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  • With Flashes of Impressive Play, Frank Ntilikina Is a Promising Project Worth Fighting Through Rookie-itis

With Flashes of Impressive Play, Frank Ntilikina Is a Promising Project Worth Fighting Through Rookie-itis

We detail the struggles and flashes of great play displayed by French rookie Frank Ntilikina, and why he has shown glimpses of promise.

Frank Ntilikina came into the league a mystery man. Most Knicks fans had seen the grainy mixtapes from his time with SIG Strasbourg and gawked over his drop-step spin moves into the lane, but the kid missed the Summer League and only played in one preseason game.

But it was an oh-so-familiar feeling for fans when the Knicks drafted Frankie with the 8th pick in the 2017 draft since their last top draft pick was a question mark from a European league who turned into a three-headed flying Unicorn with more three-pointers than Reggie Miller and more blocks than Dwight Howard through their first 150 games. Both Ntilikina and Porzingis were called “raw” and “a project” before their debuts, so Porzingis’s early success may have raised the stakes for young Frankie.

And expectations for the 19-year-old rookie may have been further inflated when Ramon Sessions had this to say about Ntilikina in September, per NY Post’s Marc Berman:

“It’s one of those things. I played with … Kyrie when he was young. He’s got a lot of Kyrie tendencies. Not the most athletic guy but can handle the ball in tight spots. It’s still early on, but he definitely gives me that Kyrie feel when Kyrie was a rookie.”

So far this season, Ntilikina has showed glimmers of hope, but generally struggled on offense, and his ball-handling in tight spots has not been one of his strengths. However, he has looked every bit as good as his seven-foot wingspan indicated he would be on the defensive end.

To dissect his early play and what we can expect from him going forward, we should start with the offense as bad news is always best served first.


The Jump Shot

Frankie’s jump shot passes the eye test. He squares his right elbow to the rim, he mostly leads with his right foot angled in, and his release is smooth. He still hasn’t decided whether he likes the hop or the 1-2 step on catch-and-shoots yet though—and keeping a consistent jump-shooting form is paramount to consistent shooting success.

His release is slow, but in the same way that Dirk’s release is slow in that he has such a long way to bring the ball from its initial dip to the top of his release. He also hangs in the air so it’s almost as if he’s releasing the ball on the way down often times. This is a good thing, though, because at 6’5″, this will allow him to shoot over almost any other point guard in the league, reminiscent of Shaun Livingston. Watch how he uses that hang-time here to turn his body and square his elbow to the rim:

But he is sporting a horrid 33.6 percent mark from the field and 24.3 percent from deep. So what’s wrong with his shot?

Well, first is the mechanical tweak of sticking to one of either the hop or the 1-2 on catch-and-shoot plays.

Here is his hop:

Here is the 1-2:

Second, he needs to gain confidence in his shot. Defenders have started ducking under picks and daring him to shoot the ball and he hasn’t been able to punish them for the most part. Once he starts consistently making those open mid-range shots that most defenders are giving him, then it will open up more driving and passing lanes for him to play around with. He’s only taking 10.9 percent of his shots at the rim so far. That number will go up once bigs show out on him a little bit more.

Ntilikina has been hesitant to shoot so far this season with only six field-goal attempts per game, but it was encouraging to see him aggressively looking for shots and not thinking too much off the catch in Orlando, highlighted here by Jeff:

Another thing to consider is that he may be having trouble adjusting to the NBA three-point line as indicated by his proclivity for long 2s. He has taken more shots this season from the analytically-dreaded 16 ft—three-point range than any other region of the floor and is hitting them at a 42.5 percent clip, per Basketball-Reference:

But evaluating a prospect from any European league on their three-point shooting in their first season is tough because it’s always an adjustment. Many European sharpshooters have struggled from behind the line their first year in the NBA. Dirk shot 20.6 percent from deep. Kristaps went from a 36 percent three-point shooter in the Spanish league to a 33 percent guy in the NBA. Peja Stojakovic, for example, shot just 32 percent compared to his career mark at 40 percent. We’ve seen lots of guys improve their jump shot with time. Let’s give Frank a little more before we pass judgment.


Pick-and-Roll ball handler

Ntilikina looks comfortable snaking around picks as the ball-handler. He is methodical and probing with his steps in ways that remind me of a Tony Parker or Mike Conley. He likes trying to keep his defender on his hip while he decides whether to drive, pull up, or dish it to a teammate. In this clip, his herky jerky motion off the Porzingis pick throws De’Aaron Fox off for a split second—long enough for Frank to toss a perfect dime to a soaring Latvian:

Ntilikina doesn’t have a super explosive first step, but he makes up for it with his sneakily long strides which he can burst into out of a hesitation. However, he hasn’t looked to aggressively use that to his advantage, as he mostly pulls the ball out, looks to dish to his teammates, or takes a dribble pull-up.

