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The case for keeping Frank Ntilikina

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He’s got skills, potential and youth

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks
The Knicks should lock Frank Ntilikina up like he locks up opponents.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The 2018-19 season was one long drawn out sophomore slump for Frank Ntilikina, and there’s a foreboding feel about the way his campaign concluded, but the franchise should show restraint and retain him because he’s already proven he can be a valuable NBA player.

Haters will point to Ntilikina’s negligible statistics and say the 20-year-old Frenchman is a bust who offers nothing on offense. They might also downplay his defensive acumen and note the Knicks are reportedly planning to shop Frank. On that first point, they aren’t wrong. In season two, Ntilikina was essentially the same player, statistically, as he was in season one, only he played in 35 less games due to a combination of injuries and DNPs.

The statistics of one Frank Ntilikina.
Basketball-reference.com

Perhaps the team’s supposed desire to trade Ntilikina is due to the fact that Phil Jackson is the man who drafted him with the 8th pick in 2017. Scott Perry has certainly done a great job of reworking the roster in his image, with Frank being one of the final players who preceded Perry.

Regardless of the reason, the Knicks should be careful in what they do with Ntilikina, who was projected as a project from day one and has already displayed the ability to be, at the very least, a competent complementary piece.

Frank was always described as a project who could take a few years to blossom

We begin this section with a hard truth. If the reports are true and the Knicks want to trade Frank, fine. Teams should always be trying to think two steps ahead, and if the Knicks can get a great package in return for Ntilikina, then fans would have to accept the deal, even if that acceptance comes begrudgingly.

The fear, however, is that the Knicks will look to offload Ntilikina just to get him off the roster, because in two difficult seasons he has struggled to become a consistent impact player. Frank was always meant to be a multi-year project, and giving up on him now would be premature, especially since the Knicks have been in constant turmoil since he was drafted.

Here are a couple pre-draft assessments of Ntilikina from people who fancy themselves experts on the subject of basketball.

Mike Schmitz, DraftExpress.com: Not as well-known among the casual fan as the college guards, Ntilikina is a high-floor prospect who is destined for, at the very least, a long career as a versatile, two-way player with a high IQ and professional approach to the game.

Stefanos Makris, NBADraft.net: Ntilikina is undoubtedly one of the best international players of his generation. His elite physical tools and feel for the game, combined with his high upside makes him a really intriguing prospect … he is not NBA ready just yet, but he has all the tools to become a very good player in the future.

In reading those profiles, it’s clear that Ntilikina has already displayed all of the positive attributes ascribed to him ahead of the draft. He’s an unselfish teammate who looks to pass so often that it can actually get annoying. He has a high IQ, natural defensive instincts and a physical advantage in the form of ridiculously long arms that are ripe for snatching steals. He always looks to make the right play, often to the detriment of his own statistics.

He’s capable of being more than complementary, and we should see what he looks like on a team that isn’t tanking

Statistics don’t tell the whole story on Ntilikina. At times, he has looked like a guy who could be a legitimate starting point guard in a league filled with superstar players at that position. He’s a gifted passer who has mostly played with castaways that clank too many shots, and his assist numbers have suffered because of it.

But don’t doubt his passing. Frank sees passing lanes that don’t look like they are there until after the pass has been successfully completed, and if he can be paired with elite talent, his assists per game will suddenly shoot up.

We didn’t even really get the chance to see Ntilikina work with New York’s latest beacon of hope, Mitchell Robinson. The two played in 31 games together this year, most of which came earlier in the season, when Robinson had yet to be fully unleashed. Meanwhile, Ntilikina has been playing second, or even third, fiddle since the acquisition of Emmanuel Mudiay at the 2017-18 trade deadline.

There is potential for Ntilikina and Robinson, especially if the front office can cobble together a roster that features other premier players. Seriously, look at the pass on this alley-oop, note where Ntilikina is standing when he delivers the dish, and say with a straight face that you don’t crave more.

