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P&T film study: Breaking down Frank Ntilikina’s layups (and how to improve them)

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An in-depth look at one of Frank’s biggest weaknesses

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Hi, I’m Prez. You may know me from my greatest hits such as thousand-word post game comments, armchair draft analysis in November that no one cares about, or my first comment on this blog in 2007 comments taking offense to Marc Stein saying those Knicks were worse than rookie Durant’s SUPERSONICS*. I’m here to talk about Frank Ntilikina.

*Let the record show the Knicks won 23 games and the Sonics won 20. Suck it, Stein.

By the end of this, you’ll know why this layup annoys me despite being pretty objectively awesome.

Our boy Frank has a lot to work on. This is known. Drafted as a project and, yes, playing like one, should not have surprised anyone. I’m a big Frank fan, and still think he’s our best point guard right now, but he has some major issues that we need to talk about: namely, layups. I watch him and wonder how anyone can be an NBA guard and so consistently fail at executing what is the most basic, fundamental basketball move. Guys routinely come into the league and struggle with scoring and efficiency, but not usually with layups!

Per NBA.com, he is shooting 38 percent on drives this season, and shot 38 percent on them last season. On NBA.com’s shot zones, he shoots 41 percent around the rim (50 percent last year). League average for shot zones around the rim is 57 percent, and if you factor in bigs, you can probably back-of-the-napkin guess that an average for guards would be a few percentage points lower. A quick unscientific perusal of other guards that stuck out to me as inefficient (your Mudiays, Rivers, Bradleys, Sextons, Clarksons, Rubios, etc.) shows that they tend to fall from the low-to-mid 40s to around 55 percent. Frank and Avery Bradley were the only ones below 45 of the many that I searched; Sexton was at 45 exactly.

According to Basketball-Reference, Frank is shooting 52% from 0-3 feet this year (60% last year). I looked in a few other questionable free databases (what in seven hells is basketballminer dot com?) that pretty much all mirrored the trending results of “bad-at-the-rim last year, horrific this year.” For what it’s worth, he also shot 52 percent at the rim in Europe, according to a 2017 DraftExpress profile (Ed. note: RIP DraftExpress). The only good number in the bunch was that 60 percent B-Ref had last year. I know we often fall into optimistic tendencies regarding our son, but I would definitely not let that one good number fool you here. I really can’t emphasize enough how rough Frank’s numbers look, even among this group of inefficient guards, all of whom are shorter than him. He’s also bad for his age.

We can safely assume from these numbers (and from the tape, as you’ll see) that the French Press is indeed buns at bunnies. For what it’s worth, you can click here to watch all of his shots inside 9 feet on the season, if you read this and think I just cherry-picked clips.

So... why does Frank stink at layups?

Anecdotally, I have found that poor finishing numbers are usually due to a player taking (proportionally) large amounts of tough shots at the rim. The bad news is that it seems like most of the players who begin their career shitty at this do not get better. The good news is, most of the people who are shitty at this are not 6-foot-7 with wingspans rivaling mid-fight Kamala Khan. So why do different guys put up bad numbers close to the hoop? The reasons for that depend on the player, and could vary greatly:

  • Some small guards don’t have the explosiveness or length to get easy shots often, resulting in rough numbers at the rim. Instead, they have to take tough finesse shots all the time. A lot of these guys either never stop taking these hard shots (looking at you, Trey Burke) and never develop the combo of judiciousness and improved finesse around the hoop needed to overcome being shorter and less bouncy.
  • Some explosive players and/or taller guys basically went through high school dunking on everyone and never really developed touch, and thus struggle when explosiveness alone isn’t enough. This is essentially what happened to Mudiay — even though he’s not a particularly explosive athlete vertically, he was always a bigger, stronger guard and never really learned what to do when he faced bigger, stronger guys. Iman Shumpert during his Knicks tenure famously was a disaster in transition despite his G.I. Joe physique and dunk-contest hops. In fairness, it should be noted that later in his career (mid-20s) his effectiveness at the rim improved a bit even as his athleticism waned post-ACL surgery.
  • Sometimes younger players lack the ball skills to create layups often, often being able to make one move or one dribble before they are “stuck” with only bad layup options. Kevin Knox is like this. He can’t quite get that second or third dribble move to the rim yet so he is happy to chuck floaters anywhere from five to 15 feet. We see a player like Kevin (or Frank!) make some floaters and are often impressed by the touch, but without a steady diet of both open and contested layups (and dunks!) the result is low FG% on drives or at the rim, because the floater is inherently very difficult.
  • Some players without hops just never become good at finishing. They never develop the muscle memory, the skill, the touch, or the physicality. Ricky Rubio has great ball skills, isn’t that short, and has decent length, but that guy just has no hops and sucks at layups, period. He doesn’t get easy ones and he doesn’t make hard ones. Chauncey Billups always was a poor finisher as well. You can still be an effective point guard, but it is a lot harder — especially in today’s game — to thrive without that.

