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An adieu to confounding Frenchman Frank Ntilikina

It was a weird ride.

New York Knicks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

The departure of Frank Ntilikina feels like the epilogue of one of the awful, but more forgettable eras in Knicks history, the Scott Perry-Steve Mills regime. It is strange, considering he was the epilogue of one of the awful, but more unforgettable eras in Knicks history in the Phil Jackson regime, one of the Zen Master’s final moves before being fired days later.

That’s the story of Ntilikina’s Knicks tenure in a nutshell. He was drafted by someone who force-fed prospects and slept through their workouts, yet was allowed to make his draft choice on his way out. You would expect a new regime to quickly discard the remnants of the previous, but they instead chose to give him (and coach Jeff Hornacek) a year to figure things out. Ntilikina lasted three years beyond that, but even before the end of his first season, he appeared to be an afterthought. Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke were the first of a host of journeyman guards brought in to “get right” over their own lottery draft pick, which they would prefer to ship off for a late second-rounder.

Ntilikina lasting so long on the roster despite being clearly unwanted by the team is a reflection of what was so frustrating about the era. Mills and Perry at the helm reeked of what I like to call “incompetent competence”.

Should we quickly give up on a project player?

No, that’s dumb.

How do we get the best basketball out of him?

Not sure. Who cares?

The Ntilikina era was a strange one, which brought on some of the most unique contention between fans. The Knicks have seen draft busts and bad scorers/solid defenders, but no one has inspired controversy as much as Frank. Ron Baker was never a sore subject. When Kevin Knox is presumably discarded within the year, there will likely be little hubbub or think pieces reflecting on his tenure.

The hatred towards Ntilikina by some is understandable, but misguided. No one wants to hear that a lottery pick on your struggling team just needs a few more years to become a decent role player, especially as you watch the rapid ascension of players drafted after Frank, like Donovan Mitchell. However, Ntilikina did not draft himself nor did he choose to be the only young hope on an apathetic team outside of a prima donna Kristaps Porzingis.

I was and am firmly on the “Pro-Frank” side of history, feeling my blood boil any time I see a commenter tearing into him. I personally fawned over him, not as a handsome fashionista like much of the fanbase, but as an adequate defender and pass-first player on a team chock full of selfish defensive sieves (similar to Ron Baker). To me, it was confusing so many could lack patience after having just seen a project pan out (before turning to the dark side) in Porzingis, and I enjoyed rooting for him to hopefully prove “the haters” wrong.

I believe that is the source of much of the toxicity of Ntilikina: On a team with no vision, fans had little to root for outside of their own talking points on individual players. Why worry about wins or losses when you can feel smarter than the team and other fans by seeing the hidden talent in the “little things” and “winning plays” Ntilikina made, or conversely ragging on him for being the worst scorer ever. To me, this was a player that was constantly touted as a defensive project who needed a few years to develop offensively—why was it so shocking and upsetting when that’s what the 19-year old rookie was? (It is worth mentioning I, like many Ntilikina fans, am on the younger side and have not been around for two decades of ineptitude beyond the 2011-13 oasis.)

At the same time, we are left with few genuinely good Ntilikina memories in his four years here. Fundamentally sound stunt-and-recovers, rotations, and closeouts do not make lasting impressions. The good times consist of him shoving LeBron in one of his seemingly infinite 2-5 shooting games (along with a career-high 6 steals), shutting down Luka and making some open shots against the Mavericks, him nearly scoring 20 points against the Hornets before fouling out in 20 minutes, and him finally seemingly putting things together with 20 points and 10 assists against the Wizards before the NBA and world shut down. Truthfully, most of my Frank experiences come from arguing with strangers on the internet about his value and how he should be used, expressing outrage over him not being sent down to the G League during the stretches of DNP-CDs, that he was not played more alongside Damyean Dotson (who has all but proven his futility in Cleveland) despite surprisingly impactful net ratings. I was particularly furious that people would blame Ntilikina for losses in games that the Knicks lost by 20, despite his team-best plus-3 plus/minus.

