It’s nice that the Knicks seem to have noticed Frank Ntilikina’s latest stretch of hounding defensive play mixed with a dose of offensive potential, but the 21-year-old has been displaying the same doggedness since day one and it’s about time the franchise started nurturing his confidence instead of stifling it.
The Knicks, in case you weren’t aware, view themselves as a group of dogs this year. Unfortunately, for most of the season, the players have looked more like pugs than pit bulls. Sure, a few games could have easily gone the other way — three of the team’s losses have been by five points or less while most of the others have been embarrassing blowouts — but the simple fact is that the Knicks are 4-10.
Although the Knicks have failed to consistently put together complete games this year, the Ntilikina narrative recently started to shift in the direction of “Hey, maybe it’s good when this guy is on the court.” Which is really all anyone in his corner has been trying to say.
The positive vibes materialized after Ntilikina’s masterpiece in Dallas resulted in the conquest of Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavericks, a game in which the Frenchman put up 14 points (5-12 shooting, 4-5 from three), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks.
Most importantly, he did what needed to be done by trying to posterize his large Latvian adversary. The dunk may have failed, but the brief belief that existed as Ntilikina rose off the floor served as a reminder that real feelings do exist.
FRANK NTILIKINA ESSAYE DE POSTER KRISTAPS PORZINGIS— Rinavia (@Rinavia6) November 9, 2019
(Y'a absolument pas faute) pic.twitter.com/FFTHd90t6o
After the finest all-around performance of Ntilikina’s career to date, it wasn’t long before David Fizdale was recounting how the third year guard recently marched into his office to reveal that he, like his teammates, is a dog.
David Fizdale says that Frank Ntilikina came up to him recently and expressed confidence in his game.— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) November 15, 2019
Frank: "I feel like I finally understand what the NBA is about. I know I haven't shown it yet, but I'm a dog too" pic.twitter.com/YHMCceSW6i
Here’s the thing: Frank has always been a dog. It’s just that both of the coaches he’s played under — first Jeff Hornacek and now Fizdale — provided him with the shortest imaginable leash. At times, they even locked him in the kennel for no good reason.
Taking it back to the beginning to sort out how we got here
Ntilikina was still a teenager when the Knicks selected him eighth overall in the 2017 NBA draft, and he’s had to fight tooth and claw for almost every minute he’s played since, despite displaying obvious defensive prowess from the get-go and teasing the potential for at least adequate offensive abilities.
If you want to get more specific, in the two-plus years Ntilikina has been a Knick, the team has tried starting at least eight other players at the point guard position: Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kadeem Allen, Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, and Allonzo Trier.
In his rookie season, the lottery pick didn’t play more than 25 minutes in consecutive contests until December. He was only in the starting lineup 16 total times, and his first start didn’t come until March. On the surface, that could be excusable for a 19-year-old. But Ntilikina’s defensive knack stood out early, including the time he amassed 6 steals against Cleveland Cavaliers when he became the Monsieur of MSG by refusing to be pushed around by LeBron James.
Once Ntilikina finally started getting some consistent time, his stat sheets started slowly filling up. In December of his rookie year, he averaged 7.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals in 24.2 minutes per game. On January 15th of that year, he completed his first career double-double in a 15-point beatdown of the Brooklyn Nets, notching 10 points, 7 boards, 10 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks in just over 28 minutes of action.
In the nine games Ntilikina played 30 or more minutes in his rookie season, he averaged almost 11 points, just over 3 rebounds, nearly 5 assists and a little over 1 steal per game. For a guy projected to be a long-term project, his impact was pretty impressive. It’s no wonder people were anticipating a jump in year two.
Exploring why he suffered a setback in his sophomore season
To be frank, Ntilikina’s second season was a nightmare. With Hornacek out of the picture, some believed the French Prince would take his rightful place in the starting lineup. Those people were right, kind of. One of Fizdale’s first major decisions at the helm was to start Ntilikina… at small forward.
Ntilikina started the first 14 games of the season, only a few of which saw him play small forward, before being replaced in the lineup by Mudiay, who Fiz famously wanted to "get right.” Once his second season began sputtering, it never got back on track.
After being yanked out of the starting lineup, Ntilikina played 25 minutes or more just three times in the 21 games leading up to a Christmas Day showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks. He received four DNPs in 2018-19, including on Christmas when his mother was in town.
