Frank Ntilikina
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert know Frank Ntilikina as well as anyone in the NBA. So, It’s no surprise they speak highly of him.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—Frank Ntilikina is a winning player. That’s what is said about Ntilikina by the people who know him best. On Wednesday, the French project was pitted against two close friends—Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert—when the New York Knicks hosted the Utah Jazz.

Ntilikina, 21, tallied four points and two assists, playing just under 20 minutes in a 112-104 loss that was not nearly as close as the final ledger indicates. Mitchell spoke about his fellow 2017 draft classmate and despite Ntilikina’s subdued night, the All-Star guard couldn’t say enough about his friend.

“He’s one of the toughest defenders I’ve had to face [and he’s] younger than me,” Mitchell said. “He’s solid. I always tell him to keep being more aggressive, but he plays within the system and he plays the right way. I always respect him for that. He’s a guy that I really respect in this league just because he goes and does it the right way.

“He comes in real quiet, but real efficient and he’s able to lock-in. You saw the last play he had against Houston the other day. That’s who he is and that’s what he brings. I think if he continues to stay with it — I think it’s great the Knicks continue to give him multiple shots because he deserves it.”

For the most part, the Knicks are giving Ntilikina his chance. A nagging groin injury has hampered the young point guard’s progress, at times, this season. Perhaps that injury was what limited his playing time against Utah. After all, Elfrid Payton played 28 minutes and even came in during garbage time at the end.

But his eye-opening performance against the Houston Rockets on Monday is part of what keeps fans coming back for more. Because make no mistake about it, the Madison Square Garden crowd has a favorite and his name is Frank Ntilikina.

His elite perimeter defense is a combination of freakish athleticism and an innate feel for the game on that end. Russell Westbrook was suffocated by his 7-foot-1 wingspan in the final stages of Monday’s upset.

This is nothing new.

We’ve seen Ntilikina spin a web around the likes of Luka Doncic in the fourth quarter of two Knicks victories and Kemba Walker in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. His defense is on par with the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

But again, we must also look at his offense. As Mitchell mentions, Ntilikina must be more aggressive offensively. Although he still hasn’t burst onto the scene as an offensive player, save for a few one-off games, he’s slowly becoming more confident and capable on that end.

His increased aggression began during the World Cup this past summer, a tournament where he teamed up with Gobert and brought home a bronze medal to France. The veterans on that team—Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nic Batum, and Nando De Colo—all prodded Ntilikina to be more aggressive and continue his evolution as a player. His success in that tournament certainly helped him bring some momentum into the season.

“He’s getting better every year,” Gobert told ESNY. “I think his confidence went up. You know he’s working hard and he’s obviously a very good defensive player. I really like the way he tries to make the winning play for himself or his teammates so it’s a process. I think he needs to be in a system that recognizes that and embraces that. Hopefully, the Knicks do that for him.”

Ntilikina needs to start putting out more Houstons and fewer Utahs. Against the Rockets, he was a defensive irritant and a timely bucket waiting to happen. Against the Jazz, he was more or less forgettable.

There is still time to go out on a high note. The Knicks still have 20 games left and thus, Ntilikina has 20 opportunities to prove he’s worth investing in for the long haul.

But this final stretch won’t be his only chance to improve. In fact, France’s third-place finish at the World Cup ensured their spot at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Following the game, ESNY asked Gobert if he and Ntilikina were discussing the upcoming summer yet.

“He’s waiting for me now so we’re gonna go talk about it,” Gobert said.

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