November 17, 2017, 1:34 pm
You can blame Phil Jackson as much as you want for his disastrous tenure in the Big Apple but history will have his name next to the draft selections of Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. Coming into the season the French point guard was in the shadow of other great point guard prospects that definitely deserve the hype (Ball, Fox, Smith) but Ntilikina is slowly unleashing his tremendous upside.
Born in Belgium and originating from Rwanda, he was raised in France and was a a member of the French national team that won the U-16 European Championship in 2014 while also named “French League Best Young Player” for the 2015-16 season. Scouts have been following his career from the early stages as he undoubtedly is one of the best international players of his generation. Drafted by the Knicks this summer he was not considered ready for the NBA level but his physical tools and feel for the game made him a great pick regardless.
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Ntilikina, who just turned 19 years old is a 6’5” guard with a 7’1” wingspan, and just like Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo in their first couple seasons, he is still growing. To put his length into a perspective his wingspan is six inches longer than Lonzo Ball’s, seven inches longer than De’Aaron Fox’s and 10 inches longer than Dennis Smith’s.
It’s not hard to see why Phil fell in love with him and he was pretty much straightforward talking about these things in his introductory press conference. A “pass first” point guard with above average size, athleticism, quickness and an excellent understanding of the game. There’s a lot to like.
Elite Defensive Skills
You think we are overreacting here? This past Monday Ntilikina became the first Knicks rookie with 6+ steals in a game since Mark Jackson in 1987 (7). His steal rate, a metric intended to highlight the percentage of opponent team possessions that end with a steal by a specific player, is at a ridiculous 4.8 percent. He is also second only to Paul George with 2.0 steals per game this season and hustle stats further validate his impact on the defensive end as he is averaging 2.6 deflections per game.
Defensive metrics of course are not very reliable but the young point guard understands the importance of defense and he has met the expectations so far. It’s very rare to see one individual and especially a rookie to be able to transform a team defense but Ntilikina has actually done that with a combination of length, athleticism, lateral quickness and basketball IQ. A great on-ball defender, he is very efficient at stopping the dribble penetration and staying in front of his man, something that is extremely hard to do in a league where on a daily basis guards have to go against the likes of Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Chris Paul, Kemba Walker and many more.
His defense is not intense but effortless as he is smart enough to identify how his length can affect the game. On a simple PnR action he does the simple thing of raising his long arms after the switch which forces LeVert to make a bad pass.
Here is another sequence where, after miscommunication between O’Quinn and Lee on a PnR switch, Ntilikina has to quickly decide whether he needs to cover the open man (Trevor Booker) or stay with his guy (Spencer Dinwiddie). As you can see, he recognizes that Booker is reluctant to take the three and stays in the paint where he is able to help keep the defense together instead of allowing it to collapse. This is a great example of the maturity and the level of basketball IQ he possesses for his age.
A disruptive on-ball defender who can guard multiple positions, Ntilikina will force players to places on the court where they are not comfortable taking a shot. Here is Payton repeatedly trying to go on the right, unable to do so due to defensive pressure, eventually settling for an off balance floater that Ntilikina has no problem swatting away.
His impact is essential to a Knicks team that desperately needs him after coming into a season ranked at the bottom of defensive efficiency and still allowing a generous 106.4 points per game. Fouling is a very underrated aspect of the game and strong defensive teams have a couple players that will commit the hard foul in order to stop easy buckets. Coaches love these players and Ntilikina is very active in committing almost three fouls per game, another solid indicator of his effort level.
The French youngster has surprised many people with his ability to read defenses and create opportunities for his teammates. The open court is where he excels as he enjoys pushing the ball and finding the open man. The transition offense is easily initiated by his ability to rebound as a big guard.
He has a low turnover rate in his career despite being the primary ball handler but this is probably an inflated number and a result of his limited playing time. Ntilikina often seems to forget that he is competing against the best of the best. His game is smooth but at times he loses his focus and seems to be lazy. Some of his passes early in the season have been extremely poor and end up in unforced turnovers. Even when the game is out of reach and he is playing garbage minutes he must cut down on these poor turnovers as part of his development will be to learn how to contribute in these situations too.
Overall he is really patient with the ball and he will not force the action but will stay committed on executing the designed play. These are the little things that make teammates happy and help build chemistry within an organization.
At this point of his career he simply needs to control the pace of the game and look for the open teammate which is what he enjoys doing the most. That’s the reason he has been successful early in the season with the Knicks, who don’t need a score-first point guard but more of a distributor like Ntilikina. Tim Hardaway Jr., Kanter and Porzingis are reliable scoring options and the Knicks were smart to find a facilitator for their offense.
