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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Frank Ntilikina

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A descent into madness trying to project French Sinatra

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Ever watch the movie Adaptation.? It star America’s national treasure, Nicolas Cage, with Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. The film centers around screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggle and inability to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a movie, while also dramatizing the novel for film. If you’re not familiar with Kaufman’s work, just watch the Community episode “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.”

Posting and Toasting does player previews every year, and it isn’t a concept unique to the website either. Blogs across the Interwebs, spanning a multitude of sports, all have concepts in previewing the upcoming season. Maybe it’s about the team as a whole from one author or maybe it’s a roundtable of multiple authors discussing a number of players. Here at the number one Knicks website in all the multiverse, we simply select players, or a group of players when we don’t have much to say on them. The two I selected were Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina.

I knew right away what I wanted to discuss about Hardaway — the importance roles have on the production and perception of a player. For French Sinatra, I had no clue. I pored over statistics, rewatched clips on NBA.com, and read articles on Ntilikina. Kaufman’s self-portrait of himself kept popping into my head. When speaking with his twin brother about how is he supposed to write a film about a flower, Kaufman rejects the suggestion to go to a screenwriting seminar. “Those teachers are dangerous if your goal is to do something new. And a writer should always have that goal. Writing is a journey into the unknown, not building a model airplane.”

That struggle to write something “new” happens internally before every article I’ve written. It’s my goal every time. But writing about the NBA on the Internet has become like building a model airplane. “Player X is or is not good at Basketball Aspect Y and here are Statistics A, B, and C and Video Clips D, E, and F as my supporting evidence.” Or the topic shifts to, “Player X or Team Y is actually overrated or underrated in Basketball Aspect Z and here are Statistics A, B, and C and Video Clips D, E, and F as my supporting evidence.”

When doing a preview on Frank Ntilikina, do I sell out and hit the reader with the standards from last season? Did you know that Ntilikina was in the 90th percentile in pick-and-roll ball handler defense, limiting opponents to 0.65 points per possession? His defense was truly elite last season as outlined in this video, and this video, and this video, and this video. Did you know that Ntilikina shot 36.4 percent from the floor and was not aggressive on offense? He cannot be a full-time point guard if he cannot be both aggressive and somewhat of a scoring threat.

Or do I take the same concept of the regurgitated takes and cook them up differently? Did you know that Frank Ntilikina was ranked 24th in defensive RAPM, posting a 1.85 figure? Did you know that Ntilikina averaged only 4.5 drives per game, shooting only 38 percent? Of rookies who played in at least 20 games last season, Frank’s shooting percentage on drives ranks 47th of 62 players. Did you also know that Frank took a lot of long twos? He took 84 two-pointers from more than 18 feet out and made only 36.9 percent of them.

By comparison, DeMar “Maestro of the Midrange” DeRozan took 118 two-point shots greater than 18 feet last season and James Harden took only 20 of those long two-pointers.

Oh, let’s not forget the irrational, ill-informed hot-take/gas-baggery approach to writing. Really sell out for clicks; give a clickbait headline with awful, out-of-context statistics to really get the readers riled up with emotions to generate a polarizing, useless discussion. I should take the approach of framing the article to demonstrate that Frank Ntilikina was a Phil Jackson pick in order to play the Triangle. And since Phil isn’t here and the Triangle absolutely does not exist in any aspect of the modern NBA, Frank will never be as good in five years as the guard New York passed on in Dennis Smith Jr. Did you know that Smith averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game while Ntilikina only averaged 5.9 points and 3.2 assists? Appalling!

The other path to clicks is to be a homer and also take statistics out of context to paint a more positive picture without ever discussing any flaws. Frank Ntilikina made more two-point and three-point field goals, generated more assists, and had the same defensive win shares as Giannis Antetokounmpo in his rookie season. If you don’t think that Ntilikina has the same exact upside and career trajectory as The Greek Freak, well, you’re just a hater and not a true Knicks fan.

None of these approaches are new or fresh, and the latter two are the worst type of article/blog post. The first two aren’t bad options given the landscape of NBA writing, but I want to be different and stand out. I want to take on a challenge like Kaufman by writing a screenplay about how flowers are amazing. I want to be able to preview and project Ntilikina this upcoming season without hitting all the tropes of a stereotypical preview article. Aren’t preview articles just season review articles but with a different tone and minor changes in the narrative? Ugh, now I’m really getting into my own head.

