The New York Knicks passed on Dennis Smith Jr. to take Frank Ntilikina. The point guards will meet for the third time in their careers.
Fair or not, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. will always be compared to one another. The New York Knicks and Phil Jackson famously took the French project one pick before the dynamic point guard.
Add in the caveat that both are point guards and the two players will be forever linked. Even LeBron James weighed in on the Knicks’ decision to draft Ntilikina over Smith.
After their rookie seasons, a glance at their stat lines will tell you that the Knicks made a tragic mistake by selecting Ntilikina and the Dallas Mavericks landed the point guard out of sheer luck.
Smith averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game compared to Ntilikina’s pedestrian line of 8.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. Smith was playing more minutes last season, but the numbers per 36 minutes tell a similar story to the per game averages.
But even the eye test was favorable to Smith. After all, when he’s throwing down windmill dunks in Madison Square Garden, it’s hard not to imagine what he’d look like wearing a Knicks jersey.
Smith definitely had the more impressive rookie season, but a closer look at the two will paint a much different picture. Of course, that picture is far from complete.
Ntilikina and Smith have already dueled twice in their careers. The teams split the season series with the visiting team taking the victory in both games. Smith turned in underwhelming performances in both games, shooting a combined 11-for-33 from the field in the season series.
Ntilikina was not much better, only scoring a combined 11 points total in the season series. Ntilikina played his usual stifling defense, but unfortunately, fans did not get to see a back-and-forth battle between the eighth and ninth picks in the draft.
Rather, Ntilikina was relegated to Hornacek’s bench while Jarrett Jack ate up most of the first-unit minutes at point guard. Unlike his French counterpart, Smith was given the keys to the offense from the get-go and he started all 69 games he played in. The interaction between Smith and Ntilikina during their rookie seasons was somewhat subdued.
But they did have a few significant plays against one another in their meetings. Ntilikina was caught by a screen on two possessions. On the first, Smith has space to take a decent shot after Ntilikina gets completely stonewalled on the screen and Enes Kanter’s drop coverage allows for enough space for Smith to put up a shot.
Minutes later, the Mavericks run another pick and roll with the same personnel. Ntilikina does a better job at getting over the screen and Kanter doesn’t cede as much space to Smith, making it a much tougher shot on the rookie.
This leads us perfectly into what to watch for on Friday.
Pick And Roll
Expect a heavy diet of pick and rolls for the Mavericks. Heavy use of the pick and roll has become standard operating procedure throughout the NBA and Smith is confident with the ball in his hands. We should get to see more than a couple plays of Ntilikina defending Smith in the pick and roll.
Smith recently squared off against another member of the 2017 draft class — Lonzo Ball. Ntilikina and Ball share many similarities on the court, especially on the defensive end. Both second-year players are long, athletic, and possess active hands. Throughout the NBA, Ntilikina and Ball are two of the youngest, most exciting defenders in the league.
Much like Lonzo, look for Frank to utilize his wingspan and length to make it difficult for Smith to find clean looks at the basket. Even when Smith had decent looks, Ball’s length bothered him at times.
Smith doesn’t possess the elite length and size that Ntilikina or Ball do, but he is adept at using his body to create space and finish at the rim. Ntilikina’s defense is light years beyond most 20-year-olds, but Smith’s offensive game can be tough to contain when he’s finishing through contact. Here, he utilizes his body to create enough space to score the bucket.
Who's Protecting The Rim?
As stated earlier, Smith knows how to use his body to create space for himself, but a 7-footer playing above the rim can be the great equalizer. It’s something that can have a profound effect on Smith’s impact. JaVale McGee is currently leading the league in blocks with 3.3 per game and his rim-protecting gave Smith fits.
But the Knicks don’t have anyone that can defend the paint quite like McGee — until Kristaps Porzingis makes his long-awaited. Noah Vonleh is leading the Knicks in blocks per game with one. Mitchell Robinson has the potential to become a top-level rim protector, but it’s hard to expect an elite defensive effort from him every night.
As great as Ntilikina is at defending the pick and roll, it is far tougher to have success on defense without a proven rim protector. Smith will be a challenge for the Knicks and Fizdale wants his guys to “go through it,” as he’s one to say.
Ntilikina is passing his early tests as the starting point guard and Smith represents his next challenge as well as a player who he will be compared to throughout his career.