After a Summer League that saw break out performances from the likes of Dennis Smith JR, and the firing of Knicks Team President Phil Jackson, there has been a growing sense of unrest concerning the Knicks own draft pick – Belgian born Frank Ntilikina. While Smith has impressed and looks set for a long NBA career, Knicks fans should not yet despair at their own prospects potential. As an international player film on Frank is limited and a minor ankle injury has further delayed his Knicks debut, so to most Knicks fans he remains something of an enigma. Given the limited film and data available though, let’s see if we can answer 5 important questions about his promise as a Knick.
How do his size, length, and weight compare to other guards?
So first there are the physical attributes which are very impressive. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system has him ranked as a “Great Prospect” with a $65 million-dollar value over the next five years. By comparison, rookie Dennis Smith ranks as a “Good Prospect” at $54 million and Malik Monk ranks as a “Marginal Prospect” with a negative value. This has to be taken with a massive grain of salt though because Frank’s projections are based purely on his physical attributes and not on international play. Still, it’s encouraging that the Knicks have selected someone that ranks statistically in the upper echelon of physical talent.
So what are those exact measurements?
Height - 6’5″ (Above average for most Shooting Guards)
Wingspan – 7’0 (Well above average for most Small Forwards)
Weight – 190 lbs
It should be clear that if Frank does end up playing the majority of his minutes at point guard, he will be able to swallow up opposing guards on a night to night basis. He’ll need to begin putting on weight to eventually begin guarding 2’s and 3’s, but this is a normal requirement for a rookie. In short, his physical build gives him an immediate edge coming into the league and assures him a high ceiling relative to his current skill level.
What is his defensive impact now and how does that project going forward?
First, it’s important to note that a lot of the film available is highlights of European Champion’s Leagues games, so it’s very difficult to make a holistic evaluation of Frank’s moment to moment defense. Furthermore, without having some idea of the defensive scheme that his club team runs it’s hard to get a feel for his tendency to gamble, stay in the scheme, etc. But keep in mind that his coaching staff doesn’t owe him anything, and if he is staying on the court in critical plays down the stretch it is because they have trust in him to make winning plays on the defensive end.
All that said, from what I have seen Frank should be an impact defender for the Knicks almost immediately. He has great lateral movement and his length means he can slow down or stop driving actions effectively. He gets into his defensive stance willingly, will apply ball pressure early in a possession and often full court. It’s expecting too much to think he’ll do this regularly at the NBA level due to not only the increased athleticism of his opposition but also his increase in minutes and games played. He averaged only 18 minutes a game for his club team, without having to one of the primary ball handlers.
After watching a season of Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings die on every single pick, it is a thing of beauty to watch a guy that really fights through picks. Frank will fight over two or three screens without switching off or giving up on the play. Often he’ll leverage his wire thin frame by just slipping through the screen without making contact at all. He’s crafty.
Frank is also a very active off ball defender. He will help and recover, often jumping passing lanes leading to steals. He’s great at keeping one eye on his man and one eye on the ball and seems to have a keen sense of when he can use his length to stymie a developing action. He keeps his hands high and active, which really only Lance Thomas does for the Knicks on a regular basis, and it’s amazing how big an impact that seems to have limiting opponent ball movement.
It’s hard to overstate how good his feel is and how hard he tries, this combined with his outstanding physical gifts make it completely plausible that he will develop into the best defender at his position in time.
How effective can he be as a scorer?
Other than Ntilikina's defense, his most tantalizing NBA skill is his shooting ability. But just how much can the Knicks really expect from Frank as a shooter?
The difficult thing about projecting Frank is that the sample size for all his shooting numbers is just so limited. He shot 43% from downtown his last season but that was only on a total 51 attempts. Normally free throws are a useful supplement to the limited shooting numbers of college players, but in Ntilikina's case, he actually shot fewer free throws than 3’s - which is troubling for a different reason we’ll address later.
With a sample this small it’s impossible to say if Frank’s improvement as a shooter is real or not. Frank shot 40 percent on his jump shots this past season, compared with only 18 percent last season. It is completely fair to wonder whether Frank has really improved or if this is the result of chance.
Even if Frank's three-point shooting numbers from this past season is an indication of improved shooting, Frank could still struggle this season as a Knick. As Chris Herring of formerly of the Wall Street Journal reminded us, European players, even those known for their shooting, experience notable difficulty with their 3 point shooting efficiency in their first year in the NBA. So we can expect Frank’s shooting from outside to take a bit of a dip while he adjusts to the speed of the NBA game and the length of the NBA 3 point shot.
