Frank Ntilikina is already one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and any scoring he provides the New York Knicks is an added bonus.
However, his defense and energy helped change the game even though his positive impact won’t show up in the box score.
“His minutes were fantastic,” Fizdale told reporters after the game. “He guarded, he set the tone defensively, he made some nice plays to set some people up, he got us organized. The shots will fall for him, but the thing I’m proud of is how he kept himself ready, like I knew he would.
“Every day he wasn’t playing he was in the gym getting a sweat, just letting me know, ‘Coach, I’m ready when you need me.’ So I was really proud of his effort.”
If Monday’s game proved anything, it’s that Ntilikina can still contribute to a winning effort without even registering a single point in the box score. That’s difficult to do, but somehow, Ntilikina manages.
Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Ntilikina will undoubtedly play big minutes against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. Dennis Smith Jr.‘s status is still unknown after the loss of a close family member. Additionally, Payton will miss the contest against his former team while he recovers from a right hamstring strain.
No longer can the Knicks bury Ntilikina on the bench for his lack of offense. Of course, scoring is king in the NBA, but it’s time Fizdale embraces the elite defender he has in his “pocket.”
The Elite Defense Is Enough
Ntilikina is longer than Al Capone’s rap sheet. Although he may not always be quicker, stronger, or faster than his matchup, Ntilikina’s length allows him to do things other point guards can only dream of. An eight-second violation to begin a quarter is downright absurd.
Stopping the pick-and-roll is crucial for any team in the modern game and there are few better in the league than Ntilikina. As a rookie, the Frenchman was the best pick-and-roll defender in the league per Synergy.
On this play, Ntilikina showcases his ability to fight through several screens.
When he goes under screens, he has the length to close the distance fast enough to contest shooters. When he goes over screens and trails the ballhandler, he’s long enough to offer a rear-contest without fouling. This is especially effective in drop coverages.
Not to mention, he’s physically strong enough to switch one through four defensively when necessary. Ntilikina’s size and defensive versatility gives Fizdale the options to cross-match and put rookie RJ Barrett on the more forgiving assignment.
With a consistent role in the rotation, Ntilikina has the potential to make an NBA All-Defensive team as soon as this season. His defense is for real and the Knicks desperately need an attack dog to defend the perimeter while Mitchell Robinson anchors the paint.
Robinson is the team’s most impactful defender, but Ntilikina is the most consistent. Fizdale is a coach who talks openly about wanting tough and rugged defenders. That’s Ntilikina’s calling card.
The Offense Isn't Far Off
Scoring will come with repetition and continuity. His defense makes waiting for that offense to arrive worth the wait. Moreover, Ntilikina brings a much-needed element to the offense: ball movement.
One of the main issues for the Knicks’ offense this season has been the tendency to have the ball “stick” late in games. The ball doesn’t move as much and that tends to bog down the offense.
For all his offensive faults, Ntilikina is an excellent passer even though he may not be a flashy one. He has the size to see over defenders and make the right reads out of the pick-and-roll.
There are two parts of his offensive game that stand out as areas that need improving: finishing at the rim and three-point shooting. Sure, I’m only saying the two most important shots in the modern game, but hear me out.
Marcus Smart is a career 37% shooter from the field and 31% from three-point range. Elite defenders can have a positive impact on the game even if they bring woeful shooting numbers to the table. No one questioned why Smart was playing major minutes for playoff teams despite his abysmal shooting numbers.
And this isn’t to say that this will happen with Ntilikina, but Smart is a perfect example of why it can be wise to let a player’s offensive game develop naturally over time.
During the 2018-19 season, Smart shot 42% from the floor and 36% from deep while still providing top-tier production on the other end. Last season was Smart’s fifth year in the league and his age 24 season.
Ntilikina is currently in his third year in the league and his age 21 season. His offensive game won’t develop if the coaching staff is constantly playing this “will they, won’t they” game with the point guard’s playing time.
Through repetitions, continuity, and familiarity Ntilikina could find his scoring touch before long. Until then, his defense is going to help the Knicks win games anyway.