Through his first two seasons with the Knicks, Frank Ntilikina established himself as one of the most polarizing figures among fans. An astute, confident and intelligent defensive player on arrival, the Frenchman’s offensive game lagged far behind. Despite having good feel operating out of the pick-and-roll, Ntilikina’s ball-handling, shot creation, and general aggression were not sufficient for the demands placed upon primary ball-handlers in today’s NBA.
To muddy the waters further, the organization’s commitment to his development has been in question since day one. A lottery selection just days before then-team president Phil Jackson was ousted in favor of the now-departed Steve Mills, Ntilikina saw a parade of veterans and reclamation projects brought in to compete for the starting point guard spot, players that often — confusingly — seemed to be given priority over the franchise’s own lottery pick.
Since Ntilikina was drafted, the Knicks have signed or traded for Ramon Sessions, Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Elfrid Payton, and Dennis Smith Jr. You need more than one point guard on a basketball team, so it’s understandable others were brought in at the position. What’s less understandable is the organization’s reluctance to hand Ntilikina an extended run as the starting point guard during his first two seasons, which were spent on a team that sucked at basketball, AKA being the Knicks. During his first two seasons, he started less games at the point than Jack, Burke, Mudiay, and even Smith Jr., who was acquired in the Kristaps Porzingis deal at the end of last January and immediately started 18 games.
Of course, Ntilikina’s own passivity on the court may very well explain the reluctance of Jeff Hornacek and David Fizdale to start him. While it was frustrating to his hive of supporters that he was seemingly stuck in a reserve role, it was equally frustrating to his critics to watch Ntilikina dutifully bring the ball up the floor, swing it to the wing, and then clear out to the corner for the duration of the possession.
Unselfishness in a team sport should be celebrated, but only to a certain point. A team’s primary ball-handler cannot simply be a passenger to the events unfolding on the offensive side of the floor. Even pass-first point guards need to be forceful in orchestrating and directing the offense, and not be afraid to take command of a floundering possession at times.
After two up-and-down seasons, the latter in which Ntilikina struggled with a groin injury, this third season seemed like a make-or-break for him in many ways. He needed to demonstrate improvement as a scorer (43.0 TS%, 40.7 eFG%, 38.0 2P%, and 30.5 3P% over his first two seasons), ball-handling and aggressiveness. Initially it seemed he may not even get that chance, as then-head coach David Fizdale had him nailed to the bench to start the season.
However, in a twist of fate, injuries and a personal tragedy for Smith Jr. forced Ntilikina into his first extended run as a starting point guard in the NBA. While there were certainly signs of progress and high points during this stint — including what was and still is arguably Ntilikina’s best game as a pro in a road victory over Luka Doncic and the Mavericks — too often he remained deferential in his approach to the team’s veterans.
It’d be convenient to simply lay all the blame for this on Fizdale. He was certainly part of the problem, but even after his dismissal, Ntilikina was too often content operating on the periphery of the action when on the floor with Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, unwilling to use his improved ball-handling to pressure the defense consistently.
During his first 27 appearances this season, 23 as a starter, his production, although improved, was deficient in over 647 minutes played. Per-36 averages of 8.9 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.0 rebounds on 38.2% shooting from the field (47.9 TS%) aren’t going to get it done at this level, particularly as a starter. His minuscule 13.3 USG% laid bare his failure to lead the offense to the level expected from a lead guard.
Following a dispiriting individual and team performance in a listless loss in Miami, interim head coach Mike Miller made the decision to shuffle the point guard deck. Payton moved into the starting lineup, while Ntilikina was moved back into the backup point guard role. The demotion certainly felt like the end of the line to many. Instead, we may look back on the move as a critical turning point in his career.
While the move to the bench resulted in a minutes reduction to a mere 18 minutes per game over the final 30 games of the season (much to mine and many others’ consternation), there is no doubt it benefited Ntilikina. His per-36 numbers jumped to 13.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 40.3% from the field (51.3 TS%) on 18.3 USG%. That leap in production only served to quantify the palpable on-court improvement evident over the latter half of the season.
