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January Mailsack, Part 1 - Frenchmen and foretelling futures

When should Frank start? Which Atlantic Division duo is the brightest of them all?

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In honor of our fourth Posting & Toasting mailbag, the first question stems from a foursome. Let’s get it on!

  • Wherefore art thou a non-starter? A query from blood.jets.tears led to a quartet featuring Malta Papi, Melo’s Bucket Hat Collection and Muruju:

“Why has Frank Ntilikina not been given the starting nod as of yet?”
“He’s not good enough yet.”
“Better than Jarrett Jack.”
“Not necessarily.”

Combine these four takes and you get the Voltron of emotions regarding the Frank Ntilikina experience so far.

1) First, decades of sub-par Knick point guard play spawns a desperate excitement in a fan base starved for more from the exciting rookie.

2) Next, while the defense and selflessness are as good as advertised, a half-season of Frank’s sub-par field goal, three-point and even free-throw %, plus a PER that ranks below Ron Baker’s and Damyean Dotson’s, plus the passivity you’d expect from a 19-year-old whose PER ranks below Baker and Dotson, triggers a well-earned, overly-developed hesitance toward optimism.

3) Then comes the rationalizing that in spite of these early struggles, better days are surely ahead because, for once, the point guard in question has youth and upside on his side.

4) Finally, there’s the hard-boiled pragmatism that protects hopes from being dashed after so many false messiahs in the past. It’s the four stages of Knickxiety.

Given the organization’s hopes going forward for Ntilikina, it’s fair to wonder when they’ll hand him the keys. Halfway through the season, he’s the only Knick to play more than 15% of all available minutes without starting at least once. Ramon Sessions may as well have his picture on the back of milk cartons (do they still do that?), yet he’s started an infinitely greater number of games (3) than Frank. A half-dozen Knicks have played fewer minutes than him, yet still started at least once. If the kid needs reps, give him reps, right? Sink or swim.

The Knicks are a .500 team (19-19) since Jack became the starting point guard. His health and play have exceeded what anyone might have hoped for; Nostradamus couldn’t have foreseen his success holding up this long. But what do the Knicks want this year? A playoff spot? The best draft pick possible? Something else entirely? If they end up winning enough games to draft, say, 12th, is squeezing the last drops of vintage Jarrett worth it?

On the other hand, is it sooo important that Frank start? He’s sixth on the team in minutes played and seventh in minutes per game. The only bench regular playing more than him is Doug McDermott. Ntilikina’s closed out some games, and even when he hasn’t, like Wednesday’s double-overtime loss to Chicago, it’s hard to argue in favor of pulling Jack when he’s putting together a wind-aided triple double.

The Knicks haven’t just been bad this century. They’ve often been an aimless trainwreck. Last season and off-season there was high drama with both Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony — not a good look for an organization in need of outside help, one that fairly or not fancies itself a free-agent destination when times are good. Step one on the path to desirability is respectability. As long as Jack plays competently and the team’s in contention for a playoff spot (currently two games out), they’re going to play to win the game.

The best hope for the start-Frank crowd is Jack going down with a serious injury and/or the Knicks performing one of their annual mid-season collapses. But sink or swim isn’t always a guarantor of success. Some rookies start 81 games, make All-Rookie first team, and never reach such heights again.

  • Remyswords asks:

“In what order do these four teams fall in terms of point guard/center future greatness in the Atlantic division - not this year, but long term, and why?”

Nets: Jahlil Okafor + D’Angelo Russell
76ers: Joel Embiid + Ben Simmons
Celtics: Kyrie Irving + LAL 2018 1st-rd pick
Knicks: KP + Frank

Great question! Three of these duos could arguably be atop these rankings. All four come with question marks. Going from most likely to achieve greatness to least likely:

1) Porzingis/Ntilikina

What? You thought on a Knick site I was gonna go with a pair of Celtics, Sixers of Nets? If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.