The team matters too, of course. Many players have their poor finishing numbers exacerbated by a lack of easy buckets at the rim — transition dunks and backdoor cuts, to choose two examples which are as rare as Cam Reddish shooting over 50 percent for a game (don’t debate me, debate ya moms). It is much easier to find uncontested layups when the defense is bending and warping, worried about some other all stars or floor spacers.

So... which of these issues plagues our young frenchmen? Are they fixable? Let’s go to the tape! For each bit that follows, I will show an example of what Frank does now, and then show another player who is also wing-sized and similarly athletic doing what he should do.

Explosiveness

Frank is 6 ft 7 with a 7 ft wingspan. If the guy stretches his arm he’s practically at the rim already! You would almost certainly fail to find another player with similar measurables who has, at ANY point in their career, been similarly bad at the rim. One reason for that is Frank has terrible explosiveness. Let’s not sugar coat it. Even on his dunks he doesn’t get far off the ground. Look at this screengrab from the most memorable of his dunks this year over his fellow frenchman Rudy Gobert:

Franky’s head is below the net! On a layup that’s normal, but a dunk? Luckily he has go-go-gadget arms.

Frank is not totally non-athletic in the functional sense — he moves quickly laterally, and has successfully stymied post-ups from the likes of Julius Randle and Dirk Nowitzki. But vertically, he is as ground-bound as any NBA player not named Enes Kanter. He is not even average. He has the bounce of a Tom Brady-deflated football. There’s not really a way for Frank to fix this aside from just getting stronger and improving his whole body. Noah Vonleh improved his vert 2-3 inches by working at P3 in Santa Barbara over the summer doing biomechanics work. Just gotta hope Frank does something similar as he grows into his adult body!

Avoiding contact

Frank is a skinny guy who does not quite realize how to use his size on offense. We can count the instances of him bodying someone on the way to the rim on one hand. He is easily pushed off his driving lane by Justise Winslow on this transition drive:

Winslow is a strong dude, so that’s not a crazy indictment of Frank, but I also recall (couldn’t find a clip because it didn’t result in a shot or turnover or anything) him giving Doug McDermott a lovetap on a drive and it not moving Doug at all, for example.

He also prefers to not try forcing contact, often favoring a slow and hesitant spin move that usually ends in a fadeaway hitting the front rim or a soft not-quite-layup-not-quite-floater:

Sometimes he’ll avoid contact altogether in favor of tougher shots:

I’d like to see him just straight up crash a party, even at the risk of turning it over — this is something our former shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. added to his bag this year. The best move for him to add is something used by many, but probably best utilized by Goran Dragic. Goran is very fast and deceptively strong, but he can’t really jump... Frank could easily add this move and its variations to his bag:

We have seen Frank body guys a bit more the last few weeks, to his credit. Frank has embraced contact and risked blocks more of late, and on the season as a whole he has been a bit more aggressive than last year.

Baby steps!

Weird jumps

Have you ever noticed that Frank has a habit of jumping from the dotted line? That’s a bit far unless you’re a high flyer:

Some of them go in, but the far jump without hops results in a weird scoop that is easily defended/blocked. You won’t see shots like that from 90 percent of players because it’s not a good shot.

This is an in-between shot. If you’re gonna shoot a floater, float it — instead, this is like when you press the layup button from too far in 2K, but IRL.

Like I said, even the makes are awkward and probably inadvisable shots:

When you jump from that far and you don’t make it to the rim, you, by definition, have to unload a scoop shot, a floater, a baby hook, or some other low percentage “long distance layup.” For a player with Frank’s size, even with his lack of hops, if he takes one more dribble he’s long enough to either make contact with someone or get to the rim. Once he becomes comfortable doing that, we’ll see some progress for sure.

