Former 2017 NBA Draft classmates guards Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. enter their fourth seasons with dubious roles both in the Knicks’ rotation and in the team’s long-term plans.
The New York Knicks’ offseason hasn’t been too eventful. They had their picks in the draft, the highlight being the selection of University of Dayton forward Obadiah “Toppy” Toppin at eighth overall. They also had an uneventful free agency, where they moved on from all but two of the short-term deals they made in free agency in 2019.
Leon Rose’s maneuvering of two late draft picks into marginally earlier picks notwithstanding, the Knicks of late have been pretty boring. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering New York’s history of offseason meltdowns—think about being forced to stay inside due to rain on the last day of summer. Now, compare that to experiencing literally any scene from The Human Centipede. As a Knicks fan, I’ll take “boring” everyday of the week.
What remains to be seen is how the front office’s subtle moves are going to impact the backcourt going forward. The Knicks signed two veteran guards in Elfrid Payton and Austin Rivers. Both have served as lead guards before, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they do so again under head coach Tom Thibodeau. The bigger question is: what happens to the younger guards on the roster? Their rookie deals are coming to an end. Is this a disaster for Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.?
The summer of 2017 was special. There were high hopes for both Ntilikina and Smith Jr. no matter where they fell. Their respective upsides were starkly different. Ntilikina, specifically, was projected to be Kristaps Porzingis’ running mate. His stellar defense at the onset of his career would give him leeway on the offensive side of the court. Smith was poised to have an electric rookie season. Everyone was hopeful.
Fast forward three years later. A few of their lottery classmates are signing max extensions, a few are slowly finding their way, and both Ntilikina and Smith Jr. are in the exact same place, ironically—limbo.
In the shortened 2019–20 season, Ntilikina averaged 6.3 points and 3.0 assists in 20 minutes for the Knicks. He started a little less than half of those games. No matter how loudly you cheer for Ntilikina, he has been worse than mediocre during his time as a Knick. His aggressiveness appeared to be at an all-time high, taking more shots at the rim than the previous season. Even with that growth, Ntilikina was still unable to break the threshold of shooting 40% from the field.
Alternatively, Smith Jr. averaged 5.5 points and 2.9 assists as a reserve. The offseason rumblings of a new jump shot did not translate into any in-game productivity. Frankly, he was unplayable. Coming off a back injury and a tragic personal loss, it’s hard to imagine playing for a perpetual lottery team was among his chief priorities. Nonetheless, both Ntilikina and Smith Jr. underperformed, and that does not bode well for players under new management. If this past season was an introduction to Rose, they were memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
Speaking of new management, on the macro-level, their offseason was a blip on the face of the NBA. Rose had a mid-lottery pick and a late first-rounder. Then, he signed a few backend players to fill out their poor roster. On the macro, team level, the front office ran away from the 11 power forwards they signed last year, filled out wing depth, and signed a true center in Nerlens Noel.
That brings us to the specific deals that indicate Ntilikina and Smith Jr. could be on the outs.
On the night of the draft the Knicks acquired two guards: Immanuel Quickley, a sharpshooting sophomore out of the University of Kentucky, and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell. With Wayne Ellington and Damyean Dotson subsequently leaving New York, selecting young guards who could help fill out the roster was obviously a calculated move. However, free agency added another layer of complexity to guard depth.
Both free agent signings of Elfrid Payton, who started for New York last season, and career journeyman Austin Rivers were shocking in their own way. Payton’s lack of shooting didn’t do New York any favors when it came to spacing, but he did average 10.0 points, 7.2 assists, and 4.7 rebounds over the course of the season. His stats are by far the best of the three, even though he did shoot the worst from beyond the arc at 20.3%.
Rivers doesn’t have championship pedigree, but he’s been a contributor on contenders throughout his careers. After spending four seasons with the first iteration of the Los Angeles Chokers—I mean Clippers—he eventually ended up spending two seasons in Houston. Rivers is a career backup, only starting for about a quarter of the games he’s played, but that may be the factor that puts him ahead of the pack. He doesn’t typically sub in for bums. Throughout his career he’s been a backup for Chris Paul, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Every single one of them has been selected to an All-NBA team. While he is mainly a shooting guard, he’ll be a leader on this Knicks team as the second-oldest player on the roster, right behind Reggie Bullock. He also was the only multi-year free agency signing this summer.
