frank ntilikina new york knicks
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Elfrid Payton is still starting games for the New York Knicks, but does Frank Ntilikina deserve his minutes in the rotation?

Danny Small

Elfrid Payton is still the starting point guard for the New York Knicks, but his minutes are dwindling in the wake of Immanuel Quickley‘s emergence. The rookie point guard is playing the bulk of the minutes at point guard and Payton is doing little to win that playing time back.

It’s only a matter of time before Quickley supplants Payton in the starting lineup, but could Frank Ntilikina end up taking the veteran’s spot in the rotation entirely? Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has shown a high level of trust in Payton up to this point in the season. Still, there’s a case to be made for Ntilikina jumping Payton on the depth chart.

What Do The Stats Say?

Early in the season, Payton’s numbers were passable. Through eight games, he had converted on 52 of his 106 field goals and was 6-for-16 from deep. Looking at the advanced numbers, Payton was putting up 104.5 points per 100 shot attempts (PSA) via Cleaning the Glass. Over the course of the last 14 games, Payton is only putting up 87.0 PSA.

Over the full season, Payton is at 94.6 PSA, which puts him in the 13th percentile among point guards. This is actually a slight improvement on his PSA from last season, but there’s a bigger issue. His assist percentage this year has been cut nearly in half, dropping from 34.8% in 2019-20 to 19.6% in 2020-21.

Of course, that’s not the kind of offensive production that any NBA team wants out of its starting point guard. Ntilikina hasn’t played enough minutes this season to dive into his offensive stats, but he has converted on five of seven three-point attempts this year.

So, if Payton is not scoring or setting up his teammates, why is he still a lock to play 18-25 minutes each night?

What Does The Eye Test Say?

In theory, Payton’s defensive prowess could make up for his lackluster offense. He has the length and savvy needed to disrupt ballhandlers at the point of attack. The problem is he hasn’t done that much this year. The effort level from Monday’s game against the Chicago Bulls was concerning.

Payton allows Coby White to blow by him with little to no resistance. He makes a half-hearted attempt to foul White, but there is no need to in that situation. The Knicks have everyone back in transition. Payton is also consistently getting burned by the backdoor when he’s playing off the ball.

Say what you want about Ntilikina’s offense, but there can be no debate about his defense. He’s the superior defender to Payton in every way. Payton is long, but Ntilikina is longer than a Tarantino movie. He’s one of the most underrated pick-and-roll defenders in the NBA and has the ability to switch one through four against almost any team. The Frenchman is a Swiss Army knife on the defensive end.

Ntilikina is not a perfect player, but he couldn’t be much worse than Payton is right now.

What Do The Knicks Say?

Coach Thibodeau is not one to divulge much information to the media. He’s open and honest during his Zoom calls, but we can’t fault him for defaulting to coach-speak rather than revealing his inner-most thoughts. When it comes to Payton, he is still committing to him as his starter.

“We like the group that [Quickley] is with right now,” Thibodeau said in regards to potentially starting the rookie over Payton last week. “And we think it functions best that way. And so you want to have everybody play to their strengths and also you want to cover up people’s weaknesses. So right now we feel the best opportunity for us to win is doing the things we’re doing.”

The Ntilikina mentions in Zoom conference calls have been few and far between. Much like Kevin Knox, he is relegated to the outer fringes of Thibodeau’s rotation — on the outside looking in.

If a guard or wing were to go down with an injury — something that has been awfully common with these Knicks — Ntilikina will be one of the first guys Thibs calls upon to fill the void. He could be a viable alternative to Payton in the rotation, but it looks like Ntilikina is going to have to wait for his opportunity for the time being.

All stats via Cleaning the Glass and NBA.com.

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