We’re barely 50 games into Frank Ntilikina‘s rookie season, and already some Knicks fans are calling him a bust. Here’s how the French Prince is already proving people wrong, and why you haven’t noticed yet.
When I think about the Knicks‘ drafting woes this century, I think about this buddy I had in college. Let’s call him Jim.
Jim was a super nice dude … always down to go out, was a good wingman, would give you his notes during finals time. The fact that his folks were loaded didn’t hurt. He was solid if unspectacular all the way around.
Except when it came to women.
You see, Jim was decent looking, dressed fine, could hold a conversation…all things you figure would lead to a successful endeavor or two over the course of four years.
Nope. One disaster after another. It seemed like there was always a nice girl who liked him, but he would instead chase the one who screamed “wrong for you in every way” against the better judgment of everyone who knew him. One time he even bypassed dating this awesome girl from his hometown in favor of a foreign chick who he swore was real but we never once met in person.
Another time he actually started going out with an exchange student who had a lot going for her – our mutual roommate even called her the most promising girlfriend prospect he’d ever seen – only to dump her the minute this hot airhead looked his way.
Most of the time though, our roommate would get Jim so plastered pre-gaming at our apartment that he’d never even make it out the door to go the bar so he could meet the next Ms. Wrong.
He could never get out of his own way. Unsurprisingly, he ended college single and very, very available.
We all know the friend I’m talking about, of course. He wears orange and blue and likes very much to the play the harmonica.
The Knicks, like my buddy, aren’t complete disasters. They’ve hit on some low key productive vets and have even had a few All-Stars pass through the building. Sadly though, it hasn’t amounted to a sustained, stable relationship with winning for one reason above any other: their inability to navigate the draft.
Just like Mac never figured out the proper combo when it came to women, the Knicks have gotten the draft wrong in just about every way possible.
It stated with Frederic Weis, who was picked over local product Ron Artest. Then there was Mike Sweetney, taken ahead of the 2003 AP College Player of the Year, David West. Two years later Channing Frye was taken two spots ahead of Andrew Bynum, who made an All-NBA team once upon a time.
Renaldo Balkman was taken one spot ahead of Rajon Rondo a year later. In 2009, everyone remembers the Knicks taking Jordan Hill after missing on Steph Curry, but we all forget that DeMar DeRozan – subtly putting together a Hall of Fame career – was picked one spot later.
The one time they got it right with Danilo Gallinari, he was shipped off in the Carmelo Anthony trade before he could follow through on his promise. That his career has been marred by injuries doesn’t change the fact that he was needlessly dealt for someone who was always coming here eventually.
Usually though, just as Mac passed out from one too many shots of Gentleman Jack before the night even began, there are the famous last words every Knicks fan knows all too well: “New York trades a future first round pick for [insert human tragicomedy here]”
Sure, they got it right in 2015. The blind squirrel that was Phil Jackson found his nut (and then tried to sell his nut for a small mound of empty shells). Hopefully, it mends quickly.
Last June though, it seemed like all the bad vibes had returned. Every ounce of angst and agita seemed to build towards a decision that had “the Knicks blow it” stamped on in giant red letters before the pick was even made.
No right answer
On June 22, 2017, the Knicks were faced with an impossible choice.
If they went with the uber-athletic Dennis Smith Jr., the Knicks would be going from one injury prone point guard who couldn’t shoot or defend a lamp post (and quite literally quit on his team for a game) to another injury prone point guard who couldn’t shoot or defend a lamp post (and only slightly less obviously quit on his team over an entire college season).
They’d be bypassing the high-character foreigner who could shut down an opposing team’s best ball handler while also making silky passes and stroking it from deep in a league where you kind of need to do that to be good.
They went with the foreigner, Frank Ntilikina. Immediately, the narrative was flipped.
The Knicks took a project when the surest thing in the draft was staring at them square in the face. They talked themselves out of the two things that matter in the league more than anything else: natural talent and unbridled athleticism.
And they did that … for what exactly?
Through 60 games, Knicks fans have been asking themselves that exact question. Most haven’t liked the answer they’ve gotten.
What Frank isn’t
Ntilikina looks nothing like your average point guard.
He doesn’t really dunk, at least not in the way we’re used to point guards throwing it down these days.
Most of all though, the thing that has fans’ panties the most bunched up (that sounds quite uncomfortable. Maybe switch to boxers … ) is what many see as a complete and total absence of aggressiveness from Ntilikina’s game.
This makes sense. We’re New Yorkers. Not only will we steal your cab, but we’ll give you the stink eye as we ride away.
To say that Frank looks like he’s playing tentative at times is an understatement. We’ve all seen him get the ball, take a couple dribbles, seemingly without purpose as he surveys the scene, and then send it back from whence it came.
