May 16 is lottery night, the night during which fans of teams who’ve spent months losing, if not years, play Charlie Brown to Lady Luck’s Lucy. Like most lotteries, the draft lottery’s a sucker’s bet. Only three results are possible, and each suck: a team moves up (not if you’re the Knicks), moves down (been there), or not at all (done that). The Knicks have been hanging around the 6 or 7 spot, which means since they won’t move up ‘cuz we’re forever paying off the interest on our luck from 1985’s frozen envelope, they’re likely picking between 6 and 10. Which means they’ll be in range for highly regarded Strasbourg guard Frank Ntilikina (nee-lee-KEE-nah).
Voted last year’s French League Best Young Player, Ntilikina (which for some reason is infinitely easier to type than “Afflalo”) detonated in the FIBA U18 tournament, winning MVP honors after scoring 23 points with 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals in the semis against Italy, then 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting in the title game versus Lithuania.
At 6’5” and, depending on what site you’re on, between 170 and (cough) 190 pounds, Ntilikina has a great frame for a lead guard and should be able to fill in without slowing down. He has the size to see over the top on pick-and-rolls, as when he hit four of his five shots and added three assists off PnRs against Italy.
If he does fill out enough to absorb contact while finishing, he could carve out a nice NBA career doing stuff like this.
He’s also the odd case of a player who looks quicker on defense than offense, where he’s smooth but not blazing fast. Off the videos I’ve seen, his signature move seems to be a 180 he busts out before attacking the defense. It appears to serve two purposes: momentarily freezing whoever’s guarding him, allowing a fraction of a second to survey the defensive landscape, and building up some potential energy before one of his kinetic drives. He usually uses it when working at the top of the circle, with space and time to work with; when he’s working in congested space, like the clip below, he’s still able to command attention from three defenders and create a look for a teammate.
After making just five of 16 three-pointers over his first two professional seasons, Ntilikina has hit 13 of 27 in all competitions this year, hitting all four against Italy. He’s shooting more and shooting better.
He’s only taken 23 free throws in 57 career games. Some of that is Human Survival 101 — dude’s a 170 pound teenager in a man’s league. Some of that is circumstance: despite his obvious potential, Ntilikina is a third-string guard on Strasbourg who’s seen limited minutes in his three years with the team. Kristaps Porzingis played 1,615 minutes before leaving Sevilla. Ntilikina has played 592.
On the other side of the ball, 6’5” guards with 6’11” wingspans = dope, especially if you switch a ton on D, which the Knicks totally do and which, oft unrelated to what the Knicks totally do, seems to be where the league is headed. Watch Ntilikina defend smaller guards; it looks like a predator toying with its prey. Imagine him and Porzingis doing this night after night.
Of course, his breakout performances came in the U18 tourney, meaning he was playing teenagers with teenage bodies, which are not the bodies he’ll be seeing in the NBA. Ntilikina also hasn’t seen many point guards as fast as what he’ll see in the NBA. One thing that may translate well: thanks to his length, he could be a real factor closing out shooters and become an impact individual defender and team defender. His size will also come in handy when ball movement swings his way and he has to shoot over the top of smaller guards closing out.
The quote below is from my analysis of Porzingis before the 2015 draft. Replace “Derek Fisher” with “Jeff Hornacek” and It applies equally, if not more so, to Ntilikina and the Knicks in 2017:
“More than most prospects, not only does his game need a safe space to stumble while finding its legs, his body needs time to grow, too. This is not a drive-thru, fast-food talent. This is talent you let marinate. The payoff's almost certainly due later than sooner. And what if he is the best player in the draft, but it'd take 4 years to show? One reason New York's the city that never sleeps is because there's always someone somewhere volunteering a narrative on someone else. Drafting any player...hoping they become a superstar is a gamble. Gambling on a superstar project requires the fans commit to patience and faith with no promise of deliverance, which for some will feel eerily like what going 17-65 felt like; requires Derek Fisher invest minutes in a player who'll be overmatched most nights while more immediately serviceable veterans are available...”
The worst-kept secret in the world is that the Knicks need a backcourt stud. They’ve only had three All-Star lead guards since Walt Freakin’ Frazier (Michael Ray Richardson, Mark Jackson, and John Starks). Every legit contender and virtually every playoff team this year has a star guard (except the Spurs; the Spurs could feed turducken to a vegan convention and earn five-star reviews). Will the organization that changes direction like underwear, that had veteran fever last summer and brought in Derek Rose and Joakim Noah, commit a high lottery pick to an 18-year-old who’s played as little as Ntilikina? If you had a guarantee he’d be good, really good, only not until 2020, what would you do? It seems like a long time. But he’d be just 21. KP would be 25.
Does Jeff Hornacek care about 2020? Does Phil Jackson care what Jeff Hornacek thinks? Does Phil invest in a likely long-term project like Ntilikina, especially with the Knicks on the verge of yet another in a string of losing seasons under his watch? Especially as it’s unlikely Phil would be around for the payoff? Probably not...which might be precisely why Phil does it. He likes big guards. He likes international players. I think he likes doing things that make sense to him and not to others, because he’s pulled enough royal flushes to believe the next one’s just around the corner. He’s an ideologue. When the deck be spitting the cards you need, ideologues look like the smartest people in the room. When it ain’t, they look like this.
No more speculation. Enjoy some highlights.