Frank Ntilikina
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The evolution of Frank Ntilikina is one of the most compelling reasons to tune into a New York Knicks game and we should have seen it coming.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NYFrank Ntilikina‘s recent emergence began during the summer when the 21-year-old helped kickstart France to a bronze medal in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The New York Knicks point guard was thrust into a starting role after veteran French point guard Thomas Heurtel succumbed to an injury in a preparation game. As he stepped into that role, Ntilikina’s confidence seemed to grow with every possession.

It wasn’t immediate, but with some prodding from his teammates and the French coaching staff, the young point guard started to bloom. Nicolas Batum was one of the experienced teammates who pushed Ntilikina to start taking more of an assertive role.


“We really tried with the coaching staff and the players with Evan Fournier, Rudy [Gobert], myself, [Nando] De Colo [to say] ‘Go ahead. You’re the point guard. We trust you! Use it and show the world who you are. We’re going to be there for you and we’ve got your back,’” Batum recalled to ESNY.

Ntilikina’s defense is a given at this point. He has All-Defensive potential due to his length, positioning, and ability to defend a multitude of situations. Whether he’s stopping the ball at the point of attack or battling against a bigger guy in the post, he always seems to make it tough on his mark.

However, for most of his career, he was an easy assignment for his opponents. Despite his smooth shooting stroke, he wasn’t a threat to knock down threes. Although he was long and athletic, he had trouble finishing in the midrange and at the rim.

It didn’t happen all at once, but as the tournament progressed, Ntilikina started to exhibit more and more confidence. His coming-out party was a quarterfinal upset over Team USA where he outplayed All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker on both ends.

“He took two big shots and he made some big shots for us, making key plays on offense and defense,” Batum said. “I think he needed that to show to [the Knicks] staff and the world and the fans who he can be and who he can become.”

Although he was only given the starting point guard job by default, he’s proving all his doubters wrong. The offensive prowess Ntilikina showed at the World Cup is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Even Batum was surprised by some of Ntilikina’s new moves.

“He seemed more confident. Like today he had one play where he got the spin and the stepback on one foot,” Batum said with a smile. “I was gonna tell him, ‘Spin, stepback, fade on one foot, really? You’ve got that?’ He doesn’t know who he can become and when he can figure it out, who he can be in this league offense and defense, he’s going to be a good, good player for this team.”

With his length at his possession, Ntilikina can take this shot at will. Think of how a guy like Shaun Livingston made a living at shooting over smaller defenders in the midrange and the post.

Prior to this season, Frank Ntilikina’s stock was down. Before the World Cup, it was at an all-time low. Plenty of folks are marveling at his emergence, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. NBA champion Boris Diaw recalls that his career took a similar path when he came over from France.

“Yeah, I had a pretty slow start, same kind of start,” Diaw told ESNY. “The first year was kind of OK and then I went back down the second year. The third year is really when I had my best time. It was kind of the same timing a little bit.”

It’s easy to write off young players who struggle early in their careers, but it’s often unwise to bestow the “bust” label on someone who can’t legally buy a beer. Clearly, the prognosticators and fans who were ready to ship Ntilikina out of town for a second-round pick were off on his value.

Even if his offense comes and goes at times, there’s one thing that isn’t changing about Ntilikina: his confidence. He looks like a different player in his third year and this is something he told his coach was coming. In fact, he told Knicks head coach David Fizdale that he was ready to be a “dog.”

“We had a talk about two weeks ago,” Fizdale said after the team’s wn over the Dallas Mavericks. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been through a lot in my two years and I felt like I finally understand what the NBA is about and I know I haven’t shown it yet, but I’m a dog too.’ It was so cool to hear him say that. Tonight he showed he is really a junkyard dog when it comes to competition. Again, it’s another guy who’s been through a lot.”

 

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