Frank Ntilikina
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo, Getty Images

It’s about time the New York Knicks give Frank Ntilikina the chance to prove he can be the point guard of the future.

Danny Small

The New York Knicks fell to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night in their third preseason game. However, the final score was hardly the most intriguing aspect of the night. The game served as an audition for Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina as head coach David Fizdale mulls over the starting point guard job.

The defensive-minded French guard was impressive while Smith stalled. Elfrid Payton is still in the mix, but Fizdale wanted to see more of Ntilikina and Smith in this game, hence Payton’s DNP.

The two Knick point guards shared similarly woeful offensive numbers. Each tallied one field goal and both topped out at three assists. Despite his poor shooting night, Ntilikina made his presence felt in other ways.

It’s unfair to completely write off Smith for his lackluster performance. After all, this was his first game of the preseason after dealing with back issues and he drew the Rookie of the Year runner-up—Trae Young—as his main defensive assignment.

But while Smith struggled to contain Young, Ntilikina shined on the assignment. And make no mistake, Young is going to be one of the best point guards in the league sooner rather than later.

In the final four minutes of the game, Ntilikina was draped all over Atlanta’s floor general wherever he went. Possession after possession, the Frenchman was super impactful on the defensive end. His 7-foot wingspan makes him a menace for smaller guards like Young. He’s longer than a day without bread and that ridiculous length is what makes him so stifling.

Ntilikina makes it so tough to drive with his instincts, quickness, and length. Moreover, his steal on the inbounds with 27 seconds left gave the Knicks the chance to tie or take the lead.

There are the obvious plays he makes like a strip steal or a big block, but there are more subtle plays as well. Ntilikina keeps a feel for where Young is at all times and then draws a savvy foul on 42-year-old Vince Carter.

Although this is a meaningless preseason game, Ntilikina’s defense has been consistent at every step of his career. He has future NBA All-Defensive potential and that’s not hyperbole. When asked about the point guard competition at media day, defense was the first thing Fizdale mentioned.

“I think it’s going to be great competition,” Fizdale said in a cramped room in Tarrytown. “I think we’ll have between [Elfrid Payton], Dennis [Smith Jr.], and Frank [Ntilikina] those guys will be fighting each other every single day for those minutes. Really at that position I’m looking at, are they defending their position at a high level? Are they pushing our pace? Are they organizing us while staying aggressive?”

If Fizdale wants a point guard who can defend the position, Ntilikina made a case for himself to start with his performance against Young.

Cohesion With Mitchell Robinson

Although Bobby Portis started on Wednesday, Mitchell Robinson appears to have the inside track to start at center. The 7-foot big man is undoubtedly the Knicks’ best defender, but he’s not experienced enough to carry a defensive unit singlehandedly.

Marcus Morris and Julius Randle, the presumptive starters at small forward and power forward, respectively, are far from lockdown defenders. Not to mention, RJ Barrett is going to experience growing pains as a rookie on defense.

Ntilikina is fresh off an eye-opening performance at the FIBA World Cup where he helped lead France to a bronze medal finish that included a statement victory over the Americans. It’s worth noting that Ntilikina formed a formidable defensive combo with Rudy Gobert in the upset over Team USA and across the entire tournament.

When we talk about chemistry between teammates, the conversation is almost exclusively about the offensive end of the floor. However, defensive chemistry can be incredibly important in the current NBA where the pick-and-roll is king and switching has become second nature.

With Ntilikina defending the point of attack and Robinson serving as a safety blanket at the rim, the Knicks will be able to slow down the pick-and-roll for opposing teams.

Fizdale constantly preaches defense and favors a switch-heavy defensive system. There’s no better perimeter defender on the team than Ntilikina and even as a 21-year-old, he can effectively switch one through four.

Ntilikina is the second-best defender on the team behind Robinson and the two can form a stifling inside-outside pairing. The offense — well, that’s still a work-in-progress.

Offensive Help

Ntilikina has never found consistent offensive success during his NBA career and the proof is in the pudding. One look at his career 5.9 points per game on horrid shooting splits (35.4/30.5/73.5), will paint an ugly picture.

That being said, Ntilikina won’t need to shoulder all of the usual point guard duties if he’s playing alongside Barrett and Randle. Fizdale has already expressed a desire to let those two handle the ball. The head coach is talking about giving Barrett minutes at point guard and he wants Randle to push the pace as a playmaker off of rebounds.

Ntilikina’s role on offense would be mostly as a facilitator, someone to initiate the offense. He’s showing a much stronger handle and a willingness to be more aggressive. If his shots were falling, this would be a no-brainer decision for Fiz.

But again, let’s look back to the World Cup. On a team with the likes of Gobert, Evan Fournier, and Nando De Colo, Ntilikina was the fourth or fifth option on the floor. His calling card became his timely buckets late in games, most notably the upset over Team USA and the loss to the Argentines.

Ntilikina has struggled to find a rhythm in the past. An inconsistent role in the rotation combined with nagging injuries made his sophomore season a forgettable one. Despite starting in the first 14 games of last season, he only started at point guard in nine of those games.

For context, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Damyean Dotson were the biggest offensive threats in those starting lineups. The 21-year-old deserves another chance to prove himself with a much more talented roster around him.

Smith is superior offensively, but he is a complete liability defensively. Although a capable defender and a stat-sheet stuffer, Payton feels like an Emmanuel Mudiay retread. Ntilikina is a defensive stalwart with an offensive game just waiting to have that “Eureka” moment.

The Knicks are still looking for their point guard of the future. Although Ntilikina might fail the audition like many before him, it’s worth it to actually find out once and for all. If his offense comes around and his defense remains otherworldly, he could form a mystifying backcourt with Barrett and one of the NBA’s dominant defensive pairings with Robinson.

 

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