I’ve played piano for 35 years. One of my more FOH life dreams is to someday own a $200,000 Bosendorfer Imperial Grand.
Unlikely dream #2? Watching the New York Knicks helmed by a high-IQ two-way point guard. After 25 games, crowned by this week’s performances against the L.A. Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, Frank Ntilikina is stoking hopes in us dopes while giving “nope” tropes the old rope-a-dope.
Drafting Ntilikina was Phil Jackson’s last move as Knick president. Five of the first nine picks in that draft were point guards; with so many teams looking to fill the same need, comparisons - particularly of the premature or overstated variety - are a thing. In addition to choosing Ntilikina over Dennis Smith Jr., whose strengths are visible in simpler spectrums of light than Frank’s, the Knicks also passed on Malik Monk, the highest-rated two-guard available.
A third of the way through the season, what have we learned about Ntilikina? What’s cause for celebration? For concern? How will Knick fans look back on June 22, 2017? With the same sepia swoons reserved for May 8, 1970? The blood-boiling infamy of May 14, 1997? The bald banality of October 27, 1984?
First, let’s look at Lonzo Ball, Smith, De’Aaron Fox and Frank. We want to compare opportunities and outcomes while accounting for the uniqueness of each player and situation: what the Mavs ask of Smith, the Lakers would never from Ball; Fox was handed the reins in Sacramento and leads the Kings in minutes played, whereas for New York Ntilikina ranks 7th.
Let’s look at minutes played, usage %, assist %, and turnover %. I also used points scored and points generated via assist to calculate how many points created (pc) each guard is averaging per 36 minutes (as of Wednesday).
So far, the numbers paint Frank a distant fourth. He’s scoring less than the others, assisting less, turning it over more and creating the fewest points while playing less than his fellow rookies. Didn’t take long for some to crown Ntilikina’s peers his superiors. Now, if you wanna crown them, then crown their ass.
But first, a few more numbers. Let’s look at minutes again, only this time let’s add the American players’ college minutes to their totals so far as pros, and add Frank’s minutes from his years in Strasbourg in the French league.
Ntilikina is the second-youngest player in the NBA. His experience is significantly less than that of these other guards. At his current average of 20 minutes a night, Ntilikina is still a quarter-season short of the minutes Fox and Smith are at right now and a half-season behind Ball; even Monk, who’s played over 100 fewer minutes than Frank this year, is still hundreds of minutes ahead of him when you factor in his one year at Kentucky. Yet Ntilikina is already generating more points via assists on average than Fox or Smith. In that light, it’s perhaps more reasonable and assuredly more pleasurable to look optimistically at the things the kid’s already doing.
In defense of Ntilikina, Ron Baker’s five years older and has the highest turnover percentage on the team; both Jarrett Jack and Ramon Sessions have rates of 20%+, and combined they’re as old as Floyd Mayweather. Senior. The numbers don’t tell you what the clip above showed in passes to Michael Beasley and Doug McDermott. The best quarterback in New York plays for the Knicks.
Numbers and video both suggest Ntilikina’s defense is already ahead of the curve and maybe headed for something special. Take defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), which estimates how many points a player contributes above an average player. Monk has the worst DBPM of any Hornet, and Fox of any King averaging 20+ minutes. Smith is a mediocre defender on a mediocre defensive team. Monk, Fox and Smith’s DBPM are all negative numbers. Ball, averaging a healthy 2.3 deflections per game, has a DBPM of 2.5, just a fraction behind Larry Nance Jr. for tops among Laker regulars.
Ntilikina’s 0.9 is already second on the team, trailing only Kyle O’Quinn. He’s 19 and already second on the team. The Knicks didn’t draft Smith because he can dunk fancy. They didn’t draft Monk because he can shoot from distance. They drafted Frank, and his long arms went a long way toward that. Before the draft, Phil Jackson made Smith eat octopus. Foreshadowing?
And great individual defense by Ntilikina on the other end against a bigger PF in Randle pic.twitter.com/67in6yUp2b— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) December 13, 2017
Just your run-of-the-mill teenage point guard harassing a power forward 60 pounds heavier than him into a miss. Ask Julius Randle—you can’t teach length. Frank even out-Gumbys NBA Gumbys like Brandon Ingram.
