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The Knicks should pick up Frank Ntilikina’s fourth year option

Ntilikina has struggled mightily offensively through his first two seasons but it would be short-sighted not to exercise the final year option on his rookie deal

2019 FIBA World Cup: Third Place Game: France v Australia Photo by Jesse Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Through his first two seasons with the Knicks, Frank Ntilikina has been a constant source of division among fans. For good reason, too. He has been historically awful as a shooter from the field, and the combination of extremely raw dribbling ability and his non-aggressive nature is often infuriating to watch.

On the other hand, after cycling through defensive turnstile after defensive turnstile at point guard, his ability on that end of the floor has been refreshing. Additionally, his willingness — often excessively so — to initiate offensive sets and feed the hot hand, rather than dribbling around like a doofus for 20 seconds only to call his own number, has been a welcome change of pace at times.

Still, after two seasons, with rumors swirling leading up to the draft that the Knicks were looking to unload the former eighth overall pick for just an early second round pick, it was obvious that this summer was critical in determining any potential future he had in New York. To his credit, Ntilikina wasted no time getting after it this summer. He ditched snake oil salesman, clout-chasing Instagram trainer Chris Brickley for the more focused and nuanced training styles of Tyler Relph. The early returns were promising in the just-concluded FIBA World Cup.

Playing more games as the starting point guard for France than he has in two years with the Knicks, Ntilikina looked much improved. The physical work he’s done has him finally looking comfortable in his body for the first time since being drafted. More importantly, Frank’s handle, finishing at the rim, and perimeter shooting all demonstrably improved.

Of course, the overall competition at the World Cup isn’t on par with with what he’ll face on a nightly basis in the NBA, and the sample size isn’t large enough to draw any definitive conclusions. We’ve seen Ntilikina shoot well in 10-game samples previously. On the other hand, he sonned the NBA competition he did face off against all the way to death, so there’s that.

After helping to lead his country to a third-place finish, Ntilikina now heads back to New York for training camp following the best moment of his professional career to date. The Knicks, as you may know, made a number of additions this summer and the point guard room is, again, quite crowded. Dennis Smith Jr. returns after his mid-season acquisition in the Tim Hardaway Jr. deal and Elfrid Payton joins as the next in a long line of lottery reclamation projects since Scott Perry took over as general manager. Kadeem Allen stays chilling with his glorious beard on a two-way contract.

With such a crowded backcourt, there’s been rumblings the Knicks front office may be reticent not just to commit to giving Ntilikina a defined role in the rotation, but also to exercise the fourth year option on his rookie deal. While his production to date certainly doesn’t justify the $6.2 million he would be paid in 2020-21, there are plenty of prudent reasons for the Knicks to roll the dice anyway.

The Knicks do not need to free up cap space

Yeah, sure, if you think that the six free agents with second year options or partial guarantees who were signed this summer are all going to be great and convince the front office to keep them around, then clearing Frank’s cap hit makes some sense. I, however, like to occasionally operate within the realm of reality. Some of these guys are near certainties to be dealt before the trade deadline, while others will predictably suck, be thanked for their services and sent on their way at the end of an enthralling 30-win season.

If the Knicks cut bait with all of them while retaining their restricted free agent cap holds for Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier, they’d have around $53.4 million on the books. The projected salary cap for the 2020/21 seasons as of now stands at $116 million, which would leave the Knicks with roughly $62.6 million in space without adding in the salary for what’s likely to be another lottery pick. Even assuming they keep some of these free agent bros, they’d still have plenty of wiggle room under the cap after exercising Ntilikina’s option.

Of course, more cap space is always great to have, but that also depends on the summer you have it open.

Next year’s free agent class is bunz

That’s right. It stinks. Big time. There’s exactly one elite player on the market. His name is Anthony Davis, and his agent is Rich Paul. Paul is of course a long-time best buddy of LeBron James, his first and most prized client. In a completely stunning and totally unpredictable turn of events, Paul engineered a trade to get Davis out of New Orleans to Los Angeles to team up with James. Nobody saw it coming.

The rest of the market can be best described as threadbare. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, have a look for yourself. This is not what my good friend, Maverick, would describe as a target-rich environment.

Even as a Frank believer myself, I’d readily admit that in a stronger free agent class, like the one we just saw this summer, choosing to cut bait with the Frenchman to maximize flexibility would be a decision with merit. Next summer ain’t that.

Ntilikina’s value as an asset depreciates if his option isn’t exercised

If the Knicks fail to exercise the option, then Ntilikina becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. The value of rookie contracts is that you get players on a cost-controlled deal for four years, and also hold the powerful bargaining tool of restricted free agency at the end of it, allowing you to match any offer said player may receive on the market.

The Knicks, and any team looking to trade for Frank, would lose that advantage if his option isn’t exercised. They’d also be limited to offering him only up to the $6.2 million he stands to earn on his option in year four in free agency. So, in fact, the incumbent team in that scenario is actually at a potential disadvantage in what they can offer the player as an initial starting salary.

Look, I get it. Ntilikina has flattered to deceive at various points throughout his career. Hell, saying he’s been a disappointment isn’t out-of-bounds criticism. Suffice to say he hasn’t been cutting up the league.

Still, there’s potentially a player that can emerge here with two-way rotational value who can provide tremendous defensive and lineup flexibility. That could be pretty useful!

He must shoot better from outside, yes. He must absolutely demonstrate his improved handle and aggressiveness will yield further progression as a finisher at the rim and maximize his natural distributing ability. We know these things to be true.

He’s also 21 and the Knicks currently are not going to be a good team that’s in any position to worry about contending in the immediate future. If ever there was a time to persist with a player always destined to be years-long project, that time is now.

The Knicks have talked endlessly over the last two seasons about trusting their development program and wanting to build this up “the right way.” Trading away Ntilikina, despite his very real offensive struggles, would fly directly in the face of that.