New York Knicks fans have always disagreed on Frank Ntilikina, and the debate has only grown stronger as we clash on his role in the future.
The 2017 NBA Draft was madness. New York Knicks fans were at war over Dennis Smith Jr. vs. Frank Ntilikina. It was a classic case of the established college star vs. the unknown international prospect. Our YouTube research told us that Smith was flashy and Ntilikina was boring. I was a Malik Monk guy myself. Nailed that one.
Before the draft, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks said Frank “has good cruising speed, but when he slams on the gas pedal, he’s not accelerating very quickly.” In contrast, Tjarks likened Smith and De’Aaron Fox to sports cars. But that didn’t matter because Frank wasn’t supposed to be a franchise player.
Ntilikina was thought to be a perfect fit for the triangle offense, and maybe he would’ve been. The Knicks drafted him with a specific purpose: to be Phil Jackson’s triangle mainstay like Derek Fisher before him. Frank would take Jackson’s patented offense into the 21st century.
But the Knicks aren’t big on stability. Jackson and the team parted ways less than a week later. The triangle was out, and literally, anything else wain. Ntilikina hadn’t even signed his rookie deal, and already his career was in flux. In six days, the 19-year-old had gone from point guard of the future to the end of the line. Two years later, and the jury’s still out.
Knicks Film School’s Jonathan Macri called Ntilikina a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a croissant. ESNY’s Collin Loring accurately described him as the forgotten man. The 6-foot-6 lead guard with the 7-foot-1 wingspan is a puzzle to a stat nerd like me.
Over the past two seasons, Ntilikina is one of two NBA players to play 2,500 minutes but score less than 750 points. The other, Oklahoma City’s Terrence Ferguson, didn’t have many scoring opportunities playing next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
So why does he generate more divisiveness among the fanbase than any other player on the roster? The fans who love Frank treat him like Kobe stans treat their beloved Black Mamba and the fans who hate him treat him like Kobe stans treat LeBron.
Look, the guy can play defense. He was the first Knicks rookie since Iman Shumpert in 2012 to have to multiple five steal games in a season.
His metrics as a rookie show promise, even if he was inconsistent. Despite taking a step back defensively in an injury-shortened sophomore season, Frank showed legitimate potential to be an All-NBA defender.
While his overall shooting percentages are a complete disaster, Frank has shown he can make jumpers in small sample sizes. According to NBA Stats, the 21-year-old made 35 of 97 (36.1%) catch-and-shoot threes as a rookie. That number fell dramatically as a sophomore when he was just 24 of 80 (30%).
Frank had a decent three-point shooting stretch from December through February of his rookie season, going 26 of 73 (35.6%). In March he came stumbling back to earth, shooting 10 of 35 (28.6%). You’re probably thinking: While that’s just a rookie in the NBA.
But Ntilikina didn’t play like a rookie on defense. He lowered the opponent’s field goal percentage by 3% when he was the primary defender, and he was in the 90th percentile of efficiency as a defender on the ball handler during a pick and roll.
Frank’s never going to be the scoring champ. He’s never scored 20 points in an NBA game, and he’s dished out ten assists just twice. You can make the argument that Ntilikina and Josh Jackson–also a member of the 2017 draft class–have been the worst offensive players in the league the past two seasons.
Ntilikina and Jackson are the only players during the last two seasons to log 2,500 minutes and post an OBPM of -3.5. Ntilikina had the lowest eFG% (effective field goal percentage) in the league during the past two seasons. Jackson’s was
(Keeping it in the Knicks family: The only player with a lower PER than Frank over the last two seasons (min. 2,000 minutes required) is Lance Thomas. This isn’t LT slander because I’m still holding out hope for a heroic comeback. Just thought it was worth mentioning.)
After some embarrassing off the court incidents, Phoenix moved on from Jackson this summer. Ntilikina could be facing the same fate, but a recent turn of events has added hope for all of the Frank stans out there.
Frank Ntilikina’s long arms lead to Rudy Gobert throwing it down #FIBAWC2019 pic.twitter.com/kcSXq3jcS2
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) September 3, 2019
The best thing to happen to Frank since being drafted had nothing to do with the Knicks. Ntilikina is playing a significant role for his native France in the FIBA World Cup. With his stock at an all-time low in New York, he’s been in the starting lineup for one of the top teams in the world and is receiving praise from veteran teammates.
When Frank played professionally in France, he routinely played in crucial games against some of the best teams in Europe. He’s never played a meaningful game as Knick, so it’s good for him to get back to a high-pressure situation. With Team USA looking vulnerable, Frank has a chance to grab a gold medal.
Trade rumors have been swirling about Frank for over a year, but things got more serious this summer. SNY’s Ian Begley reported that the Knicks were talking to at least one team about a trade involving “the return of an early second-round pick prior to the NBA Draft.”
Fair or not, Ntilikina will always be linked to Phil Jackson’s tarnished regime. He’s the guy that was handpicked by “that guy” to lead “that offense.” Steve Mills and Scott Perry quickly washed their hands of the Phil Jackson era. The only holdovers are Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson. Both players are in contract years, but Dotson will have a $2 million qualifying offer available.
It’s all going to come down to the money for Frank. If he plays another miserable offensive season, the Knicks won’t pick up a $6 million option. It won’t matter how good he is on defense.
I can’t believe it’s been two years since that draft. It’s been two years since the overreactions and boos from Knicks fans aimed at a naive teenager with no idea what’s in store for him. He’s played two seasons under two different head coaches. The roster turnover has been extraordinary.
The Knicks have had less than 50 percent roster continuity (via Basketball-Reference) in each of the last five seasons. That’s the longest streak of any franchise in the league. They haven’t signed a draft pick to a multi-year contract following his rookie deal since Charlie Ward in 1994. It’d be nice if Frank could be the guy to reverse the trend.
Because I’ll confess that I’m one of those fans who still believe Frank has a spot on this team going forward. Even if the small part of me that still stans for J.R. Smith’s air guitar will always wish we’d gone with Malik Monk.