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Examining Frank Ntilikina’s role with the Knicks

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Where he can improve, where he’s dominant, and how to use him.

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Bonjour! With the All-Star break in our rear view mirror and the figurative white flag waving proudly atop Madison Square Garden in the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending knee inury, Knicks fans will finally get a good, hard look at the young talent on the team. Among those young guns is the Knicks’ very own 2017 lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina.

To this point, we’ve seen Ntilikina average about 20 minutes per game. From day one, it was clear that he was able to defend at the NBA level with success. Offensively, the progress has been much slower, but with 50+ games now under his belt, the foreshadowing of a heavier workload, and a perhaps misguided attempt to experiment with minutes at shooting guard and small forward, it’s imperative that we deep-dive into the game of Frank Ntilikina.

The most troubling developments for Ntilikina’s future, in my opinion, come in the form of his heavy minutes away from the point guard position. The ramifications of playing Frank at shooting guard or small forward might seem minimal, especially with a budding resurgence from Trey Burke and their positive sample of shared time on the floor, but Ntilikina’s ability to switch seamlessly from 1-3 (and often times 4) is a quality that simply cannot be taught. Even when tasked with defending a center on a switch, Ntilikina will give the Knicks a great chance at preventing a bucket on any one given possession.

That isn’t to say that playing Ntilikina at the 2 or 3 is a disaster for a few possessions, that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s concerning to see the sharp rise in this trend since the All-Star break. Over the last two games, Ntilikina has played 56% of his minutes at shooting guard or small forward, per Basketball-Reference. Compare that to just 11% before the break.

Why does this matter so much? When Ntilikina defends the pick-and-roll ball-handler, opposing offenses score only .6 points per possession, putting him in the 91st percentile across the NBA and ranking him 5th among point guards. Considering that statistic, the Knicks would see much of his impact as a defender go to waste as nearly every pick-and-roll in the current NBA involves the point guard on offense. Frank defends like a veteran at times and seems well-versed on the strengths and weaknesses of opposing point guards, sinking below on screens for guys like Rondo or Ulis and staying attached to more competent shooters like Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry.

Make no mistake, Ntilikina is no slouch when defending off the ball. His oft-talked about seven-foot wingspan allows him to swipe away routine dribbles, slide into passing lanes, and deflect shots that a normal point guard wouldn’t be able to defend. As a defender, he has the potential to be flat out special, and you could argue that he’s already earned that distinction.

Ntilikina has more tools in his arsenal than just a rangy body with some athleticism. If anything, his athleticism is his most pedestrian trait. Ntilikina does play with physicality, but he also routinely reads screens and opposing players to beat them to their spot.

A lost art in defending in the modern NBA, Ntilikina habitually bumps cutters who come through the lane and into his proximity. This simple trick is not only one that you wouldn’t expect from a 19-year-old, but it’s a great tool to disrupt the rhythm of a cutting offensive player or a rolling big man.

From an offensive perspective, playing Ntilikina off the ball looks to negatively affect his already thin source of scoring opportunities. At point guard, Ntilikina’s size, effortless strides, silky pull-ups, and passing ability are all advantages for him, though he’s clearly struggled with turnovers (more on that later). Ntilikina is the first point guard in a decade to have 11 assists in a game, which may speak less to his abilities and more to the quality of his predecessors, but Ntilikina is no doubt a pass-first point guard. Frank’s vision is above average, and utilizing him as a decision maker should certainly be a goal for the Knicks’ future, especially as turnovers are curbed.

One of the early criticisms of Ntilikina was the slower, measured pace at which he played. While the speed of the game can be a huge adjustment for rookies, Ntilikina has certainly gotten into a better habit of pushing the ball with a more modern NBA pace.

Though Ntilikina hasn’t been a great shot-creator to this point, his game does show flashes of creation potential. 42% of Ntilikina’s offensive possessions are in the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler and only 4.8% come from isolation. Of those isolation plays, Ntilikina scores only .5 points per possession which is in the bottom fifth percentile.

