Frank Ntilikina‘s best performance with the New York Knicks could be a sign of things to come as he continues to improve his all-around game.
Doubters are nothing new for Frank Ntilikina. Every European prospect taken in the lottery deals with a fair bit of skepticism from NBA circles. That skepticism was magnified when New York Knicks team president Phil Jackson was fired just days after drafting Ntilikina.
But now, nearly three years later, things are finally starting to click for the project point guard. His shot is falling, he’s taking care of the basketball, and of course, he’s changing the game with his elite defense.
Since taking over as the starting point guard, Ntilikina has been fantastic and Friday’s win over Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks was his best game as a professional. The point guard finished with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals, and three blocks. He was the do-it-all wizard Knicks fans have always been waiting for.
Ntilikina was the best player on the floor for the Knicks and could—finally—be cementing his place as the starting point guard. Let’s look at three aspects where he excelled and what that means going forward.
Knocking Down Threes
Ntilikina can have a positive impact on winning without scoring. We’ve seen him make his imprint on games while struggling to hit open shots. His defense is transcendent.
However, if his shots are falling, his game reaches another level. So far, yes, those shots are falling. Ntilikina was 33-for-115 from beyond the arc in his sophomore season, which equates to a horrid 28.7%. Through eight games this season, he’s 8-for-19 and his stroke looks as smooth as silk.
Teams are going to continue to give Ntilikina open looks until this becomes the norm. As great as his 42% shooting from downtown looks at the moment, it’s a small sample size.
That being said, if he continues to drill these open looks at a decent clip, look for the rest of his offensive game to round out. When defenders are closing out more aggressively on his shot, he’ll have clear driving lanes to the basket. He’s certainly not afraid to attack the rim, but he can sometimes fall victim to overpenetration before tossing up wild shots.
The 21-year-old tried to send Porzingis, one of the best shot blockers in the league, into an early grave on Friday. No fear.
Additionally, Ntilikina is starting to flash some pretty passing chops. Once teams start respecting his jumper, he’s poised for a major step forward in his development.
Ntilikina is one of the premier perimeter players in the NBA. He’s right up there with Patrick Beverley, Marcus Smart, Eric Bledsoe, Jrue Holiday, or whomever else you include in the top-tier perimeter defenders.
He’s been at that level since his rookie season when he was first in the NBA in pick-and-roll defense per Synergy. His length and instincts have always given the young guard a knack for shutting down anything and everything on the perimeter.
As he starts to mature into his body and grow stronger, he’s becoming a much better all-around defender. Particularly, his post defense has taken a sizable step forward.
Capably defending the post allows head coach David Fizdale to keep running a switch-heavy defensive scheme that feels like one of the only reliable ways for the Knicks to stop the pick-and-roll.
The Knicks are currently 11th in the NBA in transition defense according to NBA.com. Ntilikina is the clear and obvious reason why the Knicks have been able to successfully slow down opposing teams.
Luka Doncic is a basketball savant with a seemingly unlimited supply of mind-bending moves in his bag. Despite his potent arsenal of moves, Ntilikina forced him into some tough plays in transition and even made Doncic look human for parts of the game.
Of course, Doncic finished the 38 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists, so how could Ntilikina have really shut him down? Well, he had eight turnovers, most of which were forced by the Frenchman.
Additionally, that switch-heavy defensive scheme Fizdale loves means that Ntilikina was often switched off of Doncic within the flow of the game.
Kristaps Porzingis + Luka Doncic when Frank Ntilikina was their primary defender last night:
5-15 (33%) shooting
1 blocked shot
— JB (@JeffreyBellone) November 9, 2019
Those numbers put Ntilikina’s performance into focus. Doncic and Porzingis were 19-for-33 against all other defenders. That sums up the terrific defensive performance put forth by the Knicks’ best defender (yes, he’s better and more consistent than Mitchell Robinson right now).
Frank Ntilikina is the toast of the town, but these moments can be fleeting. Stringing together multiple games like this is the only way to truly cement his place with the Knicks.
His hot streak started in the FIBA World Cup this past summer and he’s picking up right where he left off. This kid is going to be special.