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2019-20 Knicks Season Preview: Frank Ntilikina

Previewing our Bossa Nova Cassanova

Sig Strasbourg v Asvel Basket - FIBA Basketball Photo by Elyxandro Cegarra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Have you ever listened to Captain Marvel? No, I’m not talking about the soundtrack to the Brie Larson Marvel movie. Actually, I am in no way speaking about the comic book character. Captain Marvel is the name of a 1974 jazz album by Stan Getz.

If you’re not familiar with the man whose nickname is “The Sound,” it’s understandable, since there are very few jazz musicians outside of John Coltrane and Miles Davis that are widely known in the American pop culture zeitgeist. Getz and his warm and soothing tenor saxophone were quite the influential duo during their heyday. He made a name for himself during the 1940s and ’50s, and then played a very important role in introducing American audiences to bossa nova. For my hip-hop fans, you have definitely listened to Getz indirectly via The Pharcyde and the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, J Dilla.

The way Dilla flips Getz and Luis Bonfa’s warm, seductive, and rhythmic “Saudade Vem Correndo” into this dark and seedy instrumental deserves its own entire article, so I won’t comment any more on that legendary song.

Let’s get back to Getz and Captain Marvel. Getz, Corea, et al recorded the album in the early 1970s in New York City. Here’s how Albert Goldman, jazz and pop music critic for Life, describes what’s happening to the jazz scene in New York:

It was a bad time for jazz, really the bottom of the barrel. The last jazz clubs in New York were getting ready to shut down, most jazzmen were working studio jobs or making their living outside the business and about all that was left of the jazz spirit was the annual rally at Newport, destined to be wiped out the following summer in a beer can hurling riot. Stan had seen bad times before and surmounted them. He wasn’t going to abandon his intention to take New York from the pinnacle of the Rainbow Room. Arriving in the once-buzzing capital of the jazz world in the midst of a dismal winter like Valley Forge, Stan began assembling his band.

That band happened to be some titans in the emerging jazz fusion movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s: Chick Corea on the electric keys, Stanley Clarke slappin’ that electric bass, Airto Moreira on percussions, and Tony Williams adding that sauce to the drums. I mean, talk about a dream team of jazz musicians at totally different points in their careers. They began recording the album in 1972. Getz was 45 years old and at the tail end of his prime, Corea and Moreira were fresh off recording Bitches Brew with Miles Davis and entering their primes, Stanley Clarke was 20 years old and fresh into the jazz scene with very few sessions under his belt, and Tony Williams was also finishing up a run with Miles Davis.

This group of five artists don’t have much in common musically outside of being “jazzmen.” Sure, Getz spent most of the 1960s performing bossa nova, but his smooth and sultry playing style runs counter to the electric fusing of American jazz, Latin jazz, funk basslines, and theatrical percussions. It should not have worked, but it does, and does so beautifully.

Captain Marvel is tension incarnate, Dickensian in nature. Here we have five artists fighting for your attention with their own flair in the way they play their instruments. We also have a battle between Stan Getz versus his bandmates, which is a battle between the traditional versus the avant garde. Getz is stubborn in the way he plays his saxophone, fighting for his life to adhere to a style that made him famous as Corea, Clarke, Moreira, and Williams also refuse to let their identity be shaped by Getz.

On the A-Side to this album, the bandmates effectively “win” this tension battle, as you could tell by the songs above. There is a life to these songs that very rarely appear in Getz’s work. On the B-Side, however, we get to listen to Getz “win” as we get three songs that are as smooth as anything Getz has done.

You still get those electric keys and bass filling out the rest of the space, as Corea and Clarke will not be ignored, but that panache that makes the A-Side such a compelling listen is simply not present.

You’re probably wondering why you just read 750 words on a random 1970s jazz album in a Frank Ntilikina article on a Knicks website. Totally fair. You, the reader, do deserve an explanation. As I was trying to figure out a way to turn this article into a Back to the Future Part II version of my Ntilikina preview last year, I was listening to Captain Marvel. As I finished up the A-Side, inspiration hit me in the face faster than 1.21 gigawatts hit the flux capacitor.

