The Knicks hope their top pick in the draft embodies their future: Forward Danilo Gallinari hasn't stopped growing (he's 6-foot-9 and counting), he has the versatility required for new coach Mike D'Antoni's open-court offense, and he embraces the challenges of playing for the NBA's most difficult audience -- even after being booed by fans at Madison Square Garden when commissioner David Stern announced him as the sixth overall selection.
"Milan is similar to New York, because as soon as you do something that's not good, [fans] boo you," says Gallinari, the 19-year-old star of the Italian club Armani Jeans Milano. "It's a tough place to play, but it's nice."
Gallinari may use different adjectives to describe New York once he has experienced a few rough nights with the Knicks, who haven't had a winning season since 2000-01. Many observers assumed that D'Antoni would lean toward picking the Italian because he played with Gallinari's father, Vittorio, on Milan in the 1980s. In fact D'Antoni had fallen out of touch with Vittorio and had never seen Danilo play a game in person. If anything, he was likely to avoid being associated with this pick unless he was convinced of Gallinari's potential.
"Whether or not Mike liked him personally had nothing to do with the decision," says Knicks president of basketball operations Donnie Walsh, whose selection of Gallinari was his first major roster move since taking over in April. "Mike probably looked at him [on film] longer to make sure he was good enough, because he understood more than anybody that [the Italy] connection would make it appear Mike favored him."
As the only international player taken in the lottery, Gallinari was its biggest mystery. But a year or two in the weight room should help him prove why he was chosen to launch the Walsh-D'Antoni era: Team doctors expect him to top out at 6-11, and he has an aggressive nature that rebuts the European stereotype. Older teammates deferred to Gallinari because he was unafraid to drive inside, whether in the Italian league (where he led Milan with 17.5 points per game last season) or the more competitive Euroleague (14.9).
"Our scouts were very high on him and I watched a lot of film on him," says Walsh. "I was already thinking this guy could have the full package because he has size, great ball handling skills, and he goes to the goal as the go-to guy on his team -- and then [in his workouts for the Knicks] I find he can really shoot."
Picking Gallinari might turn out to be one of the easier decisions for Walsh, who must find a way to unload several big contracts to create cap room for the 2010 free-agent class of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. (James is rumored to prefer the New York market, and the Nets unofficially entered the LeBron sweepstakes on draft day by moving Richard Jefferson and his large contract to Milwaukee for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons.) But don't look for a wholesale makeover this summer, because the Knicks see potential in Wilson Chandler, Jared Jeffries, Nate Robinson and even Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph to adapt to D'Antoni's prolific offense, which should increase their trade value.
How quickly can Gallinari help turn the boos into cheers? "We know we can't do this overnight," says Walsh. "I have to make good decisions all the way through, and I hope I made the right decision in this case."