Watch how he uses his long strides to sneak around a good shot-blocker in Myles Turner here:

MORE OF THIS PLEASE!

Other NBA teams have gotten savvy to his general reluctance to drive and are anticipating passes and jumping lanes. This opens up driving lanes, but Frank often misses straight line drives to the rack.

He needs to work on his ability to better identify angles of attack. When he first comes around a screen, it looks like he’s mostly looking for angles to distract a defender and bend the defense just enough to find a seam to fit the ball through rather than angles to get to the rim:

He positions his body away from the rim like he’s going to fade away here to distract Lucas Noguiera from his man. It doesn’t look for a second like he’s going to try to take it to the rack:

On this play, he showed way too early where he was going with the ball, allowing Steven Adams to gobble up the attempted pocket pass.

Though teams are giving him space and playing his passing lanes, Frank has looked pretty comfortable with dribble pull-ups off picks:

If/when he starts hitting those shots more consistently, Frank will be able to better use his hesitation to fool bigs and get to the rim as they lunge out at him.

All the elements for Ntilikina to succeed on the offensive end are in his toolbox. He has the quickness, the pretty-looking jumpshot, the vision, and the length to be a solid point guard in this league for a very long time. He is just having trouble properly utilizing his tools when defenders don’t respect his shot enough to play up on him. Once his shot starts dropping, the other pieces should start to fall into place.

Now comes the fun part—the Defense. Oh, the defense. It has been longer than I can remember since the Knicks have had a good perimeter defender. The franchise has been starving for ANYONE who could stop opposing point guards from tearing up the Knicks Swiss Cheese defense, to borrow a classic Clyde-ism.

Finally, our savior has come in the form of seven feet worth of active Octopus arms.


The Arms

First off, let me just say that a point guard should not have a seven-foot wingspan. It’s almost as unfair as Kawhi’s baseball glove-sized hands. But nonetheless, I am thankful that we have this freakishly lanky defender who is sixth in the league in deflections (3.8), per 36 among players who have played more than 300 minutes.

Frank is consistent with keeping his arms up and his hands are always active:

Fred VanVleet had absolutely nowhere to go with that ball. Ntilikina does an excellent job of staying between the ball handler and the roll or pop man after a screen and keeping those hands up to prevent the pass.

Here’s another example of Ntilikina working to prevent that pass:


Defensive I.Q.

In pick-and-roll defense, preventing the pass to the big, whether he pops out for a three or rolls to the rim, is vital—and those active hands are one of the biggest keys here.

I want to highlight his ability to recover on plays here because that’s what allows him to play those passing lanes so well. It’s not just in the pick-and-roll that he does this either. Since he lacks that explosive first step, he often has trouble staying in front of quicker and more explosive guards.

Watch Damian Lillard blow by Ntilikina here:

Frankie is able to use those long beautiful strides of his to make up that ground to contest Lillard’s shot with Porzingis at the rim. Many rookies in a situation like this might just clobber the guy going to the rim after getting beat off the dribble.

Knowing that he can do this, and giving guards coming around a screen that little step on him to guard the passing lanes, demonstrates a high level of defensive awareness for such a young player.

Speaking of passing lanes, look how well Ntilikina reads them again:

He really does do the small things that you want to see in a player on the defensive end. He just seems to have his arms in the right place at the right time to poke balls out from unsuspecting victims:


So What Do We Have in Ntilikina?

It’s obviously difficult to evaluate such a young player so early on as he is adjusting to playing with bigger, faster, and more athletic freaks of nature. But though he has seemingly struggled in the early going to make a big impact on the game in his limited minutes, there is a lot to be excited about as well.

Frank is second in the league in steals per 36 among players who have played in more than 15 games. Only Paul George leads him in this category. Ntilikina’s defensive awareness is astonishing for a 19-year-old and he does the little things that make coaches happy, exemplified in his defensive activity.

His shot mechanics look fluid and he seems comfortable with the ball in his hand in pick-and-roll spread offense situations. Frank needs to be more aggressive in getting to the hoop, but hopefully that will come with time as his open jumpers start falling.

Though he is experiencing some NBA growing pains in his rookie year, it seems the Knicks have found a promising project in the French Prince.

WHAT'S YOUR TAKE?

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