Frank Ntilikina
Getty Images

Frank Ntilikina is preparing for the most important game of his career when France faces Team USA at the FIBA World Cup.

Danny Small

It’s not hyperbole or overreaction: Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup against Team USA will be the most important game of Frank Ntilikina‘s young career. France is looking to rebound after their heartbreaking loss to the Australians on Monday in the second round of group play at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The New York Knicks have never truly been a serious playoff contender during Ntilikina’s two-year tenure with the organization. In terms of pressure, Ntilikina will be entering the crucible. It’s a do-or-die game for his country with the entire world watching. Ntilikina, 21, has yet to play on this type of stage.

In addition to the implications of a win-or-go-home game, how he performs against a roster filled with NBA talent can strengthen the “bust” narrative surrounding the former No. 8 overall pick. Conversely, a strong game against the likes of Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell could alter the Ntilikina narrative to take on a more redemptive tone.

Ntilikina has yet to have a breakout game at the World Cup to change that narrative. He’s had a few moments when it felt like a big breakthrough was coming, but we’re still waiting.

Hot Start Against Australia

In the first quarter against the Boomers, Ntilikina looked poised for his best game of the tournament. He was all over the court, using his length to disrupt on defense and exuding an attacking mindset on offense.

His only steal of the game was a gift from Joe Ingles, but Ntilikina’s burst of speed to split Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova was an eye-opening play in transition.

Later in the quarter, Ntilikina showed the right mix of aggressiveness and savviness to knock down a floater and a foul-line pull-up. He finished the quarter with seven points on 3-for-5 from the floor, including a converted and-one.

However, as Ntilikina has been one to do this World Cup, he couldn’t maintain this level of play for an entire game. The Knicks guard would top out at seven points for the game.

France head coach Vincent Collet opted to go with the more experienced Andrew Albicy in the backcourt down the stretch. It’s no shock to see Collet lean on experience when the game is on the line.

After all, Ntilikina just turned 21 in July. The fact that he’s starting at point guard for one of the best teams in the world says something about his future.

New York Knicks

Nothing Easy

The French are underdogs against the Americans, but this isn’t quite David and Goliath. France has proven that they can hang with the big boys. With stars like Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier leading the charge, France has a puncher’s chance against Team USA.

If they’re going to win, they need Gobert to play like the All-NBA center he is. Team USA lacks depth at the position and the French have to hope to exploit the trio of Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, and Mason Plumlee. Head coach Gregg Popovich has even resorted to playing small lineups with Khris Middleton or Harrison Barnes playing the five to combat his lack of depth inside.

Should Popovich employ these small-ball lineups, look for France to hammer the Americans with the Gobert-Fournier duo. Expect the French to feed the Americans a steady diet of clear-out pick-and-rolls, Utah uphill handoffs, and Spain pick-and-rolls.

On offense, Ntilikina will have to pick his spots and knock down open shots when he has them. As much as Knicks fans want Ntilikina to explode offensively, he’s a role player for France and his greatest value still comes on the defensive end.

Against a team that is deep with guards and wings, Ntilikina’s length and ability to guard the point of attack should come in handy.

But stopping Walker and Mitchell is a much taller task than shutting down the Dominican Republic’s backcourt. Whether or not Ntilikina’s up to the job will play a major factor in France’s chances to secure the upset.

Ntilikina’s World Cup performance will go down as a net-positive even if he struggles against Team USA. He finally looks healthy and has shown brief flashes of brilliance in select moments. Moreover, he’s playing an integral part in France’s run to the quarterfinals and beyond.

A breakout game could do much more to build up Ntilikina than a disappointing effort could break him down. But make no mistake, if the young Frenchman disappoints on Wednesday, it will bolster the “bust” narrative that has enveloped Ntilikina’s career.

Elite Access