Once emotions are taken out of the picture, my perceptions of Ntilikina are probably not far off from the ‘anti-Frank’ crowd. I don’t think he’s some otherworldly defender like a Draymond Green or Jonathan Isaac. I don’t think just because he over-passes means he’s a smart offensive player. Every time he steps into a game, my excitement for him is matched with anxiety, clenching every time he’s passed the ball—largely because that’s how he acts at times on the court as well. You will never see another lead guard give up the ball, without even looking at the hoop, at the top of the key to a center that does not know how to dribble, shoot, or catch, as often as Ntilikina. At the same time, I think the Knicks failed him, likely more than he failed them.

Everyone but seemingly the Knicks knew what Ntilikina was—a project who lacked confidence. While it sounds like coddling a child, they should have at least made an attempt instill trust in the young consensus lottery pick. It’s hard to think of a single time the Knicks made efforts to encourage Ntilikina. I am brought back to the time David Fizdale benched him on Christmas in front of his mom who had traveled to see him. Instead, she watched Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay combine for 6-21 shooting in a blowout loss. Merry Christmas. As a rookie, Ntilikina managed to produce a team-best +4.9 net rating alongside Porzingis, yet he was never rewarded with a chance to start alongside him despite cries from the once-franchise star himself. Two games removed from a near-triple-double against the Nets, the rookie Ntilikina was benched after five minutes, and rarely had the chance to play in crunch time despite late-game heroics early on in the season.

One of the few leaps of faith taken on Ntilikina was when he was thrust into the lineup by Fizdale early in his second season along with youths Mitchell Robinson and Dotson like Knicks fans had always dreamed. Unlike even in their wildest fantasies, it actually worked. The lineup was the owner of that roster’s only five man unit with a positive net rating, and it had a robust +7.2 net rating at that. Ntilikina shined, even being praised and infamously misnamed by Steph Curry. A little over a week later, he would be benched after starting off 0-3 against the Magic in five minutes. A little over three years later, he would start against the Magic again and go 0-2 in the first half. The Knicks would stay with him in the second half, and an aggressive Ntilikina would score 13 in the second half, and even kind of throwing down a dunk. There were very few moments like the latter game where there was an attempt to inspire Ntilikina, and all too many of the former where a short leash was pulled after a few mistakes by the raw prospect.

On this rendition of the Knicks, it’s hard to express much dismay at the Knicks choosing to prioritize what they have now rather than funneling an offense through an awful offensive player for development purposes. On teams heading nowhere, it never made sense to value the minimal at best improvement in Mudiay, Burke, Jarrett Jack, Dennis Smith Jr., etc. out of trying to get the most out of Ntilikina. If you play and empower Ntilikina a ton and come to the conclusion that he is not that good—that’s fine, you can move onto other projects—but you should see what you have in a young player who’s already proven on at least one end of the floor first. Of course, Ntilikina did fail himself to an extent as well. Even as a project, it should not have been some impossible task to forcibly take the jobs of those borderline NBA players. While the Knicks could have held his hand more, he also should have done more to force their hand to play him over them. While he was more impactful than most guards who played over him, being less of a negative is no crowning honor (Ntilikina has never had a positive on-court rating per 100 possessions despite having a positive on-off rating his first three seasons). When the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, I cringed at what it would do to Immanuel Quickley’s role and playing time, but I did not fear for even a moment that it would irrevocably stunt his development as I would cry when a veteran guard was brought in to take minutes from Ntilikina.

There is a middle ground between baby-ing and doghouse-ing, and it likely was found by Mike Miller in his interim coaching stint. Despite cries that Ntilikina was not a point guard—another point of contention in debates, he played the best basketball of his career as a full-time backup point guard. Miller nearly immediately removed the Frenchman in the starting lineup in favor of the infamous Elfrid Payton and would hardly play him above 20 minutes even when he played well. It was tough love, it was development, and it worked. Miller squeezed every inch of good basketball from Ntilikina in those eighteen minutes per game, holding him to a high standard, but allowing him to play freely and never benching him for a rough patch. In his final 37 games of the season, per 36 Ntilikina averaged 12.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.5 steals and just 2.6 turnovers, while slashing 40/30/90 for a 50 true shooting% and putting up the fourth best net rating of any Knicks rotation player at -3.1. None of those numbers are anything to gawk at—perhaps even slightly depressing to have as your career-best stretch, but they’re certainly respectable for a 20-year old defense-first player. Factor in that 30% shooting from beyond the arc is probably not indicative of his true shooting ability after shooting 48% from distance last season in a limited sample, you have genuine evidence that a Frank Ntilikina developed the right way can be a productive Frank Ntilikina.