Have you ever noticed that Frank loooves taking right-hand layups jumping off his right foot? When it works, it looks really cool:

But more often than not, he does this to get a quicker shot off rather than taking one more dribble and going off his stronger foot. It’s another way to avoid contact — by theoretically catching the defender off-guard and changing the timing on your move. Sometimes there is a good reason to get a quicker shot off...like, say, Joel Embiid waiting for you. But most of the time, it’s probably not needed. Especially if you are tall. For example, one of the clips below is a layup vs Nene -- he’s not really a shot blocking threat at this point in his career. The fancy footwork was probably not needed.

Jumping off your weak foot is hard for most players and often generates significantly less power. It can be a bit of a paradox, because it requires more strength to do well consistently, but stronger guys don’t need to do it. It’s not that it can’t work — Mike Conley is amazing at it — but it’s pretty tough.

Cutting, transition, and semi-transition

I’m skipping the video for this part, but Frank has tried cuts here and there with mixed success. If a kid like Frank is doing backdoor cuts, then you don’t nitpick — those will almost always catch the defense sleeping and are great ideas, even if it ends up in a miss. These layups are often less contested, as the defense is by definition being warped either by the cut or by the transition. Tom Piccolo of B-Ball Index wrote that per their proprietary system, the Knicks ranked dead last in the NBA in points off cuts. That’s partially an indictment of the lack of passers, but also speaks to both the quantity and quality of our cuts. It also speaks to the Knicks’ lack of shooters. If a defender isn’t worried about your shot, he can sag off and better defend a cut.

The same is also true of transition — the Knicks don’t really get out in transition too much. Their pace is middle-of-the-pack, and transition layups are few and far between. More of them would be a boon — hopefully Fiz’s recent run of playing faster, smaller lineups results in more of that. Frank isn’t a Shump-level disaster in the open court or anything, but I fully expect him to be competent there should he get more chances.

Missing bunnies

Not much to say here: just gotta make the easy ones. In the NBA, you absolutely have to make the high percentage shot. This will come with experience, hopefully. Frank wasn’t really taking many of these in France when he played with adults, so I’m just gonna hope he needs more reps, more strength training, etc. The alternative is he has Jared Jeffries hands forever, so hopefully that isn’t the case.

Final verdict

This was a whole lotta words to say something even casual Knicks fans know:

Frank Ntilikina needs to work on layups.

What I want to emphasize is that, for him, this is true more than most NBA 19- and 20-year-olds. My goal was to illustrate the specific ways in which he needs to improve, and to show why, when he makes a once-in-a-blue-moon goofy ass layup, it’s not something I take joy in because it is a symptom of something bad. I enjoy it the same way I used to enjoy JR Smith no-no-YES 3-pointers. I’ll take the points begrudgingly.

I know this piece is harsh — he’s a kid. He also played mostly off-ball in France with adults, and when he played U-18 he was happy to settle for shooting over shorter kids (with success) and feasting on fast breaks. So this is all new to him. His playing time in France didn’t depend on buckets, it depended on defense.

There are a few slivers of hope. For one, a lot of NBA players came into the league older than Frank, so their age-19 and 20 seasons took place in college, not the NBA. That wouldn’t really show up in stat databases when we look at early-career finishing in the NBA . Another silver lining is that he does not need to overcome all of these things to reach adequacy. He likely needs to just get a little bit better at some of them, because of his size. This isn’t Conley or Kyle Lowry, where they will sink or swim by their improved touch from 3 and at the rim — even if he merely becomes passable at this, it makes him MUCH more valuable.

Lastly, as our team improves, the French Press should see a small uptick in transition opportunities, open cuts, etc., and because shots at the rim are an inherently small sample size event for most players, even a small improvement in shot selection will improve his percentages a lot.

Frank has been more aggressive this year, and has improved his handle from awful to mediocre (which is not as insignificant as many think). He’s got taller and stronger. These things are trending up, and even if he hasn’t passed a threshold where it shows in his results, I suspect he will reach that point in the next year or two. Finishing is the sort of skill that doesn’t really tick up slowly in a linear way — you look at Shump, Lowry, Conley, and Tomas Satoransky (the most similar player I could find in terms of a poor-finishing tall point guard) and others who went from bad to good at finishing, they all just went from shooting like 50 percent at the rim to 60 percent at the rim at some point between ages 23 and 25, almost out of nowhere. The path to success is there — Frank just has to walk it.