Phil Jackson selected Frank Ntilikina 8th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. Ntilikina was viewed by many as a player picked specifically by Jackson to further his vision of fully immersing the Knicks into the Triangle moving forward.
Six days later, the Knicks chose to part ways with Jackson as president of basketball operations.
In the aftermath of Big Chief Triangle’s sudden dismissal, there was much angst among the fanbase and a cascade #lolKnicks takes emanating from local and mainstream media over the Knicks’ choice to take the jumbo sized guard from Strasbourg over Dennis Smith Jr., a dynamo point guard out of NC State whom the Dallas Mavericks selected immediately after.
Note: contrary to revisionist history, there was almost zero criticism for the Knicks passing on Donovan Mitchell, you know, a guy who was actually good as a rookie.
Ntilikina’s entry into NBA life didn’t quiet the noise either. An injury he suffered in the LNB Pro A playoffs in France held him out of Summer League. Yet another injury held him out of the majority of preseason and two of the Knicks’ first three regular season games.
After an 0-3 start, in which Ntilikina barely stepped foot on the floor, he made his full debut against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden. The rookie didn’t disappoint either.
Through the first few months of the season the French Prince made key contributions as the Knicks played well above expectations through December. There was a notable performance in a huge comeback victory over the Indiana Pacers.
He stood his ground against LeBron James after the wannabe G.O.A.T. threw shade at him prior to the game then tried to punk him after a dunk.
He even gave Knicks fans an early Christmas gift, locking Kyrie Irving up down the stretch of a December victory over the Celtics.
However, like the rest of the team, Ntilikina struggled once the clock turned to 2018. His deficiencies as a ball handler limited his creativity off the dribble, and generally just hitting shots became increasingly problematic. In 24 games during January and February, Ntilikina shot just 33% from the field, averaging just 4.3 points, 2.7 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.9 turnovers in 18.4 minutes per game.
Over those two months Ntilikina struggled with his own confidence and hurt the team with his inability to effectively get the team into sets in timely fashion. He wasn’t helped by Jeff Hornacek’s unimaginative coaching, but, like many rookies, the grind of the NBA season along with teams becoming more familiar with his strengths and weaknesses resulted in a very real regression in his performance.
Two especially frustrating tendencies were a failure to capitalize on opportunities to drive and picking up his dribble for no reason early in the clock.
Possessions like this routinely occurred and led to empty possessions or turnover frequently when he doesn’t get bailed out by a foolish foul as happens here.
36/32/72 splits from the field aren’t going to get it done in any era of the NBA either. Most certainly not one which places such high importance on primary and secondary ball handlers like today’s league.
There were still positives from his offensive play. He demonstrated a nice feel in making pocket passes to the roll man in pick-and-roll.
He flashed some advanced playmaking, hitting the opposite corner shooter out of high pick-and-roll.
These are the type of passes elite playmakers like James Harden and LeBron James make routinely.
Following the All-Star break, Ntilikina often played more as a combo guard in lineups alongside either Trey Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay. This move, whether it helped free him up by alleviating him of sole responsibility for guiding the team offensively, gave him a needed kick in the ass, or was simply the result of Ntilikina finding his legs again, seemed to reinvigorate him.
In the last 22 games of the season Ntilikina shot a “robust” 38.3% from the field, averaging 7.7 points per game, 3.3 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 turnovers in 26.4 minutes per game.
There’s also the neverending questions over what his “real” position is.
Is he a point guard?
An off-ball 2?
When you’re 6’5”, and growing, with a 7 foot wingspan, does it matter? In the “positionless basketball” NBA, which places a premium on players versatile enough to switch across multiple positions in the end game, Ntilikina’s value is much safer and less of a gambit than many believe. His defensive ability is a steady rock only likely to improve as he grows into his body and is able to defend more positions with regularity.
As it is, the Knicks already experimented with him defending 3’s like Otto Porter and ball-handling power forward phenoms like Ben Simmons last year. The Frenchman, even with his size disadvantage and underdeveloped body — something which is rapidly changing — held his own against bigger players routinely, his freakish length proving to be an effective deterrent.
If all Ntilikina ever becomes is a better shooter from beyond the arc, he’d still fit into the rotation for any team in the league. If he can improve his ball handling and slashing to develop into a secondary or tertiary playmaker, he has the frame to defend wings alongside a more natural point guard without conceding a size mismatch. If he realizes his full potential and develops into a primary ball handler capable of orchestrating a team’s offense at a high level, then he gives the Knicks a very unique defensive advantage at the point of attack.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Ntilikina is very far away from becoming even an average offensive player, let alone one with positive value. He has shown potential for plus playmaking, but his reticence to take matters into his own hands was a constant hindrance.
The force with which he plays defensively must carry over to the offensive end of the floor. He too often plays like a passive observer rather than an active participant.
Primary, hell, even secondary ball handlers must look to create far more often than he did, even when attempting to play within the framework and flow of an offense. It’s the way of the world and the precocious neophyte must adjust, something new head coach David Fizdale has vowed to make a priority.
Luckily, for once, the Knicks have management in place who seem willing to be patient in building this team up with homegrown talent without chasing quick fixes.
Ntilikina has time — he'll still be just the 19th-youngest player in the league this year — and will have opportunities to prove himself this season. We already know he can defend. It’s up to him to continue to develop and prove he can be more than just a specialist for a team desperate for high-end, two-way talent moving forward.