The French Prince: Frank Ntilikina’s Potential Two Way Dominance is Already Materializing

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 7.49.10 AM.pngThe energy from Knicks fans outside of Barclays Center ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft was a mixture of resigned hopelessness and naïve optimism. Knicks fans teemed outside the entrance, some holding signs reading things like ‘Fire Phil’ or ‘Sell the team, Dolan’. After a massively disappointing 31-win season, Phil Jackson and the Knicks front office would look to gain back the hearts and minds of its fans by nailing their first round draft pick.

It was immediately apparent that the Knicks fans sitting in the arena wanted the Knicks to select either Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, both college standouts who had shined on the national stage for NC State and Kentucky respectively. Very few people were talking about Donovan Mitchell, the shooting guard out of Louisville who has now established himself as one of the best players in the draft class, and almost nobody was talking about the young man who would soon grace the stage wearing a Knicks cap.

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Sitting in Barclays Center, surrounded by friends and family, a nervous French teenager tries not to check his phone. He is minutes away from his lifelong dream coming to fruition. The commissioner calls his name with the 8th pick of the 2017 NBA draft. His dream has been realized.

Born in Belgium, the son of two Rwandan refugees, Frank Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-kee-na) has been playing professional basketball since the age of 15. Starting at SIG Strasbourg in the French LNB Pro A, he later graduated to FIBA Under-18 tournaments. In his final year, Ntilikina led the U18 French National team to an undefeated championship run and earned MVP honors.

His professional career in France ended with him being drafted by the New York Knicks on the night before the final game of the championship series. Ntilikina flew back to France to play his last game before returning to the United States, ready for the big stage. He left the France pro scene having consistently improved his offensive game every year, shooting 52% from three in his final year. Scouts heralded his raw potential and dynamic frame.

One year later, at just 19 years old, Frank Ntilikina is still raw. He is younger than half the lottery picks from the most recent draft, including both Miles and Mikal Bridges, Mo Bamba, and Shai Gilegous-Alexander. His potential remains largely untapped, though in the past year, Ntilikina has shown flashes of excellence and brief glimpses into how he could one day blossom into a two-way star.

At 6’6” with a 7 foot wingspan, Frank Ntilikina is not built like a typical NBA point guard. With his long frame and quick footwork, his body resembles that of a swingman more than a point guard. For comparison, Jaylen Brown measured in at the combine at 6’6.75” with a wingspan of 6’11.75”. Tyreke Evans is 6’5.25” with a wingspan of 6’11.25”.

Ntilikina’s size is incredibly relevant in any discussion about his game and potential. His size allows him to guard three or four different positions and makes him an enormous asset when switching pick and rolls.  Switching screens has become universally desired in the NBA, as more teams are looking for players who can switch any screen 1-5. While Ntilikina is not quite that defender yet, he is certainly well on his way. His body still needs some more muscle in order to avoid getting rocked by oversized big men, but watch how he defends Dirk Nowitzki (someone twice his age) on a pick and roll switch. He absorbs Dirk’s contact with his chest and doesn’t allow him to get into the paint.

Ntilikina Dirk Switch.gif

Guarding the pick and roll is Ntilikina’s most NBA-ready skill. He allowed .694 Points per Possession in 242 possessions guarding the pick and roll ball handler. That number, .694 PPP,  was the best in the NBA this past season among all players with a minimum of 200 such possessions, per Synergy. For a rookie point guard to be that adept at covering a pick and roll is almost unheard of; the only other player in recent years who has defended the pick and roll in their first year this well is 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Ntilikina’s positional versatility is huge reason that fans should be excited about his upside. Though he played 71% of his minutes at point guard last year, he can easily slot into the shooting guard position, as he is a defensive asset and doesn’t constantly need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. He is able to defend NBA small forwards already and does not get bullied by more athletic swingmen who try to exploit his somewhat skinny frame.

Ntilikina Wiggins Switch Post.gif

His post defense is excellent for his size, allowing only .45 points per possession on a very small sample size of 20 possessions. But proof that a player is a good post defender rarely comes from analytics, usually those judgements are made from the eye test.  There is plenty of footage of Ntilikina switching the pick and roll, getting posted up by the bigger player, and having to fend for himself on the defensive end. Check out how he guards Saric on this switch. He’s able to successfully front the post and deny the pass while recovering once he catches it. Dario Saric is damn near seven feet tall and is an above average inside scorer.

Ntilikina front post .gif

Teams are certainly paying attention to these things. With the Celtics, Rockets, and Warriors all playing elite switching-based defenses, NBA executives and coaches are understanding that defenders who can guard multiple positions are exceptionally valuable. Ntilikina looks like someone who has the potential to be a defensive menace one day for this reason. His lateral quickness and quick reaction time allows him to guard almost anyone in isolation, where he held opponents to .703 Points per Possession, and his size and reach enables him to switch into the post and take on bigger defenders. Once he adds more muscle this competitive advantage will become intensified.

It’s not all roses, especially on offense. Ntilikina has a long way to go before he can be an above average, or maybe average offensive player. However, he has showed consistent improvement throughout his professional career both abroad and in the NBA.

