Despite having three talented young point guards on the roster, the New York Knicks look vulnerable at the position.
The New York Knicks have been searching for a point guard for the better part of the last two decades so this is nothing new. Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, and Frank Ntilikina are all vying for minutes at the position, but no one separated from the pack to lay claim on the starting job.
In all likelihood, the point guard rotation will undergo several changes throughout the season. In fact, head coach David Fizdale is already giving rookie RJ Barrett a look at point guard. As it stands, Fizdale still isn’t sure who will start come opening night.
“I don’t want to think about it,” Fizdale told reporters after Friday night’s 117-116 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans preseason finale. It’s going to be a tough decision for the head coach, but not for the right reasons.
Since he was hired, Fizdale has talked often about employing a “keep what you kill” philosophy with playing time. Unfortunately, of the three players vying to start at point guard, there were barely any “kills” in preseason play.
Although Dennis Smith Jr. was the early favorite to land the gig, back issues have slowed him down and two brutal preseason performances put his chances at starting in doubt.
Despite his high offensive ceiling, Smith put forth a woeful shooting performance against the Pelicans. His 2-for-12 night was exacerbated by his suspect defense as well. Smith often gambles for steals, leaving his teammates vulnerable.
Elfrid Payton is the most uninspiring choice of the trio. Sure, he brings experience and a certain steadfastness to the floor, but he did nothing in the preseason to win the job.
Payton is decent at a lot of things. He is an adequate defender, he rebounds well for the position, and he can run an offense competently. If triple-doubles are your thing, Payton is the perfect point guard.
The Louisiana native had a five-game streak of triple-doubles last March. However, the Pelicans were only 1-4 in those games. He’s capable of putting up big numbers, but Payton is never going to be the future at point guard for the Knicks.
That brings us back to Frank Ntilikina, the only point guard who didn’t play on Friday night. The Frenchman made his mark in Wednesday’s game against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. In spite of the fact that Ntilikina struggled on offense yet again, he put the clamps on Young in the final minutes of the game.
I’ve made the case for Ntilikina once before. His potential to synergize with Mitchell Robinson on defense is too enticing to pass up. Not to mention, Ntilikina and Barrett would complement one another well in a potential backcourt pairing.
But more than anything, the Knicks owe Ntilikina the opportunity to finally prove himself after putting him through the wringer thus far in his career. Shockingly enough, the 21-year-old is the longest-tenured player on the roster (along with Damyean Dotson of the 2017 draft class).
Although the ship appears to be sailing smoothly right now, Ntilikina has experienced plenty of Knicks-ish moments in his short career. Team president Phil Jackson was fired mere days after drafting the project from France. A coaching change after his rookie season shook things. As a cherry on top, injury problems sabotaged the second half of his season.
But through it all, the French Prince has been the consummate pro. Whether it’s answering questions in the locker room after head-scratching DNPs or fighting back from nagging injuries, Ntilikina takes every obstacle in stride.
Perhaps now that he’s in a stable place and riding the momentum of his FIBA World Cup, he’ll finally have his offensive breakout. It’s worth finding out once and for all.
There’s no real right or wrong answer in this point guard conundrum. As a result, Fizdale has an unenviable decision because as far as point guard rotations go, three is a crowd. Even though he might try, it’s tough to find enough minutes to keep three different point guards in the rotation consistently.
Who will start? Who will fade into the background? Will any of the point guards be a long-term option? All of these are great questions, but the answers are not nearly as exciting.