Despite the nonstop tumult of his second year, Ntilikina remained ready for opportunities, and when he finally got them he did his best to capitalize. In the middle of the year, after three straight DNPs, Fizdale timidly handed Ntilikina some minutes and he put forth three consecutive strong showings.
First, in 15 second half minutes off the bench he scored 7 points on 3-6 shooting against the Brooklyn Nets. Then, he put up 18 against the Charlotte Hornets on 7-11 shooting in 20 second half minutes. Finally, Fizdale played him in the first half, and Ntilikina posted 16 points on 6-13 from the floor in just over 23 total minutes against the Cavs.
A little over a month later, after a 15-game stretch in which Ntilikina typically received less than 20 minutes per game, injury was added to insult. A groin issue caused him to miss 24 games between January and March, and soon trade rumors began sprouting like dandelions.
Overall, Ntilikina played 30 minutes or more only eight times in his second year. His field goal percentages were poor (34 percent from the field, 29 percent from beyond the arc), but the roster was much different than the prior season and the Knicks didn’t have a bonafide go-to guy, so the shooting struggles overshadowed Ntilikina’s other contributions.
Were Frank’s struggles due to a lack of confidence? Or was his lack of confidence due to the Knicks showing no confidence in Frank?
How Ntilikina got his groove back
Ntilikina played a major role for Team France during the FIBA World Cup in China over the summer. He got serious attention after helping lock up Kemba Walker en route to a stunning victory over Team USA in the Quarter-Finals, and ultimately France received the bronze medal with a third place finish.
With that momentum at his back, Ntilikina was primed for a potential breakout campaign in his third year in the NBA. Until the season started, that is.
Ntilikina played only three minutes off the bench in the season opener against the San Antonio Spurs, then didn’t play at all in the second game of the year against the Nets. He got on the floor for only 18 seconds in game three against the Boston Celtics. He finally got some time against the Chicago Bulls, but shot 0-6 from the field so his performance was an abject failure no questions asked.
In the sixth game of the season, Ntilikina was finally inserted into the starting lineup. Since then, he’s gotten consistent minutes. In the nine straight games he’s started at point guard — which, to be clear, only even happened because Smith Jr. and Payton missed extended time — Ntilikina is averaging 7 points (40 percent from the field, 38 percent from deep), 3 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocks in almost 31 minutes per game. He’s posted double digit points in three of those games.
His offense might be coming along, and in time he could be a 10 points per game guy. But it’s his defense and intangibles that are most powerful.
Per @bball_ref: Full list of players for 19-20 who play 20 mpg+, have STL% of 2.5+, and have BLK% of 2.5+— Spencer (@SKPearlman) November 15, 2019
Kawhi Leonard (3 STL, 2.8 BLK)
Robert Covington (2.5 STL, 3.3 BLK)
Frank Ntilikina (2.9 STL, 3.3 BLK)@NYKFilmSchool @JCMacriNBA @IanBegley @MikeVorkunov @ptknicksblog
The recent heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Hornets is Exhibit A for how Ntilikina’s contributions can go unnoticed. He put up a pretty standard stat line, with 6 points (2-7 shooting, 0-2 from three), 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals in a team-high 36 minutes of action. He was also the primary defender on Devonte’ Graham’s game-winning trifecta, and after the buzzer Ntilikina shouldered the blame, saying “if he scored, then I think I can do a better job.”
Someone who only saw the highlights might think Ntilikina had a net negative of a night, seeing as he was on the court a whole bunch but barely scored any points, and had the game-winning three sunk in his face.
They wouldn’t realize this:
During the third quarter, Ntilikina was on the floor as the Knicks’ lead swelled to as much as 15. With 4:45 remaining in the period, the Knicks were up 71-58 when Ntilikina committed his third foul of the game and was taken out for DSJ. The team’s defense faltered without the wily Frenchman, and by the time he returned to the game, roughly three and a half minutes later with 1:12 remaining in the third, the 13-point lead had been whittled down to three.
This type of situation is not all that uncommon, as the numbers bear out.
Knicks have a -1.2 net rating with Frank on the court (not THAT bad!)— Joseph Flynn (@ChinaJoeFlynn) November 19, 2019
And a -12.2 net rating with Frank off the court (quite bad!)
The Knicks are often more composed when Ntilikina is on the court. Smith Jr. is now back and Payton could return any day now, but the Knicks need to keep Ntilikina in the rotation. He should start, even if alongside one of the other point guards. At this point, his role should be secure and his minutes consistent. Frank’s a dog, and he always has been. The Knicks are just finally starting to notice.