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Frank Ntilikina gotta take the wheel

Take it!

Houston Rockets v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Free agency towers over the city skyline but no one ever seems to be coming. Even if you see a tantalizing rumor, and the certainty of stardom, there’s usually no one within reach. It’s all an empty feeling in your stomach. The fanbase’s vibes on Frank Ntilikina are harsh polarities. We’re either sitting in a sauna or an ice bath. This season is starting to look like a battle between the unstoppable object and the immovable wall on planet Frankistan. Lots of people will always find a way to root for the young Frenchman, whereas some among us are content to stamp an L on his forehead and laugh at anyone who held hope he could reach his ceiling, much less burst through it. Of course a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook could singlehandedly bring the Knicks up to basic competence. Same goes for whoever it is next year and whoever it was last year. Unfortunately, rooting for the mercenary is all bone and gristle. At the heart of the matter, we all want a winner.

That’s why it’s high time Ntilikina forces the coaching staff to not just choose him over the veterans, the hired hands, Scott Perry’s old flame, an agency favor, the much-maligned payoff from a star sent to a new solar system. Frank has to show that he’s the only option. At this stage, he’s the longest-tenured Knick and the highest-paid guard on the roster.

Entering year four, it’s got to be put up or shut up time. For every elegantly produced workout video, it’s time to produce results on the court.

There is no outlier stat, no plus/minus, no projection — real or perceived — that can cut a pair of keys that fits uniquely into Frank’s hands only. He simply has to take the keys off the hook, get in the driver’s seat and start dragging these losers up the ladder.

What we know is the point-of-attack defense is all-consuming and he can switch all over the floor. He can get beat by speedy waterbugs, but his length and timing on recovery is astounding. He’s absolutely ready to be the guy you drape over the guy when the game is on the line. Case in point: this is against one of the best offenses in the league, sporting arguably the best offensive player in the world!

When Ntilikina is engaged and assertive, he has shown the propensity to put an artful stamp on the game. He has eaten up Luka Dončić , spit out Russell Westbrook and in the FIBA World Cup he incinerated Kemba Walker and the United States team.

Offensively he has clear instincts running a pick-and-roll, but that cuts both ways if he isn’t going to be significantly more aggressive. It’s wonderful that he always looks to set up his teammates; chivalry is dying, after all. Unfortunately, the opposition will have their eye on that generous spirit ready to seize at the first sign of weakness. There’s also the 10,000 lb. sink in the kitchen and that’s the case of his woeful shooting. A paltry 31% from deep, and not much better inside the arc. He often holds on for dear life before releasing the ball on the way down. That needs to be corrected with new skills coach Johnnie Bryant.

There are positives to cut away. Goodness that goes beyond his fashion sense. It may seem minor, but he is the go-to guy at the charity stripe, a positive reinforcement for (and in) any floor general. All of his shooting percentages are climbing year after year. At the abrupt end of the season, he finally cracked the 20-point barrier. A small potato, but one that thickens his soup. Of course he’s always been the +/- angel, bringing all his teammates up a level. These moments need to start becoming trends, becoming truths. Otherwise what are we doing here?

Selecting Obi Toppin may be the first time since the foul odor of Kristaps Porziņģis dissipated that Frank has had a teammate who can bring some of his best traits out: that is, simply being a pick-and-roll partner who can potentially pop to the three-point line or dive all the way to the rim and finish over and around anyone. Room for improvement aside, Toppin has the added bonus of being a quick decision maker, which means the ball could work its way back around to Ntilikina. A lot of times Frank’s point guard brain just puts a set in motion and he’ll V-cut to the opposite wing, and it’s not coming back to him and he’s not going back to it either. With pill hoarders like Julius Randle roaming the scene, that play is over.

Through it all, he only just turned 22 this summer. He seems to have finally grown into his body, now just refining it. In an often overlooked skill development, he has made huge leaps forward speaking the common language. I don’t know how upset I’d be with myself if I had thoughts about my highly visible job, at my publicly dissected work place, that I could not fully express because of a language barrier. Suffice to say, I’d be hard to work with.

Now, Frank, walk over to the looking glass, beyond the handsome face, the knowing grin. Do you see Elfrid Payton at the end of the bench?