Not only did I get into my own head, I have inserted myself into the article. It’s self-indulgent. It’s narcissistic. It’s solipsistic. It’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. I’m fat and pathetic. But that’s it. That’s the approach! Do an article that’s an homage to a movie that’s about a writer inserting himself into the screenplay because of writer’s block by inserting myself into the article because I have writer’s block. It’s meta, it’s weird, and it certainly has a high chance of flopping. But it certainly is new, different, and risky. If I’m not willing to take a risk and just be a cookie-cutter blogger, then I shouldn’t be writing.

The approach is simple: begin by briefly mentioning Adaptation. Then discuss my writer’s block in figuring out how to discuss Ntilikina by sympathizing with Kaufman, followed by examining tropes in NBA writing with Ntilikina factoids sprinkled in. I then reach the point where I realized what I’ve done to discover the article’s approach.

We’ve come full circle now. I am Ouroboros; I need to do an ending. What is my ending? How do I write this?

Every writer has their own voice. Bill Simmons was the guy who spoke from a fan’s perspective and added jokes and pop-culture references. Zach Lowe examines film, stats, and praises a fan-favorite role player to create the appearance that he watches all the games. NBA Twitter wants to convince you that Sean Marks is a genius and Nikola Jokic is actually good at defense. For me, it’s contextualizing key statistics and speaking to what I know.

Here is the thing about Frank Ntilikina: I don’t know how he’s going to perform next year. With a new coach who doesn’t believe much in positions and is taking a different approach with Ntilikina, I’m going to need to see Fizdale’s offense and rotations as well as seeing if Ntilikina worked on his weaknesses. His shot profile was awful, posting a team-worst 40.5 zone true shooting percentage. He clearly needs to stop taking those long midrange shots just inside the three-point line.

Ntilikina also isn’t the first rookie to have a woeful offensive first season. Since the 2008–09 season, rookie guards and forwards — I’m including forwards on the off chance that The French Prince becomes a forward with point guards skills since he did grow and gain weight year-over-year — there have been 89 rookies who played at least 30 games and had an offensive box plus-minus of less than -3.4 (Frank’s rounded up figure is -3.5). Proming names such as Draymond Green, Gary Harris, Dejounte Murray (he’s a lot like Frank), Will Barton, and Otto Porter appear on this list, all whom have improved significantly since their rookie seasons. Then there are less promising names like Knicks legend Tony Wroten, Xavier Henry, K.J. McDaniels, and Anthony Bennett.

Do dive in a bit further into these adjusted plus-minus numbers, below is a sample of rookies who had a -1.65 offensive RAPM in their rookie season (Frank had a -1.65). The full Tableau dashboard is here, but I decided to snip out the players who intrigue me the most. The cutoff season for rookies is the 2014–15 season in order to show multiple years of single-season offensive RAPM.

Kemba Walker? Victor Oladipo? Gary Harris again? Boris Diaw?! Those are some promising names. Then again, there are also names such as Xavier Henry making another appearance, so there is pause for concern. What if Frank is just Evan Turner with a slightly better jumper?

This isn’t to say that Ntilikina will become the next Kemba Walker or Victor Oladipo or Draymond Green, but rather illustrate that growth and improvement is possible. Could Ntilikina also just “flames out” and is simply a role player off the bench who comes in for defense and secondary playmaking? Yes, that’s possible too. Honestly, I just don’t know how to project French Sinatra, really.

And not knowing is perfectly fine. There isn’t enough evidence to make an educated assessment. What I do know is the following: We shouldn’t come to conclusions based on a rookie season, and success for year two is a combination of improvements on weaknesses without a noticeable decline in strengths. If Ntilikina can raise his zone true shooting percentage, attack the basket at a higher rate, improve his handles, and at least maintain his defensive impact, then this 2018–19 season will be deemed a success. Once we see the magnitude of his improvement, then we can begin better projecting his future.

Let’s just wait and see.

- This article is dedicated to and co-written by Doug Steele