Perhaps the area of his offensive game that most urgently needs improvement is the frequency with which he commits turnovers. He started the season committing 16.7 turnovers per 100 possessions used and lowered that to 9.4 after the all-star break. For him to become a great offensive player he will likely have to lower that number even further.

His ball handling has been an area of concern with scouts from the moment he arrived on the scouting scene. With a 6’6” frame, it can be especially hard to control the ball effectively and dribble through traffic. Ntilikina appears to be working on his ball handling this summer, posting workout videos on social media.

 

It’s notable that only 20 of his 131 turnovers were due to a “Lost Ball” situation whereas 92 were due to a bad pass. This suggests that the issue is not his technical ball handling ability, but his decision making and pass selection. Improved decision making, especially at the point guard position, comes with increased reps and years of in-game experience.

His three point shot is another area of concern where he has shown the potential to grow. After shooting abysmally in his first year professionally, Ntilikina improved his shooting percentage from deep consistently throughout his professional career in France. He shot 32% from three in his rookie NBA season, a number that is not great but is not abnormal among active rookie guards; Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr, and De’Aaron Fox all shot around 31% in their rookie seasons.

The aspect of his shot that should be intriguing to Knicks fans is his shooting off the dribble. Teams overwhelmingly went under pick and rolls executed by Ntilikina, and until his off the dribble three point shot improves, teams will continue to disrespect his shot.  At 6’6”, Ntilikina has the ability to shoot over most guards with relative ease and vertical space, so working on pull up jump shots should be an area of interest for Ntilikina. He’s shown confidence from long range off the dribble in the past, but getting those shots to fall with consistency will require hard work. Ntilikina shot an encouraging 33-78 on pull up jump shots this year, per NBA stats. That 42% off the dribble may not seem like much, but those shots falling will cause defenses to play much tighter on him and will open up space for the entire offense.

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Fans, scouts, and analytics models all have different projections about the direction of Ntilikina’s career. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections forecast him to be a replacement level bench player, comparing him to Shaun Livingston. I don’t think this comparison is necessarily fair, as Livingston’s offensive game is incredibly unique and he does not have the same athletic explosiveness as Ntilikina, due to a nearly career-ending knee injury. From the eye test alone, he plays more similarly to George Hill than Shaun Livingston. Hill has been a reliable perimeter defender his entire career, though his consistent three point shooting ability is something that came later in his career. At around 6’1”, Hill does not have the same positional versatility Ntilikina possesses, but has been a reliable perimeter defender throughout his career.

PTS/G AST/G REB/G 3P% AST% TOV%
George Hill Rookie Season (Age 22) 5.7 1.8 2.1 33% 16.6% 14.5
Frank Ntilikina Rookie Season (Age 19) 5.9 3.2 2.3 32% 20% 19.8

When new Knicks Head Coach David Fizdale announced the he had a “crush on wingspan,” I suspect Frank Ntilikina’s ears perked up somewhere. Wingspan and length have been increasingly valued in the NBA, and Ntilikina is the perfect future point guard for a lineup that is a defensive juggernaut, something Fizdale has been open about his desire to build.

In his only full season as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, Fizdale’s team was tied for 6th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. If Fizdale wants to recreate that same energy in New York, Ntilikina will likely be the lynchpin of that defense in the way that Mike Conley was the centerpiece of the last one. As a versatile perimeter defender who can switch, Fizdale is certainly looking to maximize Ntilikina’s potential as a defensive menace.

In discussing his love for wingspan, coach Fizdale suggested playing Kristaps Porzingis, the 7 foot 3 inch Latvian franchise centerpiece, at small forward. This revelation surprised a lot of Knicks fans, but with most big men trying their best to refine their play on the perimeter, it is not that surprising that coach Fizdale would entertain the idea of trying this out, especial.

Porzingis is the undisputed franchise cornerstone in New York, and it would seem to indicate something positive about Ntilikina that he and Porzingis seem to have great chemistry. Last season, Porzingis was assisted on almost 40 of his made baskets by Ntilikina, the most of anyone on the team aside from Jarret Jack.

“There’s a real friendship between KP and me,” Ntilikina told the French radio show Basket Time. “We both come from Europe.” He has called the experience of playing with Porzingis “unbelievable”.

Ntilikina also looks to forge a connection with new draft pick Kevin Knox, the dynamic two-way swingman out of Kentucky. Knox, who is also oversized for his position with an above-average wingspan, projects to be an athletic combo forward who can finish at the rim and be a dynamic, multi-positional defender.  At only 18 years old, Knox has the potential to grow alongside Ntilikina and Porzingis and develop a deep chemistry together.

The next two years will be crucial for Ntilikina’s development. His ceiling will be determined by his ability to improve on offense consistently, especially when it comes to long range shooting and disciplined passing. The NBA hasn’t ever seen a player built exactly like Ntilikina, with a dynamic frame and a moldable offensive game, Ntilikina should be one of the young players oozing with potential that NBA fans keep an eye on throughout the next season.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

 

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