Unfortunately, that did not continue into last season. Some would argue that 2021-22 was the final straw in proving Ntilikina’s ineptitude—a defensive minded coach having little desire to play him (other than on the most important play of the season off no rhythm?!) after the last coaches did not see what the Ntilikina Truthers saw either. I think that is a bit of a mischaracterization. Despite the constant complaints of misuse, along with being the full-time backup point guard under Miller, he was under Hornacek as well despite being, quite frankly (pun intended), bad as a rookie. Ntilikina also went through aforementioned spurts in the doghouse with Fizdale, but he also averaged 29 minutes per game as a starter for the final 16 games of Fiz’s horrific coaching tenure. Thibodeau also started Keith Bogans all 82 games over Kyle Korver, and Elfrid Payton all his 63 games over anyone. That and his tenure as President of Basketball Operations in Minnesota should show that Thibodeau’s player evaluation is not as infallible as his coaching ability.

Last season was still relatively damning. For years I and other Frank supporters clamored that all he needed was a three-point shot and a contending team to play on for his value to be proven. Here was a playoff team and a Ntilikina with a fundamentally improved three-ball, and still, no role for who was supposed to be the consummate plug-and-play player. After three years of toting his on-off on bottom-feeders, he was one of few Knicks with a negative net rating. In fairness, it was a very small sample, he averaged 11.8 points per game in the five games he played 18-plus minutes, and injuries halted him from finding his footing with the team.

That is Ntilikina in a nutshell, and what makes him so frustrating, especially if you are rooting for him. A constant stream of to-be-fairs, poor-injury luck, and excuses. Can you truly explain away 19% shooting from two-point range? Warranted excuses or not, it is a lot of hand-wringing for a player who’s offense may not even edge out their above average defense, and it is not wholly unsurprising there was limited reported interest in him this summer. The only reported interest outside of Dallas was courtesy of Virtus Bologna, and even then he was apparently “not the first name on the Italian club list.”

It is fitting the Ntilikina era effectively ended on that Trae Young blow-by. Setting him up for failure by playing for less than half a minute all game and in the two games leading up to it before throwing him for to the most important game of the season epitomizes both the perennial lack of plan the Knicks had for Ntilikina, and his failure to become the defensive stopper hoped and propped up to be. In another reality, Frank gets that stop, the Knicks win the game, he plays more in the series, the Knicks win the series, and Ntilikina is undoubtedly re-signed as a folk-hero fan-favorite. I would like to live in that reality, but it is not the one we live in. I won’t sit here and say it is good the Knicks balked on giving Ntilikina a minimum contract while Dwayne Bacon, Luka Vildoza, Kevin Knox, and technically Joakim Noah are all under contract, but I can’t say it is an incomprehensible misstep either. I am sad to see the confounding Ntilikina era in New York come to an end, but it makes sense for both parties to move on at this point. Neither could ever figure the other one out.

It is fitting that Ntilikina finds himself on a Dallas Mavericks team that will hope to validate the fantasy of so many Ntilikina True Believers who dreamed of seeing him alongside Porzingis, Tim Hardaway, and Luka Doncic on a Knicks team run ‘the right way’. The Mavericks are easily the best, and perhaps only viable fit for Ntilikina. It’s unlikely he will go on to make the Knicks look like absolute fools for letting him go, but he could easily find himself a secure spot in the rotation off helping Doncic out defensively while knocking down the open looks created by Doncic á la Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber.

With the move to Dallas, some of the long-debated questions are answered.

Would any other NBA team even want Frank?

Sure, though a minimum contract with a team option is no massive win.

Dennis Smith or Frank?

Dallas gave Frank guaranteed money while they discarded Smith, who is fighting for a roster spot in Portland.

Prioritize winning now with Burke or development with Frank?

Dallas would apparently like to do both with Frank.

Were those questions worth all that energy?

Eh. Not really.