This, we’ve been trained, is the opposite of what a point guard is supposed to do. Action, not thought, is the path to glory. And if Ntilikina had these moments because he simply wasn’t capable, we’d all have a reason to be worried.
Guess what: that’s not the reason.
— Hard Knicks Life Podcast (@HardKnicksLife) February 25, 2018
That he missed the shot there is irrelevant. When he needs to get somewhere with the ball, he’ll get there.
But what about the rim? That’s a good place to want to get to. Can he get there when he needs?
If you’ve watched carefully, you know the answer. That clip shows Frank—unassisted by a pick—driving by the Celtics’ Marcus Morris, who routinely guards LeBron with some level of success. If Ntilikina can take him off the dribble, it’s safe to say he has the ability to get to the hole in his DNA.
Coming into his own
So why doesn’t he do it more often?
See, that’s the thing … he kind of has. Although Ntilikina is only averaging 4.1 drives per game, on a per 36-minute basis, he’s nearly on par with fellow rookie Lonzo Ball, right in the middle of the pack with his peers (Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell are both amongst the league leaders in this category).
While he’s not shooting it a ton on his forays to the rim, he is dishing it with a purpose. His assist rate on drives is fifth among rookies who have recorded at least three such plays per game, ahead of noted newcomers like Ben Simmons, Mitchell, and yes, Smith Jr. His pass percentage on drives is also fifth, a hair below Ball.
This much is clear: he’s a pass-first point guard in the traditional sense. It’s a different approach than many fans want but don’t for a second think it’s by accident. Ntilikina is always looking for ways to get his teammates good, open shots.
Watch this and you’ll see that both the timing and accuracy of his passes are deadly.
Does he turn it over too much? Absolutely, but his turnovers per 36 minutes are right around his more heralded classmates.
Could he think less and shoot more? Yes, and everyone around the Knicks, including Frank himself, will tell you that. But if nothing else, Ntilikina’s approach has led to one thing that Smith Jr’s (as well as many other rookies) hasn’t: on-court success.
Among rookies who have played at least 10 games and 15 minutes per night, Frank’s negative 1.6 net rating ranks 15th out of 32 newcomers, just below Ball’s negative 1.4 and miles ahead of Dennis Smith Jr.’s negative 10.9.
The real kicker is what happens when Ntilikina is off the court. During those minutes, New York has an even worse negative 3.7 net rating. Of the Knicks players who have played over 1000 minutes for the team this season, only Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., and the always unheralded Kyle O’Quinn have greater positive differentials.
Compare that to Smith Jr. and the Mavs, who perform like a top-five team when he’s off the court (you’ll notice the same is true of Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews. However, according to CleaningtheGlass.com, when Barnes or Matthews play without Smith Jr., Dallas performs like an above average or average NBA team, respectively. The same does not hold true when Smith is without Barnes or Matthews).
The best is yet to come
Am I unfairly picking on the Mavs rookie, who should, by all accounts, go on to have an incredibly successful career? Absolutely. Am I doing that because I’m sick of the same four Knicks fans on my Twitter feed who won’t shut up about them making the wrong pick? You betcha.
It doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of people need to stop focusing on what Frank isn’t and pay attention to what he is: a guy who might not blow you away with numbers or highlights but who you want out there at the biggest moments of a game.
Need more proof? Heading into Monday night’s Warriors’ game, the Knicks were 9-7 when Ntilikina played more than 25 minutes and 15-30 when he didn’t.
He’s never going to be Mitchell, who looks like a perennial All-Star. If anyone tells you they’d take Ntilikina over the man who’s single-handedly changed the franchise trajectory for the Utah Jazz, they are either lying or very, very stupid.
It shouldn’t matter. The French son of Rwandan parents by way of Belgium has come to New York to be what he is, and what he is will likely make the Garden a better place for a long, long time.
(What’s that? I forgot to talk about his defense? Or the fact that he’s just 19 years old?)
Oh, yea … Frank might be the best defensive teenage guard to ever come into the league.
Are numbers your thing? According to BasketballReference.com, here are the teenage rookie guards who played at least 1,000 minutes and had a steal rate higher than 2.0 and a block rate of at least 0.9: Frank Ntilikina … and Kobe Bryant. That’s it. That’s the whole list.
If you’ve watched even a sampling of Knicks basketball this year, you need statistics to know Frank is special on defense about as much as Michael Beasley needs hallucinogenic drugs. It’s what the eye test was invented for.
Alas, he even has room to improve there.
You know what? It’s cool. I want my rookie guard unafraid to go up against the sport’s premier ankle-breaker. Just like I want him unafraid to back down from this dude.
It’s all part of the process. Be patient, Knicks fans. More good stuff is on the way.
Just remember: Frank’s doing it on his terms, not yours.
And that’s probably for the best.