Frank Ntilikina is a Good Player with Average Stats

The Knicks rookie, Frank Ntilikina, might be the most intriguing player in the NBA, it's just that he's not very good right now. We explore why so many Knicks fans are high on a rookie who's yet to score more than 10 points in a game.

It's hard to sell the average stat-devouring NBA fan on Frank Ntilikina's potential greatness. Any player who averages 5.2 points per game on a woeful 33.6% shooting, in a sport where the main objective at all times is 'get buckets', should deservedly have the microscope cast over them. Especially when certain players who were picked after Ntilikina in the 2017 draft, and play the same position as him, are currently doing a much better job at bucket-getting than Frank. It's easy to look at Frank's paltry stats and write him off as a dud player who plays good defense for a rookie, but otherwise represents the last vestiges of Phil Jackson's confusing and frustrating reign with the Knicks.

But to only look at the box score is a massive disservice to a player who changes the Knicks for the better literally the moment he steps on the court. When Ntilikina plays, the Knicks give up 102.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks at the 8th-best defense in the league. When he sits, the Knicks plummet to 108.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 29th in the league. Defence in New York is now cool again, something not seen since the 90's.

It becomes more obvious when actually watching the Knicks play just how bothersome Frank and his 7-foot 1 wingspan is on the defensive end. His ridiculously long arms lend to his high steal numbers, allowing him to corral the opposition as an on-ball defender, forcing them into a position they don't want to be in, or to just straight up swipe the ball away. He doesn't gamble for steals either ala Westbrook, rather they just seem to happen as result of Frank being such an effective pest. 

I've seen some early comparisons of Frank to Marcus Smart, which makes sense as they are both guards who excel on defense, both pretty good facilitators but are otherwise low contributors on offense. As defenders, however, they couldn't be more opposite: Smart is a tough, strong, bulldog of a player who plays a very physical style of defence, while Ntilikina has a thinner but longer body frame which lends to a more Payton-esque style of defence where he, at times, appears to be wrapped around his opponent. Like a glove, if you will. 

Frank's abilities as a floor general and facilitator are much better than advertised as well. As someone who mostly played off-ball in Strasbourg, the scouting reports on Ntilikina going into the draft noted that he might struggle with handling the rock at an NBA level, especially as a 19-year-old playing in a grown man's league. Beginning this season he certainly had some issues with his increased role on offense (passing up open shots, passing as soon as he reaches half court etc.), but as he found his feet his game started to expand, to the point now where he's comfortable enough to initiate a drive and kick to an open McDermott.

Or to find the rolling Beasley with a nifty bounce pass.

Like his defense, his court vision, for a teenager, is impeccable. Which, in a nutshell, is why so many are excited to see what kind of player Ntilikina will eventually grow into: he's already very gifted at two of the hardest, most intangible things in basketball to teach, and has shown nothing but a desire to learn and grow according to practice reports. He seems like a high-character sort of player who wouldn't be out of place with Popovich and the Spurs, a raw project who's willing to be slowly molded into a real threat. 

I don't think it's likely Ntilikina ever becomes the kind of player who can score 20 points every night like Kawhi Leonard, but he certainly has the potential to be a two-way star. A George Hill-type (but with better passing) who can affect the game with or without the ball in his hands seems more realistic. I remain confident that his shooting percentages will improve as the season continues; his shooting stroke is a lot smoother and aesthetically pleasing than say, Lonzo Ball's, but I think more than anything else his sub-par FG% is more of a result of rookie growing pains rather than having a broken shot. Expect his efficiency to go up as he starts to get more reps under his belt.

What I'm less confident about, however, is New York's ability to develop the youngster. I've already detailed the Knicks history of striking gold in the draft only to see their draft pick truly blossom somewhere else, so I'm hoping Ntilikina doesn't also go down this well-traveled path. It was only a year ago that Jaylen Brown was a limited player who came off the bench for the Celtics, and now he's a starter with a lot more strengths than weaknesses. A young, motivated player can develop quickly if he's given the tools to do so, now it's on the Knicks to give him those tools.

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