In short, Rivers is a question mark who could end up being an important veteran. Payton is bad, but still better than Ntilikina and Smith Jr. You argue the 2017 draftmates have had their development stifled by poor management decisions. You could also say they are end-of-the-bench guys who just don’t have what it takes to start in this league.
Honestly, both can be true.
Looking forward, there’s three ways this could go for them heading into the 2020–21 season.
The since-ousted Steve Mills exercised both players’ team options for the upcoming season last October. Next summer, both Ntilikina and Smith Jr. will enter unrestricted free agency, as opposed to being locked in with a rookie extension—the deal given to young players of promise.
In all likelihood, this post-bubble season won’t be an audition to earn another contract with the Knicks. It’ll be to earn a contract with somebody else. They could spend the full season just as they spent the last two: spotty playing time coupled with waterboy duties. It could be another year of obscurity until they’re forced to audition for the other 29 teams who might see them as has-been, busted former lottery picks.
However, new Knicks president Leon Rose has shown to be a bit crafty with moving assets. Parlaying two slightly irrelevant draft picks into two slightly earlier draft picks has easily been the most exciting part of his tenure. He hired a flurry of CAA clients who will be untradable for the beginning of the season. So many, in fact, that the Knicks have a full, 20-man roster that may need trimming.
There’s somebody, somewhere in an NBA team’s front office who believes in Frank Ntilinka. If Rose can find them, I’m sure he’ll have an offer on the table for the guard out of France. A young guard who can cover multiple positions and doesn’t prefer the ball in his hands surely gets attention in both San Antonio and Orlando.
Orlando will pick up anybody who can’t shoot, and with Jonathan Isaac out for the foreseeable future, they’ll need a stop-gap defender on the wing. The Magic are never good and have no outgoing draft picks currently. If the Knicks can finagle an asset from the perpetually mediocre Magic, they could salvage something from Ntilikina’s underwhelming stint in New York.
Whether teams are interested in the player or not, Ntilikina and Smith Jr. are on expiring contracts. If the Knicks are willing to take on bad money for an asset, it could give them another shot in a future draft.
In another world where the G League’s 2020–21 season was a sure-thing, Ntilikina would be able to spend time there like Thibodeau said. According to multiple reports, there is the possibility of the G League having their own bubble in the Atlanta area. Georgia has been notoriously lax on restrictions, but they’ve recently put into action new restrictions heading into the New Year. The NBA is naturally a risk-averse organization, and the Orlando bubble was an extenuating circumstance that worked under extremely thorough management.
Exploring options is one thing; implementing them is another. A low-cost, dorm-style endeavor isn’t completely foreign to leadership, since the NBA has invested in the G League Ignite. Still, it’s not something the Knicks can count on in the next few months, or even before the trade deadline.
The only surefire way to guarantee Ntilikina and Smith Jr. remain Knicks is for them to do it the old fashion way: they’ll have to work their asses from day one of training camp until the last day of the regular season. Ntilikina and Smith Jr. have to outplay, out-hustle, and outlast Rivers, Payton, Quickley, Powell, and each other.
Smith Jr.’s path to relevance is more straightforward and tougher than his fellow guards because of the limited number of spots he can occupy. He’s either the explosive athlete he once was or he’s not. That’s it. Clownish training strategies be damned, if he can score at the rim and dish to the open man he’ll improve whatever stock he has. Otherwise, he’s one year removed from being Emmanuel Mudiay.
Ntilikina may have it easier if he can organize himself on the court. Thibodeau has always been lauded as a defensive-minded coach. He may naturally gravitate toward Ntilikina as a Kirk Hinrich surrogate. And lord knows Thibodeau loved Hinrich.
The challenge may be in preparing Ntilikina to take on such a role. If they can properly plan for Ntilikina to play spot minutes for positions 1 through 3, he can grow into the diverse plug-and-play guy that teams (Knicks included) would love to have in their rotation. Since he’ll have a few offensive weapons around him in Randle, Barrett, and Toppin, the pressure to shoot should be alleviated. All he has to do on offense is make the right pass and not hit the side of the rim.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Nitlikina’s destinies have been interwoven due to each player’s special relationship to the Knicks. The initial hierarchy appears to be reversed in their new, bleak standing in the NBA. Either way, as trade fodder or potential breakouts, they’re in this together.