Ntilikina vs. Ingram: lanky-off— Alex Wolfe (@thealexwolfe) December 13, 2017
Frank wins pic.twitter.com/LlgYsDuXAP
You may remember the highlights in the clip below from when the Knicks hosted Cleveland. You know what’s amazing here?
Really hoping we see Frank Ntilikina do this to Lonzo Ball tonight. I know everyone is upset that Dennis Smith Jr. is going to be a good player, but everyone chill. Frank Ntilikina brings a defensive minded attitude that has not existed in New York since the 90's. pic.twitter.com/7Q7nAJmyyA— Swiss Cheese D (@NBASwissCheeseD) December 12, 2017
THEY’RE HIGHLIGHTS OF A KNICK GUARD PLAYING DEFENSE! And they’re highlights you’ve probably seen before. Ntilikina is already compiling a portfolio of defensive highlights. Rarer than a hen’s teeth.
Length plus D plus IQ? ¡Ai, papi!
Lonzo Ball is a fascinating player, one I think will be a plus-impact for many years. But his shot may be broke, and that risk coupled with the traveling Ball family circus isn’t something the Knick franchise needed going forward. Dennis Smith Jr. is a wondrous scorer and a physical specimen, but he needs the ball in his hands and lots of shots to make an impact; a team looking to develop a lead option in Kristaps Porzingis (and that just jettisoned high-gravity shooters like Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose) doesn’t need someone who needs KP’s touches to affect the game.
De’Aaron Fox offers intrigue on both ends, but he’s shorter than Ntilikina, hasn’t been the defensive demon he was hyped as entering the league, and he’s made fewer threes while hitting a worse percentage from downtown as Frank; Fox’s shot is as much a question mark going forward as Ball’s. Frank’s is, too, but not because the evidence suggests he can’t shoot with a Spalding basketball or that he was a poor shooter before turning pro, too. Ntilikina showed improvement while at Strasbourg and flashes of lethality in New York.
Frank Ntilikina de loooooooooin ! pic.twitter.com/RGUx71NeF0— Parlons NBA (@ParlonsNBA) December 13, 2017
Fun fact. Frank Ntilikina is shooting better from 3 than Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. His free throw rate is second only to Fox - even outpacing Mitchell.— Rory Breasail (@bballgodsblog) December 14, 2017
When you’re looking for a new piano, there’s nothing wrong with a Steinway, or a Baldwin, or a Kawai. But building a Ntilikina is like building a Bosendorfer. Time and patience are required when the payoff is this promising: a two-way high-IQ point guard’s value is immeasurable. Success plants its roots in failing better. Ntilikina’s failures? He picks up his dribble too far from the basket sometimes. He can be too unselfish, to a fault.
Gahhhhhhhhhhhh Frank just go up for the layup there and take the contact you beautiful unselfish fuck! pic.twitter.com/TgDGiN4wqb— Alex Wolfe (@thealexwolfe) December 13, 2017
But that’s the error of a deliberate, apprentice-aged craftsman already attuned to making his teammates better, something some GOATs didn’t learn till their late 20s, something some of today’s GOATs have yet to showcase. Over the past 15 years, the Knicks featured hometown stars - Stephon Marbury; Carmelo Anthony - who [pseudo-simplification in 3...2...1...] mostly failed to elevate their comrades, ultimately failing their teams. Ntilikina’s unselfishness sometimes leads to turnovers, but it also leads to moments like this.
A fancy pass, but a simple play and easy bucket, the kind that demoralizes an opponent’s defense late in a close, winnable game, the kind that motivates your big man to go all-out on both ends even if he’s getting winded. The kind that other guys see and seek out, knowing if they keep moving, someone will find them. Their hard work will be rewarded. You can’t quantify that kind of impact. Justice leads men to move mountains, or at least to set better screens, cut strong to the hoop, and open their mouths on defense.
This is Frank visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
Who’s living the unlikelier dream? The Belgian teenager being the toast of the Big Apple? Or Knick fans witnessing a physically gifted two-way high-IQ point guard grow up right in front of them? Both would have sounded ridiculous a year ago, pure pipe dreams. That’s the thing with FOH. It only is till it isn’t. After that, it’s amazing. Simple gestures, repeated, beget phrases. Phrases beget movements. Movements beget masterpieces. I don’t wanna wake up.