French native Frank Ntilikina has been a project for the Knicks ever since being drafted eighth overall in 2017.
Going into that draft, the 6’4” guard drew a lot of interest from scouts as a top overseas prospect, mostly due to his above-average wingspan (7’0”) and great ball-handling skills. The Knicks jumped at the opportunity to use their lottery pick on him, but his performance has been underwhelming for the most part up until now.
It’s been an up-and-down ride ever since, though there have been flashes that suggest the wait is worth it.
Ntilikina has shown real potential, especially on the defensive end. Per Synergy Basketball, he ranked first among all guards in his rookie season while defending the pick and roll. And his defensive prowess has only improved over the last couple of seasons.
His ability to stay in front of his man and maintain a stance—even after needing to recover from a pick—is a testament to his footwork, athleticism and defensive IQ.
He has also shown a tremendous ability to guard multiple positions, using his length to disrupt guards and forwards—even when they’re taller than him.
Ntilikina’s offensive impact has left a lot to be desired, however.
On paper, Ntilikina has all the physical tools to excel on that end: quickness, ability to change speeds, great footwork, good ball handles and a nice shooting motion.
But Ntilikina struggled in his first two seasons and looked lost out on the floor. On multiple occasions, he’s appeared tentative, struggling to decide whether to take the shot or pass it off. And when he does take a shot, it’s often looked like the indecision wears him down, as he barely reaches the rim with his arc.
As the video below shows, his layups and floaters have suffered a similar fate at times.
This put coach former Knicks David Fizdale in a bind: He needed Ntilikina out on the floor to guard the opposition’s best scorers, but then had to digest the risk of losing some much-needed scoring.
Fizdale was also unable to keep the ball in Ntilikina’s hands, as his decision-making was often sub-par. So he began placing him in the off-guard spot along with either Ron Baker, Emmanuel Mudiay or Trey Burke at the point.
Ntilikina’s averages through his first two seasons were 5.9 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 35.4 percent shooting from the floor (30.5 percent from three) over 21.6 minutes. Not ideal for a lottery pick.
Fast forward to 2019, and Ntilikina’s development has been much more encouraging.
It all started in the summer of 2019 when Ntilikina joined Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert to lead the French National team to a semi-final finish in the FIBA World Cup. This even included a quarter-final defeat of Team USA (89-79) in which Ntilikina tallied 11 points and 3 assists in 25 minutes of action.
The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time, as Ntilikina truly needed to show the world what he could do while gaining some confidence.
The Knicks certainly hoped this overseas improvement would fuel a good 2019-20 campaign.
And while Ntilikina’s overall numbers showed minor improvements on the previous year—6.3 points, 3.0 assists, and 2.1 rebounds on 39.3 percent shooting (32.1 percent from three)—the optics illustrate a more tangible upward trend.
MUCH-IMPROVED ON-BALL DECISION MAKING AND PERIMETER SHOOTING
The FIBA World cup saw Ntilikina take on the role of primary ball-handler for his national team. This instilled a lot of confidence that especially helped his outside shot and decision making.
Ntilikina was not just able to read defenses better but was able to set up his teammates on cuts to the basket fairly early on in the shot clock. He was also better able to take advantage of fast-break opportunities.
This level of decision making is usually something that a lot of young players struggle with as they adapt to more complex systems in the NBA. But Ntilikina’s performance on the French national team showed that his decision-making ability and passing prowess can do wonders in the right system.
In addition to giving up the rock, Ntilikina also hit his perimeter shots with much-improved consistency off the catch and shoot, helping spread the floor for his teammates while becoming a credible threat that defenses had to account for.
This almost naturally had an impact on his drives to the rim: He displayed a much-improved ability to make layups and floaters, finishing with an astonishing 51.6 percent field goal rate on inside makes.
Overall, Ntilikina’s averages for the tournament (8.0 points, 2.5 assists on 43.6 percent shooting and 33.3percent from deep) don’t stand out, but the eye test was a fairly jarring difference from what we had so far seen in New York.
Was this the real look into his true potential as a combo guard?
EFFICIENCY IN THE TWO-MAN GAME
Ntilikina’s ability to defend the pick and roll is well-known, but his ability to get the most out of it on the offensive end was always suspect.
Yet, Ntilikina’s two-man game saw tremendous improvement this season, as coach Fizdale committed to incorporating a few plays from the French team’s playbook, .
Note how Ntilikina reads the defenses and works with big men Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Mitchell Robinson, recognizing when to make the pass and when to use space to pop up for a jump shot:
But Ntilikina has also learned to work off the catch as a receiver. This is evident in how he reacts and responds to forward Julius Randle’s work on the block.
In the second play, he works through a series of quick pass and screen options (dribble-handoffs) to set up Portis for a wide-open three.
Per Advanced NBA stats, 21.6 percent of Ntilikina’s assists go to Randle while 31.03 percent of his makes come off assists from the burly forward. This two-man game has worked very well in New York.
Ntilikina’s improvement this season has been a much-welcomed development in another lost season for the franchise.
A big part of his success came from the confidence coach Fizdale and interim coach Mike Miller placed in his ball-handling abilities. They also clearly worked at giving him space and time to develop chemistry in a two-man game with the team’s bigs.
While the Knicks will greatly benefit from Ntilikina continuing to grow a more consistent outside shot, his strides on defense and offense have already proven that the development investment is worth it.
He could yet become a very real two-way threat. Couple that with his young age (22), and Ntilikina’s upside is very encouraging indeed.