phoenix, this wasn’t as consistent, but he still showed flashes of being that player.

In theory, Knight was a good fit next to Eric Bledsoe. He was a 41 percent three-point shooter in Milwaukee and an adequate defender, while his playmaking would be more preferred in a secondary ball-handler fashion. He could move off-ball and capitalize on Bledsoe drives to the basket by either hitting open shots or attacking closeouts.

What the Suns would learn, however, was that Knight’s defense would deteriorate in a hurry, his three-point shooting was more streaky than consistent, his passing was much more erratic than his reputation suggested and beyond that, the fit just didn’t feel natural with Bledsoe.

Not to worry, though, because Knight profiled well as someone like Jamal Crawford, who started as a point guard prospect with limited upside as a distributor and defender and turned it into a career off the bench as a microwave scorer.

It was a great situation for Knight to not only revive that near All-Star status, but play the best basketball of his career.

That player, for whatever reason, has vanished this season.

This year, he has career lows in minutes, points, assists, rebounding, steals three-point percentage and effective field goal percentage

It’s a mysterious decline because despite being moved from the starting lineup, Knight’s effort and energy level on the court is the highest it has ever been during his time in Phoenix.

That it has translated into even worse defensive numbers and efficiency on the offensive end suggests his issues are possibly mental.

Prior to the Suns’ final game before the trade deadline against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 15, head coach Earl Watson was asked what the key was for Knight to get back to being the player he once was.

“Just play,” Watson said. “Embrace it, play, don’t think too much, continue to push yourself and live in every moment. You can’t live in the past, you can’t live in the future, you can’t live in what you think should be, that’s for everyone. When you lose yourself to the moment in this game, I used to always say as a player, when you lose yourself to the game, to every possession, to every moment, you don’t have time to think. And when you start to think too much in this game, it becomes paralysis from analysis.”

At times, rookie point guard Tyler Ulis has checked into the game ahead of Knight, a startling move considering Knight’s continuous label as “the sixth starter” as soon as his move to the bench was revealed.

Watson attributed the move to Knight’s defense, and with the way Knight has been playing, it’s hard to argue against it.

What’s clear with how this season has gone is that it’s going to take one of the most miraculous rejuvenations in franchise history for Knight to be the player the Suns envisioned. A fresh start somewhere else seemed like the best move going forward for both him and the Suns.

What we’ve learned after the trade deadline is that despite this, he’s staying in Phoenix, for now.

Knight is in year two of a five-year, $70 million deal.

He’s the definition of a sunk cost. The Suns have zero chance at getting back his original value, and going even further, they would be lucky to get a decent asset back in return.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Marc Stein confirmed that notion and then some on a podcast two days before the trade deadline.

Stein: We know they’ve been trying for ages to try and move Brandon Knight with zero success. I can’t find anyone who’s angling to take on Brandon Knight at this point.

Lowe: They’re not going to get anything for Brandon Knight. If they got a [second-round pick] for Brandon Knight, I would be pretty impressed, honestly. If they can get off of that contract without having to pay for it, I’ll be impressed.

USA Today’s Sam Amick also reported a very low cost of an expiring contact and a high second-round pick for Knight.

What complicates matters is the complex situation McDonough is in, where the team’s current situation points toward another rebuild. His franchise is headed for year seven of a playoff drought and his owner wants to win.

There’s a long line of questions regarding Knight being traded moving forward.

Is there a team that 1) believes Knight can be the player he once was 2) has a roster that would make that transition natural and 3) has the assets to make a deal work? Even if that’s the case, will McDonough take a huge net loss on Knight now or does he hope the guard can regain at least a portion of his old form? What if it’s more in the realm Lowe and Stein speak of? Would McDonough add assets on his own end to get rid of Knight?

Those uncertainties are why Knight is still in Phoenix.

There are 25 games left in the season, and what Knight does in those could determine his future in a big way.

If this current level of play continues, he could dance between 10-25 minutes a game depending on how he looks in his first stint off the bench. Or, he could find some of that player we all know is still there and prove to other teams he still has it and is worth taking one more shot on.

The only guarantee in the situation surrounding Knight is that the Suns aren’t getting the level of player they traded for, a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

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