Frank Ntilikina
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau will absolutely change the New York Knicks for the better. These players might benefit the most from playing under him.

Josh Benjamin

Tom Thibodeau will be the best thing to happen to the New York Knicks in a while, and the players’ efforts on the court will prove it.

The man isn’t just a defensive genius, but someone who gets results. The Chicago Bulls had barely moved on from Michael Jordan in over a decade since his retirement. Thibodeau stepped right in and made them a contender while turning Derrick Rose into an MVP and Joakim Noah into one of the game’s dominant centers.

And even though his brief tenure with the Minnesota Timberwolves was defined by squabbling with players, namely center Karl-Anthony Towns, Thibodeau’s impact was felt. Towns and Andrew Wiggins both had career seasons their first year playing under him.

The long-suffering New York Knicks will be no exception. Though New York is bound for the draft lottery yet again, the team’s core has potential. Tom Thibodeau is someone who can get the best out of youngsters while also getting veteran talent to buy into his system.

In the case of the New York Knicks, these players might get the most out of playing under him.

Frank Ntilikina

New York Knicks fans love to knock on Frank Ntilikina for a few reasons. He doesn’t score enough for a lottery pick. He’s a relic of an older NBA same as Phil Jackson, the Hall of Fame coach who drafted him in 2017.

And they aren’t necessarily wrong. Ntilikina has only averaged six points per game for his career and made just 36.6% of his shot attempts. He also hasn’t done much as a distributor, so he isn’t going to suddenly become a star starting point guard under Thibodeau.

But if there’s one thing Frank Ntilikina can do, it’s play defense. In fact, he’s one of the Knicks’ better on-ball defenders. His defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) is -0.3 for his career, but that’s a deceiving number. He is constantly in a great stance on defense, hunched over and arms out. Opposing players have fits trying to get past his ironclad D.

Which is why if new president Leon Rose keeps Ntilikina around for the last year of his rookie deal, expect Tom Thibodeau to go right to work. Ntilikina can easily be the Ronnie Brewer-type defender Thibodeau had with the Bulls. For context, Brewer played for Thibodeau for two years and posted a DBPM of 2.9. In one of those years, he led the league in the category.

Granted, Ntilikina is only 6-foot-4 compared to the 6-foot-7 Brewer, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already a strong defender to begin with, and Thibodeau will make him all the better.

Dennis Smith Jr.

At the moment, Dennis Smith Jr.’s future is very cloudy. The former North Carolina State star averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists as a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks in 2018 and hasn’t done much since coming to New York in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. As a Knick, Smith has averaged nine points per game while shooting just 38.3% off the bench.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, Smith has a nearly $5.7 million cap hit for next season. Combine that with his poor showing last year, and it will be hard to move him. However, there is some reason for hope.

As a defense-oriented coach, Thibodeau knows how to work with slashing point guards. Derrick Rose was talented to begin with, but took significant steps forward playing under Thibodeau. Were it not for chronic knee injuries, he may have been an all-time great.

Smith is nowhere near prime Rose’s level, but takes a similar approach to his offense. 47.6% of his career points have come in the paint, so he won’t be shy about driving the lane in a potential reserve role. If he plays well enough, maybe he’ll crack the lineup once or twice.

Either way, Dennis Smith Jr. is still way too young at just 22 years old to be written off as an NBA bust. If any coach can get the best out of him, it’s Tom Thibodeau.

RJ Barrett

Thibodeau made it clear right when he got hired: developing the Knicks’ young core players is top priority. This means fans should expect RJ Barrett to take a big step forward in his second season.

First things first, this isn’t to say Barrett had a bad rookie year. Inconsistent, maybe, but far from bad. The former Duke Blue Devil averaged 14.3 points and five boards as a rookie and shot 40.2% from the field. Barrett was also starting to cook before the league suspended play, having averaged 18.7 points on 44.8% shooting in March.

And even without a reliable three-point shot, Barrett is still developing nicely at just 20 years old. In fact, playing for Tom Thibodeau, he might not even need to rush developing his long-range game. Remember, Thibodeau knows how to work with athletic wings. He got some good years out of not just Luol Deng in Chicago, but also Jimmy Butler. Butler also played well under Thibodeau in Minnesota.

Now, consider how Barrett is similar to Butler in that he likes to score in the post and paint. His signature move as a rookie was his layup, be it driving the lane or working with his back to or facing the basket in traffic. Butler, in his breakout season in Chicago, scored 36% of his points in the paint. Barrett, as a rookie, saw 51.3% of his offense happen in the same area.

This isn’t to say Barrett will automatically be as good as Butler. It’s still way too early to make that call. However, if Tom Thibodeau takes advantage of the second-year wing’s comfort under the basket, he might come close.

Mitchell Robinson

Mitchell Robinson is not just one of the most captivating centers in the NBA, but probably the most frustrating. The seven-footer has all the talent in the world to be a dominant center in the league, but can’t stay out of foul trouble. Robinson’s career per 36 minutes show this, as he as averaged 5.3 fouls per game in his young career.

But let’s take a look at the rest of Robinson’s career per 36 numbers: 14 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.6 blocks. Those are numbers any coach would love to get out of their center for a full season.

This is why fans should expect Tom Thibodeau to work closely with Robinson early on. The former second-round pick already did a better job of fouling less in his second season and improved in all other aspects too. He currently leads the league in field goal percentage even though the Knicks aren’t playing in the Orlando bubble.

Simply put, if Thibodeau can turn Mitchell Robinson into a balanced center like he did Joakim Noah, the sky is literally the limit. Robinson would go from being size and defense off the bench to the NBA’s equivalent of the Iron Giant. Just a player who is dominant on all fronts and seems indestructible.

At which point, Robinson may find himself in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

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