Though he’s not the fastest point guard in the league, he still has very distinct advantages against opposing centers, power forwards, and even small forwards when coming off a screen with fervor. Something else that’s noteworthy: Ntilikina’s box plus/minus is -2.4 when shooting five shots or less. When shooting six or more shots, there’s nearly a three point positive swing to +0.3.

Although Ntilikina did see a bit of a slump before the All-Star break — a Mauvais quart d’heure, if you will — Jeremy Cohen pointed out a few uplifting stats on Twitter to combat the indictment of the Frenchman’s “rookie wall.” Among those statistics, Cohen points out that since December 3rd, Ntilikina is shooting about 40% from deep; a number that, coupled with video and analysis, seems closer to reality than the early season struggles from beyond the arc for a 19-year-old rookie in the NBA.

Why else might the Knicks want to keep Ntilikina at point guard offensively? Ntilikina is shooting 46% on pull-up 2’s and 50% on pull-up 3’s, per NBA.com. By contrast, Ntilikina is shooting 31% on catch-and-shoot 2’s and 40% on catch-and-shoot 3’s. Having the ball in Ntilikina’s hands, for the time being, generally results in more efficient shots.

Ntilikina certainly looks most comfortable pulling up off the dribble at this point, and it could even be part of the reason he drew some Tony Parker comparisons early on (coupled with inherently lazy player comparisons and his French heritage).

Frank could certainly improve his pull-up jumper when going left, but his shot selection could also use a little work. We saw far too many toe-on-the-line 2’s to be comfortable with, and with an increased role potentially coming his way, Frank should certainly tweak this habit for the sake of efficiency.

As much as Knicks fans want Ntilikina to stay on the floor and get the minutes they feel his play has justified, his proclivity for turnovers is certainly an argument for naysayers. Rookies are expected to struggle with turnovers, but many of Ntilikina’s seem avoidable, to say the least.

Aside from carelessness with the ball, Ntilikina’s lack of aggression on offense has translated to turnovers as well.

Ntilikina’s rookie learning curve is noticeable, but minimal. Outside of turnovers, he’s already shown that his mistakes are generally outliers. Still, the room to grow shows an even greater potential for Ntilikina as he’s got so much to learn with an already great set of skills.

On January 15th against the Nets, Ntilikina had 10 points, 10 assists, and seven rounds in 29 minutes of action (the third most minutes he has played for the season). Ntilikina would have become the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double (by a lot). By comparison, let’s look at the top-10 youngest players to ever record a triple-double in the NBA and their minutes per game during that season. Ironically enough, Lonzo Ball became the youngest player just this season to record a triple double, he is averaging 34 minutes per game. Others in the top 10 include Lebron James (2005, 42.4 MPG!), Lamar Odom (1999, 36 MPG), John Wall (2010, 38 MPG), Magic Johnson (1979, 36 MPG), and Russell Westbrook (2009, 32.5 MPG).

To put this into perspective, every player on this list averaged at least 32 minutes per game for the season which they recorded their triple double. Ntilikina hasn’t reached 32 minutes in a single game this year. Not once.

The advanced stats are kind to Ntilikina. When he’s on the floor, Knicks opponents slow down dramatically in transition and shoot a lower percentage from 3 (and less frequently). Additionally, the Knicks shoot almost 3% better from deep when Ntilikina is on the floor and shoot them more frequently, per Cleaning the Glass.

Of course Ntilikina committed ill-advised fouls and has turned the ball over a lot, he’s a first-year teenager in the NBA playing against guys like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. When I was 19, I probably couldn’t spell my own name right and I would skip college classes to watch YouTube videos of children unexpectedly vomiting.

Ntilikina is already a more advanced defender than the bulk of the league, and any area of concern for his game has either a justifiable explanation or shows trends toward improving. One thing that should remain consistent through the end of the season is his role. Ntilikina’s minutes have fluctuated considerably at times, and while it looks like that inconsistency could be coming to an end, more positional inconsistencies could be close behind. Going forward, Ntilikina’s future success in leading the Knicks could be largely affected by the positions he’s put in on the floor, both figuratively and literally.