Frank Ntilikina
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

France couldn’t have beaten Team USA if not for monumental contributions from New York Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina.

Small Film Room

The most divisive player on the New York Knicks just took a major step forward in his development. We’re talking about Frank Ntilikina, of course. The French point guard played the biggest game of his career on Wednesday and he didn’t disappoint.

Ntilikina and France knocked off Team USA in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup on the back of a dominant fourth quarter, led by none other than Ntilikina.

His seven fourth-quarter points led the way to an improbable victory over the likes of Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell. In fact, Ntilikina actually outplayed Walker in this game.

Ntilikina outscored Walker 11-10, despite the fact that Walker made it to the free-throw line eight times. The 21-year-old Frenchman also had more assists and fewer turnovers than his All-NBA counterpart.

However, box scores can be deceiving and it’s important to look deeper than a stat line. Upon further inspection, Ntilikina’s performance against Walker is even more impressive. When crunch time arrived, Ntilikina was ready for the moment and Team USA wasn’t.

Steady Start

Ntilikina has been hot and cold for much of the World Cup. A strong first half would be followed up by a lackluster second, or vice-versa. Although the point guard was an overall net-positive all tournament long, he struggled with bouts of inconsistency.

On Wednesday, he was as steady as ever through the first three quarters. He didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but his stifling defense on Walker and unselfish play on offense helped France enter the fourth quarter with a fighting chance.

There was no mistaking the confidence Ntilikina showed throughout three quarters. When he had a driving lane, he took it without hesitation.

That being said, he didn’t force the issue. A big part of France’s success has come from playing within the system. Head coach Vincent Collet put together a gameplan that emphasized Rudy Gobert in the pick-and-roll.

Ntilikina and Gobert are exhibiting wonderful chemistry in the pick-and-roll. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson develop a similar rapport with one another, but that’s a story for a different day.

Gobert and his main running mate, Evan Fournier, were exceptional against the Americans. Ntilikina’s contributions were vital, but Gobert was the MVP of this victory. His 21 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks don’t do his performance justice. Team USA had success with small-ball lineups all World Cup, but France cracked the code with Gobert’s presence in the paint.

Fournier, France’s leading scorer in the World Cup, poured in 22 points and four assists. Although his shooting numbers (9-for-21) don’t paint the prettiest picture, he’s normally the player France turns to with the shot clock running down.

For three quarters, France rode their dynamic duo while Ntilikina focused on defending Team USA’s deadly backcourt.

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Gutsy Finish

The third quarter didn’t go so well for the French. Donovan Mitchell exploded, bringing his scoring total up to 29 points for the game. The Americans had turned a six-point halftime deficit into a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter.

But with 8:11 left in the game, Collet turned to his best lineup—Ntilikina, Fournier, Gobert, Nicolas Batum, and Nando De Colo. When Ntilikina and company checked back into the game, Team USA held a seven-point lead.

To make matters worse, Walker had just drained the type of stepback jumper that often leads to a superstar finding his rhythm and dominating the final frame.

But on came that Ntilikina. Walker was held to only one more field goal in the fourth quarter. Shockingly, Ntilikina would go on to score more points than Walker and Mitchell combined in the fourth.

Shortly after entering, the Knicks guard showed off his new-found aggressiveness with a strong drive to the cup for two, his third such basket of the day. Team USA was caught overplaying Gobert and Fournier. Ntilikina simply took advantage of what was in front of him.

His next basket came as a result of a Gobert screen and boy was it huge for the French. With France down three with fewer than five minutes left, Mitchell went under the screen while Harrison Barnes left too much space for Ntilikina. Bad decision.

That three helped spur an 18-3 run by the French to close out the Americans. However, the dagger from Ntilikina came closer to the final buzzer.

Following a busted play, Fournier gave the neophyte the ball with mere seconds on the shot clock. With Walker draped all over him, Ntilikina calmly rose up and drilled the shot over the outstretched arms of Walker.

 

In the span of three minutes, Ntilikina had just knocked down two of the most important shots of his career. He embraced the moment and rose to the occasion.

Taking a quick departure from Ntilikina analysis, it’s rare to see someone outcoach Gregg Popovich, but that’s exactly what Collet did. The Americans stalled in the fourth quarter and allowed their offense to devolve into isolation play.

That’s partly on Walker and Mitchell for choosing to isolate the best defender in the world, but it’s also on Popovich for allowing the French to dictate what kind of shots Team USA took when the game was on the line.

It’s easy to forget that Ntilikina is still just 21 years old. It’s felt like he’s been with the Knicks for a long time, but his career is just beginning.

He may not ever develop into the type of star that an NBA team can build around. He still has his flaws and isn’t the kind of ball-dominant point guard we have grown so accustomed to seeing in the league.

However, the Frenchman is proving that within the right system, he can be a vital role player on a winning team. His elite defense has never been much of a question. Whether or not he can make timely buckets is another story entirely.

On Wednesday, Ntilikina added a significant chapter to his story. And this chapter could be the beginning of the end of the “bust” narrative that so many bought into unequivocally.

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