That said, there is reason to suspect that Frank will adjust quickly because not only does he frequently shoot from 1-2 feet above the break he also favors shooting from the left corner of the court, where the difference between the NBA distance and the FIBA distance is negligible (one inch).
As far as form, Frank gets great arc on his shot and his length allows him to take one lateral dribble that creates a lot of space to get off his shot. He clearly favors taking shots from the elbows, left baseline and above the break. Like much of Frank’s game, his release is pretty slow, which could mean trouble for his off the dribble game in the NBA.
A major red flag for Frank is that he functionally never gets to the free throw line, significantly hampering his efficiency. And when he did get there it wasn’t pretty. Frank only made 18/29 total free throws for the season (62%) which is bad for a guard. But this is the flipside of the small sample size, if three more of those shots had bounced in, he would be a 72% shooter from the line, or totally unremarkable.
But again the real issue here is volume. He really doesn’t get to the line at all and struggles even getting into the lane. Frank just doesn’t currently have the explosion required to beat defenders off the dribble in the European Champions League, which bodes very poorly for his chances against NBA athletes. Although he has demonstrated rudimentary hesitation actions, and can sometimes change speed in transition to get by defenders – it will be a struggle at least in the early going for Frank to be an efficient player.
How is he at creating for others?
At least on his club team, Frank had a pass first mentality. He was a willing ball-mover, to the point that he would pass up open shots at times, and seemed hesitant to take even lightly contested shots. Frank would find the rolling man in transition or during break downs in defensive rotations. He often had better vision than passing ability, he sees the right pass but sometimes throws the ball into traffic.
Because of his superior size, he can pass effectively out of the post because he sees over the defense. If he works on his post-game he will be a massive threat against opposing guards in the Sean Livingston mold. This could end up being important because it would allow him to apply pressure toward the basket, even if he can’t create dribble penetration.
If his shooting proves out, Frank will be successful in the pick and roll because he can punish opposing defenses for going under and was comfortable shooting off the dribble in PNR scenarios. I don’t think I ever saw Frank play with a big that could roll as well as shoot, so it will be enticing to see what he and KP can work out of the pick and roll. Their combined height will make it very difficult for opponents to limit pick and roll penetration.
What style of play would maximize his talents?
It’s difficult to really evaluate how Frank will perform in a starting role since he has played his entire career, minus tournaments, as a role-player for his squad. There seemed to be some skepticism about his ability to perform as a lead guard leading up to the draft, but given how bad the Knicks are, I don’t see any reason for them not to at least begin by playing him in the starting lineup. It is possible that veteran point guard Ramon Sessions could start to begin the season or perhaps even crowd favorite Ron Baker, but I am guessing that the coaching staff and front office will feel totally comfortable giving Frank plenty of rope to work with.
If the Knicks happen to sign or trade for a more capable primary ball handler, then Frank can comfortably slide to the shooting guard position, moving off the ball, spotting up and guarding the opponent’s primary guard scoring option. Frank will likely play a supporting cast role for his first few years in the NBA. And that is okay! The Knicks have a young talent that should develop into a primary scoring option in Porzingis, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the Knicks point guard play by Derrick Rose last season was his inability to more fully involve KP in the offense.
Frank is not an isolation or volume scorer and does not project to become one without significant development to his game that is too far away to reasonably expect. However, the limited moments in which he was given the key to the offense during the U18 European Championship tournament provide an outline of what a fully actualized version of Frank could look like in a few years. He shot the lights out nailing 68% of his pull-ups and posting an impressive line of 22.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.2 steals, 1.7 blocks and 5.0 turnovers per 40 minutes on 42.4% from two-point range and 58.6% from three-point range. All this was against U18 competition mind you, but the mere fact that Frank was willing and able to take over as the primary offensive option when called upon - he went onto win tournament MVP - gives some insight into his mindset and self-confidence.
Frank has superior physical tools despite his lack of explosion, and with proper development, he could become an All-Defense caliber player. The Knicks front office may well have picked him because of his “fit in the triangle” but he has the foundation to be a quality player in the modern game.
If his shooting isn’t a mirage, his floor will be as a versatile 3 and D wing that can guard at least 3 positions, which is an incredibly valuable player in today’s NBA.
And if his first step follows the jumper?
We’ll see the ceiling.