Frank Ntilikina
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France cruised to an emphatic win over the Dominican Republic despite Frank Ntilikina’s problematic turnovers in the first half.

Small Film Room

Frank Ntilikina‘s first half against the Dominican Republic was forgettable. The three turnovers he had would have been much more concerning if not for the New York Knicks guard’s bounce-back second half.

For a player like Russell Westbrook or James Harden, turnovers are an occupational hazard. When they are dishing out double-digit assists each game, turnovers are bound to happen.

But for a player like Ntilikina, turnovers are unacceptable. Ntilikina’s value on the offensive end skyrockets if he’s not making silly mistakes. For the most part, his first two games at the 2019 FIBA World Cup were unblemished.

He took care of the ball, knocked down open shots, and complemented the dynamic duo of Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert.

New York Knicks

We all know his value is greatest on the defensive end, but if he’s a liability on offense, it’s hard for head coach Vincent Collet to justify playing him ahead of Andrew Albicy or Nando De Colo.

After a concerning first half, Ntilikina regrouped to post a respectable stat line. He finished with eight points, two rebounds, four assists, two steals, and three turnovers in just over 25 minutes.

The 21-year-old hit two threes, pushing his tournament average to 54.5% from three-point range. But we’ve already dissected his shooting and talked about his scoring ad nauseam. It’s time to break down Ntilikina’s performance as a pure point guard.

Shaky 1st Half

The first half wasn’t pretty for the French Prince. After only turning the ball over once in the first two games, Ntilikina gave the ball away three times in the first half alone against the Dominican Republic.

Each turnover was worse than the last. The first came as a result of overpenetration. Ntilikina does a great job at using his long arms to secure the steal, but as he drives to the basket, he leaves his feet without having a plan. That’s a major no-no.

On the second sequence, Ntilikina simply can’t handle the pressure of the Dominican guard. As the defender rides his hip, the French point guard isn’t aware of the halfcourt line and is called for the backcourt violation. Ugly.

His final turnover of the first half—and the game—was by far the worst. Collet loves to run his wings off staggered screens for wing catches (more on that action later). It’s a staple of the French offense.

However, that means that defenders can overplay it if they recognize it early enough. The Dominican defender is trailing Axel Toupane, but he is able to secure the steal because Ntilikina’s pass wouldn’t rip through wet tissue paper. Lazy. Lackadaisical. Careless. Call it whatever you want.

The first turnover came as a result of Ntilikina being overaggressive. We can live with that.

But the second and third turnovers are inexcusable. In fact, Collet went to Albicy to start the second half, undoubtedly as a response to Ntilikina’s careless turnovers.

Strong 2nd Half

Collet’s switch to Albicy in the second half worked. Ntilikina took the hint and turned his game around. He added two assists to bring his final tally to four on the day. Not to mention, his final two assists rectified past mistakes.

His first helper of the second half was hardly a highlight-reel dime, but it showed patience. This was another situation where Ntilikina could have panicked, but he didn’t. After driving towards the basket and reaching a dead-end, he keeps his dribble, doesn’t leave his feet, and finds Toupane for the corner three.

Calm, cool, and collected. Ok, so technically that assist wasn’t in the second half, but it was after Ntilikina’s three turnovers so we’re including it anyway.

The highlight-reel assists came a little later. Within the span of 30 seconds, Ntilikina found two cutters for easy baskets. The first resulted in a Mathias Lessort dunk after Ntilikina attacked in semi-transition and drew two defenders. The pretty pocket pass hit Lessort in stride and at that point, Lessort handled the rest.

The second was a simple give-and-go with Nando De Colo. There wasn’t much to it on Ntilikina’s part, but you’d be surprised how many times players miss that small window of opportunity to hit the cutter.

This would be a good time to remind everyone that Ntilikina and Lessort are the two youngest players for France at 21 and 23, respectively.

The French Path To Victory

Let’s zoom out a little bit and look at France as a team. Ntilikina is a crucial part of what France wants to do defensively and he’s shown his ability to make an impact with his shot. But France is only going to go as far as Gobert and Fournier take them.

Gobert is one of the top three players at the World Cup behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. Fournier is probably somewhere in the top 15.

Collet has done a masterful job at putting this duo in actions where they can take advantage of Fournier’s scoring touch and Gobert’s dominance at the rim.

France has run this same action to start every game of the World Cup so far. There are slight variations, but the basic action is the same: staggered screen for a Fournier catch on the right wing into a pick-and-roll with Gobert.

This action has netted France two points on their first possession of every game of the World Cup so far. Expect Collet to trot this out for a fourth time against Lithuania on Saturday, but eventually, they’re going to have to start with a counter. A Fournier backdoor would be the right play if the Lithuanians try to deny Fournier from catching.

France hasn’t had the need to play anything other than man-to-man defense. However, on Thursday, Collet went with a big lineup and experimented with some 2-3 matchup zone. Vincent Poirier planted himself in the paint while Gobert took one of the wing spots.

This defense will come in handy as the tournament progresses, but this specific lineup is questionable. Gobert is the currently the best defender on the planet, but closing out on shooters isn’t his strong suit. The Dominican Republic knocked down two threes on Gobert’s side of the floor.

We’ll see if and how Collet adjusts the zone for the likes of Lithuania and Australia. Putting Gobert in the middle of the zone with a quicker player at the wing spot seems like the better option, but this was a case of trial and error for the French.

After three games, it’s clear that France is one of the better teams in China, but the competition is about to ramp up. Winning three games and claiming Group G was an expectation for the French. Collet’s squad will look to advance out of the second round of group play and secure a spot in the quarterfinals.

A win over the dangerous Lithuanians on Saturday would clinch a quarterfinal berth. Another win over the Australians on Monday would help France avoid Team USA until a potential championship game.

France is positioned for a deep run in China. With juggernauts like USA, Serbia, and Spain looming, it’s still early to pin the French as the favorites to win it all.

But at this point, leaving China without a medal would be a major disappointment.

Bonus: Defensive Stop

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. This defensive possession from Ntilikina made me feel claustrophobic. He sticks the point of attack, seamlessly switches to cover for Fournier, makes himself paper-thin to avoid the screen, and has the awareness to pressure the ball when the shot clock is winding down. Excellent.

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