Last year, after missing an open layup during Strasbourg’s practice, Ntilikina bent forward, angled his face to the ground and unleashed an extended scream. Then he fell to the floor and did five push-ups, a self-imposed punishment of sorts for Monday morning. His teammates and coaches marveled at the outburst.
Top-10 picks are all young guys with a short careers either in college or at the international level and most of the time they haven’t been through adversity. Some of the skills that Ntilikina brings to the table are unquantifiable and immeasurable. His work ethic shows that he realizes that he needs to work on his game and earn his minutes. During the preseason, Ntilikina spent a Friday night on his own resting his sore right knee but didn’t treat it like a night off. He sat on his couch and watched the Knicks face the Wizards in Washington, while picking up a few plays he was unfamiliar with. He later asked the coaching staff about them which says a lot about the rookie’s work ethic.
His teammates already like him and have gone out of their way to defend him which is always a great sign of great things to come. Ntilikina has also embraced the pressure that the Big Apple creates for Knicks’ players. He wants to win and is willing to work for that and what’s even more impressive is that he has stepped his game up in major tournament events, earning the gold medal for his French national team at the U-18 Euro Championship in 2016 where he also earned MVP honors.
Although there are no red flags and he hasn’t had any serious injuries in his career his body frame is weak. He is still very young and developing but the truth is that Ntilikina hasn’t really been tested at the senior level yet. As a result, he is avoiding contact at all costs and it will be essential to learn how to absorb the physicality of the game and consistently get to the foul line.
Here’s an easy drive where although Ntilikina initially separates himself from his defender he suddenly drives away from the paint once his sees Nikola Vucevic coming out for the help defense.
The Knicks have their hands all over him and I’m certain they will try to help him slowly develop a much stronger core and body frame. Even though he has a thin figure his long body structure suggests that he can add weight and increase his muscle tone effectively and I’ve already noticed a difference from last season. As far as comparisons go, his structure reminds me of Dante Exum and we all know how difficult it has been for him to remain healthy in his first few seasons in the NBA. It’s the reason why the Knicks have to be patient and avoid throwing a lot on his plate in the early stage of his career.
Potential Shooting Woes?
I don’t really think there is any reason for concern based on his tracking record and on what he has showed in his rookie campaign so far. He shot over 40 percent from the 3-point line during his two seasons with Strasbourg and he actually increased his percentages on the bigger stage, first during during the French playoffs last year (where he shot 48 percent) and also during the U-18 Euro Championship (where he shot 58 percent). His jump shot might look a little too mechanical, slow and sometimes not so fluid but he has been comfortable shooting from deep and it will only take him a few months before he completely gets adjusted to the NBA 3-point line. Rookies do struggle with percentages and the same occurs with Ntilikina but he doesn’t force any shots and with his unique length he should be able to capitalize on a higher release that defenders won’t be able to contest.
Spot-up and catch and shoot action are both part of his game and if he’s able to develop a pull-up three move he could be unstoppable. He is most comfortable at PnR action where he likes to use screens and take what the defense will give him, either a mid-range shot or the three. Here’s him exhibiting astounding patience in a PnR situation with Kyle O’Quinn. The first screen set by the big man is not ideal but Ntilikina is able to quickly regroup and take another one on the side of the floor he likes better, eventually hitting the mid range jumper.
Ntilikina also enjoys ISO situations where he will use a crossover or a step back dribble to create his own shot and score off the dribble. A strong part of his game is an explosive first step that allows him some much needed separation which he can use to either pass on the move or penetrate and finish with his favorite floater.
Raising the Bar
Ntilikina was labeled as a question mark before the Draft mainly because nobody could predict how he would be able to match up with the boys on the big stage. It was also anticipated that he would have a hard time securing playing time alongside more seasoned professional teammates. He is proving he belongs day by day, and just like all rookies it’s essential to surround Ntilikina with quality veterans that will mentor him. Steph Curry has credited Jarrett Jack for his growth and development and it’s good to see Jack taking a similar role with Ntilikina although at a different stage of his career. The future looks bright and as long as the Knicks avoid any more turmoil fans should be able to enjoy more of this in the upcoming years.
Even if he doesn’t get better, which is hard to believe, Ntilikina is already a force at the defensive end and impacts the game in more ways that his coaches had imagined. Regardless of his dynasty potential he now looks like a must own in 12-team formats as he is returning top-150 value in his last five games.