The trade deadline deal to acquire point guard Emmanuel Mudiay should not be considered a banishment of any hope for Frank Ntilikina’s future in New York.
Unlike previous years, the Knicks were active at the trade deadline after all—just not in the way many envisioned they would. There is no way to sugar coat it, this week has sucked. Kristaps Porzingis is gone for approximately 12 months. That means you can put the kibosh on this season and likely next season. With that in mind, the activity on deadline day makes a little more sense.
Emmanuel Mudiay was the guy Scott Perry landed before the final buzzer on Thursday’s deadline. Prior to landing him, they tried to trade for Elfrid Payton, so the message was clear from the front office: They addressed their point guard need but now create a bigger hole on the wing and down low with Willy Hernangómez shipped out to Charlotte and McDermott gone to facilitate the Mudiay deal.
The obvious observer would see the positional logjam shift from center to point guard, but there is more to this move. In the Daily News, Frank Isola reported New York could have landed Elfrid Payton, but the team was unwilling to part with Ntilikina:
The acquisition of Mudiay is not a damning indictment of lottery pick Frank Ntilikina. All reports prior to the deadline were that the Knicks wanted young athletes or assets in return. Mudiay fits that mold as he is 21 years old, athletic, and under club control through next season.
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) February 8, 2018
The arrival of Mudiay can be looked at through a few lenses. For one, it’s a nice gamble to get a peek at a former lottery pick at no real cost. Mudiay did not pan out in Denver, however, one could argue the Nuggets did not exercise a whole lot of patience (hopefully something the Knicks are expressing with Ntilikina). On the other hand, with Porzingis out for extended time, the Knicks will have nothing but patience. Mudiay gets to hit the reset button, to something his new teammates Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke can testify.
Much to my surprise the trade was met with relative praise. The general consensus is the team is getting a young player for a great price. On ESPN’s The Jump, former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale put it best, “Talent is there that is a change of scenery away from tapping into it.” The wrap on Mudiay’s stint in Denver is that he was trying to be a player he’s not—a jump shooter. That is not why the Knicks took him.
If you’re looking for a best case scenario, think Tyreke Evans. Different skill levels for sure, but Evans’ play fell off a cliff. He arrived in Memphis and somehow it all seemed to click. There is no reason that cannot happen to Mudiay. Statistically, his game looks like it is starting to come into form. He is averaging a career-high percentages from the field and free-throw line (40.1 and 80.8, respectively). Given his age and contract, why not roll the dice?
The other way you can approach this is how it helps Frank Ntilikina. Yes, this trade only helps Frankie and I’ll tell you why. Mudiay possesses a similar frame and defensive potential. Hornacek can play these two together and give the Knicks their best defensive backcourt in recent memory. Mudiay is not known for his defense, but that side of the ball is effort more than anything (and communication).
With his athleticism, it is not out of the question for Emmanuel to develop to an above average defender. Slotted next to Frankie, who is rapidly developing into a bear trap for opposing guards, the former seventh overall pick can take on the easier matchup. When Porzingis returns, Frank’s progression could be at the point that the team can be an elite defensive team. Porzingis is in the upper echelon of rim protectors. If Mudiay and Frank can form a pincer on the perimeter the Knicks may have found an identity at last.
On offense, though, is where this partnership can thrive. Mudiay’s arrival signals that the team could know where Frankie’s destiny lies—off the ball. It’s not a foreign concept, some scouts projected Frank as a two more than a point. With the call up of Burke, and now addition of Mudiay, the team is giving hints that they may not view him in similar light. Frank certainly has the vision, but he refuses to attack the rim. Mudiay’s willingness and ability will allow Frank to set up outside, where he seems most comfortable.
Mudiay is at his best when he is attacking downhill. His improved jumper forces the defense to respect his shot, but that is not where he will do the Knicks much good. A key to his improvement from beyond the arc is that he is shooting a career-low 2.4 per game. He has shown flashes of good vision, which will only enhance the ball movement. The key for Frankie, though, is to improve his jumper. The form looks solid so it is only a matter of reps before the shots start falling. This also doesn’t mean that Frank will never run the offense. Mudiay played off the ball in Denver, and it is something the rookie pointed out after news of the trade broke:
Knicks PG Frank Ntilikina called the club’s trade for point guard Emmanuel Mudiay “good for our future.” pic.twitter.com/2idYmVXQqP
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) February 9, 2018
A logical step would to phase out Jarrett Jack’s time as a starter. Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek has an unusual attachment to Jack—almost like a toddler afraid to part with his favorite stuffed animal. That must be put to an end once Mudiay joins the team. Between the end of this season and the entirety of next’s, New York has 108 games to decide whether Mudiay figures into their future plans without tampering with Ntilikina’s development.