Frank Ntilikina is about to begin the 2019 FIBA World Cup and it’s an opportunity for the Frenchman to prove himself to the New York Knicks.
Playing time won’t come easy for Frank Ntilikina in year three. Although he’s still a member of the New York Knicks, his days in Madison Square Garden could be numbered. At the very least, Ntilikina will be forced to fight his way from the bottom of the depth chart on the Knicks or another team.
Ntilikina has shown flashes of All-NBA defense, but his offense is still a work-in-progress. Through two seasons with the Knicks, the Belgium-born guard is averaging 5.9 points, 3.1 assists, and 2.2 rebounds per game. Even worse, he’s shooting 35.4% from the field and 30.5% from deep during his short career.
To be fair to Ntilikina, his opportunities to play his natural position—point guard—have been few and far between. Jeff Hornacek was reluctant to play him ahead of the over-the-hill Jarrett Jack. David Fizdale was similarly reluctant to play him over Emmanuel Mudiay.
The French Prince entered the NBA with such high hopes. A top-10 pick with size and athleticism, Ntilikina came in as raw as a bad fad diet. He was always going to be a project.
It just so happens that the man who took on that project, Phil Jackson, was axed days after Ntilikina was drafted. Current team president Steve Mills was the team’s general manager during that draft, but even he might not be able to save Ntilikina.
What will save Ntilikina? In short, a significant uptick in offensive production. That seems to be the only thing that can salvage his NBA career at this point. The good news for Ntilikina is that he’ll have a chance to prove himself starting on Sunday when Team France plays Germany in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
The French Connection
The French national team could be the perfect place for Ntilikina to resurrect his career. First off, he’s going to be the starting point guard, playing alongside the likes of Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, and most importantly, Rudy Gobert.
It’s unwise to expect Ntilikina to explode offensively in the World Cup or during the 2019-20 season, but France’s tight system on offense should accentuate Ntilikina’s strengths. He’ll run a ton of pick-and-rolls with Gobert as the lob threat.
As evidenced by France’s exhibition performances, Ntilikina is in his element when he’s playing in a systemic offense. His height and length give him the ability to see over defenders and make difficult passes to a cutting Gobert.
Not to mention, Gobert and Ntilikina offer a dynamic inside-outside defensive duo. That’s a pairing that looks awfully close to what Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson could be together in the orange and blue. Unfortunately, minutes alongside Robinson will be hard to come by.
To be clear, Ntilikina won’t be the only Knick to suffer because of a crowded rotation this season. The influx of veterans on short-term deals could upset the apple cart with the development of the young corps.
Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, and Reggie Bullock are all veterans deserving of minutes on the floor.
The second-year crew consisting of Robinson, Kevin Knox, and Allonzo Trier are all poised to be significant contributors. RJ Barrett will likely start and play a major role on Fizdale’s team. Even fellow rookie Ignas Brazdeikis should see his fair share of chances to succeed.
That’s 11 players and that number jumps to 12 when you consider Damyean Dotson’s solid play last season. Ironically enough, the second-rounder from 2017 is probably higher in the pecking order than Ntilikina at this very moment in time.
Including Ntilikina, there are 13 guys fighting for a finite number of minutes. Of course, injuries are bound to happen and clear out space in the rotation. In fact, Bullock will miss time early in the season with an injury.
Fizdale has long talked about the benefits of “positionless” basketball and he comes from the Pat Riley-Erik Spoelstra coaching tree that values defense and toughness above all else.
Ntilikina fits the bill of a player who can cover four positions on defense while sliding into an on- or off-ball role on offense based on personnel and situation.
If the Knicks are serious about wanting that kind of player, Ntilikina must be serious about proving it. Lucky for the Frenchman, as the only Knick competing at the World Cup, he’ll have his own personal showcase.
It’s a chance to start his 2019-20 season off on the right foot. Carrying that momentum into training camp with the Knicks, or whoever else is imperative for Ntilikina. He and Team France kick off the World Cup on Sunday against Germany (8:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+).