Porzingis is 22. He can shoot over everybody. His dribbling has improved. He’s getting to the line 50% more than a year ago despite playing similar minutes. He’s an elite rim-protector who’s also capable of containing pick-and-rolls. His health is a concern, but we knew when he entered the league it would take a few years for him to fill out enough to handle the rigors. He missed fewer games to injury his first two years than Joel Embiid has, or Patrick Ewing did. That’s not a guarantee of anything, but it is a reminder that in this age of information saturation we’re often guilty of losing sight of how much more we don’t know than we do. Give him another year or two and a coach/teammates who know how to get him some easy baskets and look out.

Ntilikina, 19, is already a literally exceptional defender. He’s grown more comfortable shooting. He’s driving more and more often. He’s a generous talent; his errors don’t come from selfishness or stupidity, but usually from deferring to older, more established teammates. His body is an unfinished symphony that should be insured by Lloyd’s of London. It’s going to be something else seeing him after a year or two of adjusting to a new team, a new work environment, a new culture, a new country. Frank is the kind of young player we’re used to seeing on other teams and thinking “We’d never have the patience or foresight to take a kid like that.” Only this time, we did.

Young? Check. Extra-long? Check. Two-way players? Check. Multi-positional? Check. Porzingis and Ntilikina could both be “the winged freak” the Joker alludes to. Both have a valid claim to “Wait’ll they get a load of me.” The blueprint for greatness is here.

2) Embiid/Simmons

Even the most dynamic duos are prone to stresses and pressures that can tear them apart. The 76ers must deal not only with the financial pressure of accumulating multiple players who’ll require nine-figure contracts to keep in the fold, or potential social/interpersonal pressures that could pull them apart, but the most important and universal of human stressors: injury.

Over this year and last, Embiid has played 61 of a possible 121 games. Even if he plays every game the rest of this season, which he won’t, that’d be 104 over two years. Porzingis, recently the subject of an article questioning his health and viability as a franchise player, played 138 his first two years. Simmons, who’s played 38 of a possible 39 games this year, has suffered elbow and ankle injuries and missed his entire first season after a Jones fracture.

Every fan base in the league would love to have Embiid and Simmons as cornerstones. For Sixer fans who endured years of tanking, it must feel like Christmas morning to watch these two marvels night after night. But there is reason for caution. Without batteries, the best gifts under the tree are reduced to good intention. Time will tell if The Process was, too.

3) Kyrie/maybe LAL’s 1st-round pick

I first saw this scene in 1992. My extremely religious parents, who cycled over the years between normal permissiveness and things like “Star Wars is a New Age conspiracy designed by the devil to damn millions of souls to the Lake of Fire,” initially refused to let me see the movie. Eventually they agreed to, under their supervision. When we got home we had to discuss the film, and in particular this scene. They didn’t understand how I didn’t understand that this scene was clearly proof of Satanic possession.

I’m not sure what the hell’s going on with all those cats. I am and always have been exceedingly afraid of feline chemicals. Absolutely paranoid. Anytime I see a litter box I’m convinced I just inhaled the spore that will one day become schizophrenia, so I’m willing to believe cats’ tongues can — nay, must turn people into super villains. Something unholy is going on in this scene.

Something unholy is going on in Boston. We don’t know if the Celtics will even end up with the Laker pick; it could go to Philadelphia. But we do. We know. It’s going to go to Boston. They’re going to draft Deandre Ayton (19) and pair him with Kyrie (25), Jayson Tatum (19) and Jaylen Brown (21). Evil will envelop us for a millennia. There is no escape. Unless Ayton ends up needing a litter box. Given Kyrie’s flat-earther status, maybe he’s already been licked one time too many.

4) Okafor/Russell

Russell had an intriguing 12-game run before arthroscopic knee surgery KO’d him for two months; those 12 games represent the pinnacle of his pro career so far. Okafor is still working himself into game shape after being Count of Monte Cristo’d by the Sixers for much of this season (and a good portion of his career to date). This commercial, while thematically related to the other clips, is so clearly lesser, in scope and ambition, so less deserving of our attention, it’s a whole other, lowly genre — a commercial. It’s pathetic. It doesn’t belong in the conversation. Same with Russell and Okafor. For a little while longer, same with the Nets.

That’s all for today, pilgrims. Stay tuned for part two next week. We’ll look at the Knicks’ future financial forecast, settle the Malta Goya vs. Malta India question once and for all, and disclose the whereabouts of your beloved Seth.