On a nightly basis, Ntilikina was creating for himself and others with a greater sense of urgency. The offensive flashes he showed started to manifest more consistently on the court as he demonstrated a consistent willingness to penetrate into the teeth of the defense in screen-and-roll actions, transition, and even the rare isolation.
He was penetrating both more often and more efficiently. In his first 27 games he averaged a mere 3.7 drives in 24 minutes per game, shooting 35.3%. After moving to the bench, his drive volume and efficiency considerably improved, as he averaged 5.2 drives in 18 minutes per game, converting at a relatively robust 46.7% clip. Another ancillary benefit was Ntilikina’s free throw rate nearly doubling as well, one of the easiest ways for players to boost their efficiency, and one he certainly benefited from while shooting a career-high 86.4% from the line.
One further benefit to Ntilikina’s aggression was how it opened up more passing opportunities for him. Having always been most comfortable operating out of screen-and-roll actions, his improving ability to collapse the defense in those sets and attract defensive attention allowed him to indulge his more natural, unselfish inclinations as a distributor.
While there’s cause for optimism, there remains plenty of room for improvement. There are still stretches where Ntilikina is too comfortable passing the onus of the offensive burden onto others still. In particular, when he shares the floor with offensively-inclined veterans, he must be more confident in accepting the responsibility for directing the show rather than following their script.
His improved free throw rate is still subpar, and with his size there’s no reason it shouldn’t be higher. Most obviously Ntilikina’s perimeter shooting must improve so teams can’t go under on him in pick-and-roll and sag off him when he’s spotting up off-ball. He’s susceptible to foul trouble defensively when chasing crafty perimeter scorers around screens adept at exaggerating the slightest contact, using his eagerness to get back into the play against him.
It’s also fair to be a bit disappointed by Ntilikina’s current level of production. Historical precedent may not be in line with the general expectations of an eighth overall pick, but the reality is, even if you knowingly take a project mid-lottery, you’re hoping for more than solid bench player in their third season. It stings even more when Donovan Mitchell looks like a genuine foundational player in Utah and was selected five picks after. However, that disappointment doesn’t mean Ntilikina is a bust, or that the Knicks need to cut bait with him.
His improvement wasn’t a mirage. It was substantial and its foundation wasn’t buoyed by unsustainable 3-point or mid-range shooting. The work he put in over the summer on his ball-handling yielded dividends, particularly when he was thrust into lineups without the team’s two veteran guns, Julius Randle and Marcus Morris — his usage climbed up to 21.6% in those 339 minutes, on 51.2 TS%, with a +6.0 net rating. In 276 minutes without either on the floor after moving to the bench on Dec. 21, his usage remained at 21.6%, with a bump up to 53.0 TS%, and a +6.3 net rating.
According to Basketball-Reference, Ntilikina had the third best on-court and on/off rating on the team behind Wayne Ellington and Mitchell Robinson. Per Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 70th percentile league-wide in terms of net rating. After moving to the bench, the Knicks had a +0.1 net rating with Ntilikina on the court and a -6.4 net rating when he was off, per NBAWOWY.
Ntilikina established career highs in FG%, 2P%, eFG%, TS%, WS/48, FTr, OBPM, DBPM, BPM, and VORP. By many of those metrics he’s still subpar, but the trajectory is positive. Perhaps one of the biggest regrets of the pandemic-shortened season for the Knicks is not being able to see if his leap (RJ Barrett’s too) would persist through the final 16 games of the season.
If nothing else, Ntilikina should be viewed as a piece to build with after a genuinely positive second half of the season. If the Knicks were further along in their team building, moving on from Ntilikina to make room for a more fully-formed player would be a reasonable option. As is, it’s hard to see a trade return that would make sense to move him for. Still just 21, Ntilikina remains a work in progress, but that work showed signs of a genuine payoff this season. The Knicks should be more interested in keeping him in his current role as the first guard off the bench, and seeing what they can further develop him into rather than what he’s worth in trade.