Ntilikina has a lot to work on when it comes to his offense. He passes up on shots that he should take and then seems to force shots to make up for previously being too passive. But during the stretches that his shot has fallen consistently, Frank has looked like a dangerous weapon out there.

He made plays and shot with confidence against the Golden State Warriors this season, finishing with 17 points on 6-11 shooting.

He responded to three straight DNPs in the middle of the season, with three consecutive impressive showings on offense. 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 from the field in 20 second half minutes, and finally he posted 16 points on 6-13 shooting in just over 23 minutes of action against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Yes, he has been inconsistent on offense, but the potential is clearly there to all but those without eyeballs.

He is already a top-tier defender, which is something NBA teams need

There is a world where Ntilikina never reaches the aforementioned offensive potential, and is merely an average to below average player when it comes to scoring points. Even in that world, he has value as a defensive stopper who can go toe-to-toe with the cream of the crop.

Ntilikina finished his rookie campaign as the best player in the NBA at defending pick and rolls, which is one of the most basic and common basketball plays there is.

Because of his size — he’s 6’6” and about 190 pounds — Ntilikina has the ability to guard a variety of positions. In a league that seems to become more switch happy each year, employing a player like Ntilikina has its advantages.

He has a knack for getting around screens and sticking with his man, and, this year especially, often looked like the only Knick on the court who had any clue how to play help defense. He knows how to cheat towards a big man who is backing down his defender while not straying too far from his guy on the perimeter. These might sound like abstract things, but they matter.

He has locked up some of the NBA’s best, and receives praise from big names

One of the first times that Ntilikina’s potential as a defensive stopper became clear was in a game last season against the Boston Celtics, when he keyed in on Kyrie Irving and made things extremely difficult for the former number one overall pick.

“He’s a great on ball defender, man,” Irving said after the game. “Very long, very active. Not afraid of the big moments.”

In the aftermath of a loss to the Warriors early this season, Steph Curry struggled to pronounce Ntilikina’s name, but provided the youngster with some praise, saying he “obviously showed a lot of promise.”

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ntilikina played one of the better single possessions of defense you could imagine, against Paul George.

In a late January game against the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden, James Harden torched the Knicks for 61 points, but despite his overall output, there’s no question Ntilikina made things difficult whenever it was his turn to guard the bearded baller.

In March, Donovan Mitchell had Ntilikina’s back, waxing poetic about his fellow 2017 draftee after the Utah Jazz routed a Frank-less Knicks squad at Madison Square Garden.

“The kid is really good,” Mitchell said, according to the New York Post. “People don’t see that. He’s a great defender and one of the hardest guys I had to go against last year. He shut me down last year when I played here. Once he starts figuring it out on offense, he’ll be really good. He’s my guy. I have his back.’’

Even LeBron James, who had an infamous dustup with Ntilikina during his rookie season, sees the potential that exists in Frank.

”I think he knows how to play the game,” James said last year, according to ESPN. “That’s the best thing, first of all. Very cerebral basketball player. I think, defensively, he’s more advanced than offensively. But I think offensively, he’s gotten better as he’s gotten more opportunity and played more games.... I think every game, more and more, he gets the opportunity to play, more and more, he gets comfortable with the NBA game, his offensive game is getting better. Defensively he’s been good since he probably stepped on a basketball floor defensively so, it’s good for him.”

In Conclusion, Keep Frank!

When the best players in the league have trouble scoring on Ntilikina and then can’t help but shower him with compliments, the organization that currently has him should take notice.

Ntilikina’s second season was not what we were hoping for, but he isn’t quite old enough yet to legally drink in the United States, so there’s time for him to improve. The team should only trade him if it’s part of a package that brings back, say, Anthony Davis, or the first overall pick, or something so good you would be an idiot to pass it up.

In a perfect world, the Knicks would keep Ntilikina and work on furthering his development. At worst, they’d have someone who can be a defensive beast and a solid all around offensive player with a lousy shot.

The biggest risk is trading Ntilikina and then watching him fulfill his potential elsewhere.