Frank Ntilikina is Captain Marvel.

We have these competing and conflicting concepts of who Ntilikina is as a player. There is the player who statistically regressed in effectively all metrics from adjusted plus-minuses to counting stats. This ones-and-zeros version of The French Prince has him as one of the worst shooting players of all time and a player who would need to be a complete statistical outlier to have an RPM value of zero.

Then there is the 21-year-old player who was labeled as an “offensive project” coming into the league at a young 18 years old, has grown in height over the past two offseasons, and dominated All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker as he helped lead the French national team to the semi-finals of the FIBA World Cup over a Team USA squad whose core consists of four of the five best players on the Celtics (and that, on paper, had enough talent to defeat this French team).

As frustrating as Ntilikina has been on the offensive side of things over the past two seasons, there have been a number of flashes of truly competent offense. He and that snake Number Six closing out the Pacers in 2017-18, his 18-point second half explosion against the Hornets last December, and his back-to-back performances against the Warriors and Nets last November are three notable flashes that come off the top of my head.

There is a good offensive player inside Ntilikina. Whether or not that player is ever going to become a reality is effectively the crux of the polarizing Frank debate. This tension between who he can theoretically become in the next few years versus who he currently is as a player and the projection of a player who posts terrible numbers is at the forefront of any Ntilikina-based discussion amongst Knickerbocker fans. Not only is this a tension between how people project Ntilikina and a tension between who he is as a player, it is a tension of what people value in a basketball player. How much should we value an “intangibles, team-first” player over a “I’m gonna get mine!” player? Is Ntilikina inherently good because he fits more in line with the “team-first” archetype or is he inherently bad because he defers far too much, to the point where it becomes detrimental to the offense? These questions and tensions are stressing me out and I need a massage.

You’re probably thinking to yourself right now, “Drew, the tension that Frank Ntilikina causes is quite unproductive and useless, whereas the tension of Captain Marvel serves a purpose to the theme and sound of the album. That tension is productive.” That is a fair criticism and potential hole in the “Frank Ntilikina is Captain Marvel” argument; however, that only applies to the unhealthy discussion fans and media have about players like our French Prince.

How we as fans, writers, podcasters, reporters, talking heads, etc. talk about young players who truly are “projects” and need more than a year to “figure it out” is unproductive, useless, and unhealthy. I get that in a rapid-pace media landscape where 24/7 content is craved by the masses, content creators need to provide that fix for their junky audiences. But when you’re providing that ketamine-laced dog food of “Frank Ntilikina is a bust because he was unproductive in his first two years” and your audience runs out of spots in between their toes, we have a problem.

Where the tension can be productive is within Ntilikina himself. For the past two seasons, we have seen a player who, despite having a well-defined identity on defense, just does not know who he is on offense. He’s stuck between being the glue guy who can’t shoot and having to make something happen as a lead guard when the offense stalls. This a contentious battle of who Frank needs to be more of as a player versus who he wants to be on the court. When these two identities collide, they cause chaos and poor on-court performances. Finding that right balance of tension is what differentiates a good player from a poor player. It’s why Captain Marvel works so beautifully; it could have easily been a disaster.

This, of course, is rather intuitive, because balancing being a team player and a player looking for his own is the inherent nature of NBA basketball. It’s also the inherent nature of jazz, and it should be to no one’s surprise when I say that basketball and jazz have much in common. It’s a collection of competing identities and styles that come together for the greater good to achieve a goal.

I don’t know which version of Frank Ntilikina is going to show up this year. I don’t know if it will the confident player we saw in FIBA or the player that deferred to guys like Alonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson when it clearly was the wrong thing to do in the flow of the game. What I do know is that projects take multiple years to figure things out in the league. We witnessed Number Six having his breakout “year” before his ACL tear during his third season. Last year, we saw D’Angelo Russell put things together in his fourth year in the league. I can go on and on with different examples, but I think you get the picture.

Just stay patient with our French Prince. He’ll get there.