Frank Ntilikina
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Frank Ntilikina’s eye-opening performance at the FIBA World Cup should serve as a rough outline for David Fizdale and the New York Knicks.

Danny Small

The dust has settled after the 2019 FIBA World Cup and it’s time to revisit Frank Ntilikina. The French guard played the best basketball in his career in China. There’s a growing belief that he may have finally turned a corner.

First and foremost, let’s address Ntilikina’s impending contract situation. The New York Knicks must pick up his fourth-year option for $6.2 million by the end of October. They would be crazy not to pick that up after his strong showing at the World Cup.

Not to mention, failing to pick up the fourth-year option would make Ntilikina an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, torpedoing his trade value. Clearing salary cap space would be the only logical explanation for letting Ntilikina walk at the end of the year.

Also, there’s no need to organize the books for the 2020 free-agent class. It’s a fairly weak group overall.

Heck, the Orlando Magic have already exercised Markelle Fultz’s fourth-year team option worth more than $12 million. Picking up Ntilikina’s seems like a no-brainer.

But now the Knicks must figure out how to put Ntilikina in the right positions to succeed. France’s head coach, Vincent Collet, pulled out the best version of Ntilikina at the World Cup and David Fizdale should look to the blueprint laid out by Collet.

Defensive-Minded Combo Guard

Ntilikina’s standout performance and gutsy fourth-quarter buckets to beat Kemba Walker and Team USA drew the most headlines. But the 21-year-old’s lockdown defense was his biggest contribution to France’s gold medal run. He spent the entire World Cup harrying opposing ballhandlers the length of the floor.

He has the potential to become an elite defender in the NBA in the same mold as a Marcus Smart or Patrick Beverley. Ntilikina’s not nearly as strong as Smart or as quick as Beverley, but he’s longer than a Martin Scorsese flick. His length is utterly disruptive in drop coverage on the pick-and-roll and he’s capable of switching onto four different positions without being punished.

The young guard is growing noticeably stronger from a physical standpoint, but the Knicks are hoping he can bring the mental fortitude he showcased at the World Cup. He played with a chip on his shoulder and it showed. When he plays with that edge, Fizdale can feel comfortable leaning on Ntilikina to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Whatever comes on offense is gravy.

Speaking of offense, Collet laid the groundwork for Fizdale on that end of the floor as well. Although he entered the NBA as a point guard, he’s really more of a combo guard. Undoubtedly, Ntilikina can manage primary ballhandling responsibilities. But he’s at his best when he has another guard to help shoulder the load.

Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo provided that for Ntilikina this summer. Perhaps RJ Barrett or Dennis Smith Jr. can fill similar roles alongside the former No. 8 overall pick.

He’s never going to be a dynamo on offense, but he doesn’t need to be a 15 point-per-game scorer to play a vital role on a winning squad.

Unfortunately, the current roster structure of the team could be detrimental to Ntilikina’s overall development.

Competition Is A Double-Edged Sword

New York’s depth has been one of the most compelling storylines of the summer. The Knicks have plenty of mouths to feed and only so many minutes to go around.

It’s impossible to fault Ntilikina believers for feeling anxious about the influx of proven veterans on the roster. The Frenchman was previously supplanted in the rotation by the likes of Jarrett Jack, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Trey Burke.

Part of what made Ntilikina so successful in the World Cup was the understanding that he was going to have a long leash on the court. Collet was willing to let the young guard play through mistakes without worrying about seeing a substitute head to the scorer’s table.

Despite the eye-opening performance at the World Cup, the risk of losing a position battle still runs high. Fizdale has vowed to let players “keep what they kill” and if Ntilikina isn’t killing anything early in the season, he could drop out of the rotation entirely.

However, we’ve seen Ntilikina perform in do-or-die games on the highest international stage. When he was thrust into the starting lineup after an injury to France’s veteran point guard, Thomas Heurtel, he didn’t back down. The competition fueled the guard to a new level previously unseen.

If Ntilikina has truly turned a corner in his career, he’ll carry the momentum from the World Cup straight into training camp. He wasn’t handpicked by general manager Scott Perry. But if he’s producing, Fizdale will find minutes for the defensive stalwart one way or another.

 

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