November 9, 2019, 4:41 pm
The Knicks, or rather David Fizdale, have engaged in their typical lineup shenanigans so far this season. The organization’s development goals are either completely haphazard or change with the weather as players are shuffled in and out of roles with limited chances to show what they can do.
While Mitchell Robinson is currently getting yo-yoed in and out of the starting lineup when healthy, no player better exemplifies the ugly development process for young Knicks quite like Frank Ntilikina.
Like most of the Knicks’ top picks in recent years, Ntilikina came in with high expectations. Although there would be a serious adjustment coming over from Strasbourg, the Knicks felt it prudent to keep him up with the big club – where he played under eight minutes on opening night and then sat out two games as a DNP-CD – rather than give him some extra seasoning in the G League.
There’s nothing wrong with having a raw player like Ntilikina learn on the job, but the Knicks were and are woefully unequipped to prop up young players. If rookies are to receive valuable experience on the court, it has to be in an environment where they aren’t running around aimlessly and picking up bad habits.
Losses and growing pains are fine so long as they’re occurring within a sensible infrastructure where players are learning from the experience – not just receiving beatdowns while working with an entirely new rotation every night. That’s the sort of situation that can absolutely gut a young player’s confidence.
That’s a recurring theme in the ballad of Ntilikina, as the Knicks have yanked his chain almost constantly since he joined the organization. A young point guard needs a healthy dose of confidence to succeed, and at times it’s felt as though the team is actively trying to tear him down.
It started mere months after he made his debut as the second-youngest player in the league when rumors started circulating that the Knicks were prepared to make Ntilikina a shooting guard, dissatisfied with his long-term outlook at the point.
In his first season, Ntilikina ceded minutes to Ramon Sessions, Jarrett Jack and Ron Baker. In his second, the Knicks opted to get a closer look at Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke, with Ntilikina’s minutes actually decreasing from 21.9 in his first year to a flat 21.0 in his sophomore campaign. That despite making 16 starts in 43 games before a groin injury wiped out the second half of his year.
The Knicks also made the decision to trade for Dennis Smith Jr., the player selected immediately after Ntilikina in the 2017 draft. The comparisons between the two were impossible to avoid as both sputtered out of the gate in their careers, though Smith’s scoring upside and flashier play riled up a vocal portion of the Knicks fanbase that would’ve preferred the team just draft Smith to begin with.
Having a direct comparable arrive on the scene, especially as the headlining piece in a trade that saw New York deal its franchise player, cannot have a positive effect on morale.
This summer the Knicks added yet another NBA-caliber point guard in Elfrid Payton, who quickly earned the starting job. While defensible, it again raises the question of what exactly the Knicks are planning for.
Is Payton going to help win more games than Ntilikina in 2019? Maybe, and you can be generous and say probably. Is he going to help them win more games than Ntilikina in 2020 and beyond? Almost surely not.
To this point, the Knicks have stumbled into a situation that might actually allow Ntilikina to grow as a player. Though it hasn’t been their choice, the Knicks have been forced into giving him the reins with Payton injured and Smith missing time for a personal absence. The lack of depth means that he’s currently able to play without fear of being benched for making mistakes.
He can still be benched for nebulous foul trouble concerns, of course. David Fizdale limited Ntilikina to under 15 minutes against the Kings after he picked up three fouls in that short stint. As an aside, yanking a player off the court before he’s in danger of fouling out is the real effect of ‘foul trouble’ – Ntilikina has fouled out in five of his 128 career games. That’s the sort of overly conservative behavior that can get a young player in his own head by creating danger when there isn’t any real threat.
And yet, the world saw what a confident Ntilikina could do at this summer’s World Cup. As a key player for Team France, Ntilikina was empowered to simply play. He was asked to turn in a strong effort on defense and complete simple tasks to keep him occupied on offense, and it worked. Now we’re seeing what that might look like at the NBA level. Ntilikina is improving, and he’s looking more confident than ever.
In the aggregate Ntilikina still isn’t getting a huge lift in playing time, with just 23.0 mpg through the first eight games, but his numbers as a starter (four games) are promising: 9.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.8 blocks in 32.2 mpg, along with .484 from the field and .583 from deep. Moreover, Ntilikina already has three games under his belt of more than 30 minutes played – just eight all of last year – and three games with 10-plus points – just six all of last year.
Friday’s win over the Mavs may have been his best game as a professional, as he turned in 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals, three blocks and four 3-pointers. Watching his play showed what the Knicks must have envisioned when they took him eighth overall, as Ntilikina was all over the floor. His defense was outstanding, and he even started to mix in more offensive flair with some confident pull-up jumpers and even a step-back or two.
Here’s Ntilikina holding his ground against 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis, getting right into his airspace and forcing an air-ball after stopping the back-down.
Here’s Ntilikina with a masterful defensive possession where he spends time defending four different Mavs, showing a timely double-team, getting into the passing lane and eventually forcing the turnover.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 9, 2019
And lastly, here’s Ntilikina’s offense being fueled by his defense. This is the sort of play that only gets completed by players who are feeling it.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 9, 2019
It’s a bit sad that we wouldn’t be looking at this if the Knicks were at full strength. Ntilikina played just 3:12 over the first three games of the season combined, including a DNP-CD. He’s starting to look like the ideal version of himself, however, and there is simply no reason to mess with the young guard’s confidence even when Payton and Smith return to the fold. The organization has bungled the first two years of his development and has lucked into this current scenario.
But no matter how they got there, this is the player that the Knicks need going forward. Frank Ntilikina simply has to keep starting.