New York Knicks Frank Ntilikina
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Danny Small

The New York Knicks have a few options at point guard this year, but the job is Frank Ntilikina’s to win come training camp.

Frank Ntilikina’s up and down rookie season has some New York Knicks fans worried and others giddy. His stat line certainly doesn’t look like that of a starting point guard in the NBA. But the starting point guard position is Ntilikina’s to win for a few reasons.

We don’t know exactly what Ntilikina will be in this league. He may not be a starting point guard. The front office hopes he develops into one, but at worst, he’ll be a solid defender off the bench. He could fall somewhere in the middle as an off-ball guard that can provide elite perimeter defense.


Long story short, the jury is still out on the French Prince. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what he can be. That isn’t a strong enough reason to win Ntilikina the starting point guard job. While it doesn’t hurt his case, there are much better reasons to start Ntilikina in favor of Trey Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay.

Elite Defense

The defense on the starting unit will be weak and that could be a serious understatement. David Fizdale wants to increase the intensity on defense and employ a rugged style that makes it tough for opposing teams to run their sets. This sounds great in theory, but the Knicks don’t have the personnel to make a huge leap defensively this year.

In all likelihood, Courtney Lee will start even though he’ll likely be moved by the trade deadline. He’s an excellent defender, but it takes more than one defender to keep a unit from getting torched.

Enes Kanter plays hard, but he’s not much of a rim protector and he gets victimized when pulled out to defend on the perimeter. It’s easier to hide Kanter alongside an elite rim protector like Kristaps Porzingis, but for the foreseeable future, Fizdale won’t have that luxury.

Kevin Knox, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Mario Hezonja are all candidates to start with Hezonja and THJ being the more likely choices.

Knox is a rookie and there’s no reason to expect him to become a defensive stopper in his rookie season. It’s going to take time for him adjust to the NBA game—especially defensively. Hardaway and Hezonja might have potential to become capable defenders, but we’re still waiting to see any type of consistency out of these two.

That leaves Frank Ntilikina as the only other above average defender on this potential starting unit. In fact, above average might be a conservative projection for Ntilikina’s defense this season. In his rookie season, Ntilikina ranked first in the NBA in defending the pick-and-roll per Synergy Sports Technology. Frank only allowed a remarkable .65 points per possession in the pick-and-roll.

With a full year under his belt, the 6-foot-5 guard with a 7-foot-1 wingspan is a possible NBA All-Defensive candidate in the future. Don’t be shocked if Ntilikina sneaks onto the second team this year.

New York Knicks

Gravity

This has nothing to do with Sir Isaac Newton. Kevin Pelton of ESPN does a great job explaining gravity in a basketball sense. It’s relatively complex to quantify, but simple to understand the overarching idea of gravity. Pelton writes:

“In a basketball context, gravity is the tendency of defenders to be pulled to certain parts of the floor.”

Players can be pulled to different parts of the floor for different reasons. Good shooters like Klay Thompson pull defenders out towards the perimeter and create space. Big men who are lob threats pull defenders towards the basket and give ballhandlers more space in the pick-and-roll.

The Knicks don’t have many players who command the full attention of the defense, but the ones with the most gravity are in the starting lineup. Kanter knows how to operate in the low post and he’s a decent option in the pick-and-roll game.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is a streaky shooter, but he is capable of getting hot at a moment’s notice. Hopefully, Fizdale’s guiding hand can help THJ develop into a more consistent scorer. His 31.7 percent shooting from three last season was well below his previous season’s percentage of 35.7.

Courtney Lee is a consistent threat from deep. He shot over 40 percent from three-point range last season and he’s a great guy to have hanging out by the perimeter to keep defenses from clogging the middle.

The best thing for Ntilikina would be to play alongside guys that will take some of the offensive pressure off his shoulders and allow him to focus on facilitating.

Second Unit

Additionally, the second unit needs a scoring punch and Trey Burke is definitely the type of guard who can provide that. While Burke would fit well on the starting unit, his skill set is more valuable as a second-unit scorer who can sustain an offense.

Ntilikina is capable of becoming an integral part of the offense. But he’s not the same type of high usage player like Burke that can carry a second unit featuring an inexperienced Knox, inconsistent Emmanuel Mudiay, unproven Noah Vonleh, and offensively-limited Lance Thomas.

Who gets a bulk of the minutes as the backup center is still a question mark. Luke Kornet should be ahead of Mitchell Robinson at the start of the season due to the fact that Robinson could have serious problems defending the post. There’s no reason to expose Robinson before he has time to work out some of the kinks. He would benefit a lot from spending time down in the G League, but that’s a different story for a different day.

The truth is that Burke is far more capable of carrying the scoring load for the second unit. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Ntilikina, but it’s yet another reason why the French Prince should start at point guard.

The competition at point guard isn’t a perfect situation. Ntilikina certainly has his flaws and he has a lot to prove. But right now, he’s the better option in the starting lineup.

New York Knicks

Please SUBSCRIBE to ESNY's Daily Newsletter, ESNY City Stream. Every piece of content included yet CUSTOMIZED to your New York Sports-team allegiance:

ESNY City Stream

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU