Have we found any stark differences between Frank’s game during his brief rookie season versus his years playing professionally in France?
Frank Ntilikina came into Knicks fans’ collective consciousness as a difficult last name to pronounce. What do you do with all of those i’s and that sneaky ‘t’ as the second letter? He was neither a college star nor a recognizable name that fans could attach their hopes to throughout the previous losing season. He wound up being drafted by Phil Jackson, one pick ahead of college star Dennis Smith Jr., the player fans had seen dunking the basketball all over the East Coast, and flamethrower Malik Monk.
A little over one month into the season and Frank Ntilikina is probably the second most popular Knick to Kristaps Porzingis, at least as social media goes. Anything Frank is big bucks right now in the realm of digital highlight footage currency, as Knicks fans are eager to unmask their latest lottery hero.
Now that Ntilikina’s game is more familiar to the fans, I thought it would be interesting to compare his early play to what he did as an amateur. Has Frank played as expected early into his rookie season? Has he done some things differently than he did in Europe? Let’s take a look.
As much as the NBA represents a higher level of competition for new players joining the league, there is no transformational gate that each player must pass before entering. If a player was skittish in driving to the hoop as an amateur last May, then he probably still will be come the first October of their NBA career.
As expected, Frank Ntilikina is a very similar player to the one he was on SIG Strasbourg, with a few tendency exceptions, and with his main weakness exaggerated. So far in the pros, he has been reluctant to drive to the hoop and often defers to teammates on offense, as he did as an amateur. The biggest change in his game so far in the NBA, and something that offensive scheme can influence, has been the increase in his shot frequency out of pick-and-rolls compared to spot-ups, where he found the majority of his offense in France. Of course, the constant strength has been his defense.
Driving to the Hoop
Perhaps the biggest complaint about Frank’s early NBA game has been his apprehension to take the rock to the hole. He struggled with the exact same thing as an amateur. The scouting reports noted he was a weak finisher around the rim and often deferred to his teammates on offense. In the play below, we see an example of this. He makes a strong drive, before forcing a pass to a well-guarded teammate. The play works out, but it’s an example of Ntilikina looking to pass rather than finish strong around the hoop:
In the pros, Ntilikina has often been caught between trying to make a play on the dribble, passing to an open teammate, and taking a shot. It ends in an awkward floater like this one:
A key area of development for Ntilikina will be improving his strength and decisiveness on drives. Only 13 percent of his shot attempts have ended around the rim this season, which ranks him in the bottom 13th percentile of players at his position, per Cleaning the Glass. Whether he’s passing too early, pulling up short, or not driving at all, he is playing without an aggressive edge needed from point guards, which keeps NBA defenses off balance.
The biggest drop-off in Ntilikina’s driving tendencies come out of the pick-and-roll. In France, he drove to the basket nearly 30 percent of the time in these situations. He has been much more tentative in the pros, driving off a pick to the hoop only 17 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports. Frank may have been tentative as an amateur, but he still showed flashes of strong finishes.
Imagine the Garden crowd if Frank dunked the ball like this:
Missing consistent dribble drive action from their point guards is part of the reason why the Knicks have struggled in finding three-point shot opportunities this season. Beyond forcing himself into more difficult mid-range shots by stopping short on drives, Ntilikina’s lack of penetration into the paint has reduced drive and kick opportunities. While he has shown a tendency to defer to his teammates on offense, it hasn’t manifested into creating open looks on the perimeter from ferocious drives that draw help. On plays that Ntilikina does dribble all the way into the restricted area, his assist percentage is only half of teammate Jarret Jack’s.
It’s like spotting a blue jay outside of your window, you need to quickly notice before it flies away, but there has been some glimpses of how Ntilikina can use his natural ability to drive to the rim.
Knicks fans want Frank Ntilikina to be more aggressive–he will get there. I like what I've seen in small flashes: when he changes speeds, makes subtle fakes pic.twitter.com/v5bXGl8tm8
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 26, 2017
As my colleague Kyle Maggio has pointed out, Ntilikina takes such long natural strides that all he has to do is shorten one up and he really changes his pace. The scouting reports noticed the same thing about him, via DraftExpress:
“[Frank] can get to the rim with changes of speed and long strides to take what the defense gives him.”
It’s easy for fans and bloggers to talk about a young player needing to drive to the basket more often, but we also aren’t the ones who might get thrown around like a rag doll when colliding with a fierce rim protector. Ntilikina went to the line a below average amount (8.4 percent of his possessions) in Strasbourg. He seemed reluctant to want to draw contact when playing with smaller European players, so it makes sense that he isn’t quite ready to wrestle with bigs in the NBA. Hopefully, as he matures and builds strength, this is an area where he can improve.
As reluctant as Ntilikina has been driving to the basket, he has also lacked an overall aggression in taking shots from other areas of the court. We haven’t seen the international Frank who would fire away more often when the urge struck him. In fact, he has taken only 17 spot-up shots this season (while shooting a respectable 47.1 percentage). Playing overseas, he took the majority of his shots out of spot-up situations. During his rookie campaign, he has taken nearly three times the amount of his shots out of the pick-and-roll (41.4 percent) compared to spot-ups (13.6 percent):
It’s one thing for Frank to start taking more shots from the perimeter when there’s no other action set, it’s another for the Knicks offense to start incorporating specific plays that create spot-ups for him. As the Knicks have incorporated more plays into their offense this season with their wings and bigs acting as facilitators, they could do more to set-up Ntilikina in reaction to opposing defenses who will dare him to shoot until he can prove he can make an NBA shot.
All of this will come with time—remember we aren’t even one quarter through his first professional season.
What has been most exciting about Ntilikina’s debut season has been his defense. As we have chronicled in many highlight videos, Frankie Smokes has been a sensation on defense as a rookie:
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 28, 2017
This matches the scouting reports that hinted at Ntilikina being the defensive standout of the draft. For such a young age, he has an uncanny feel for the fundamentals of defense—from making the right switch to positioning his body off his man in such a way that he can stunt a drive or passing lane at the right moment.
I could write an entire piece on Ntilikina’s defense, and I’ve spent a lot of time highlighting his strengths already in my videos. The point for this piece to consider is that the Knicks did a good job in drafting the type of player that you see the smarter teams of the NBA (Warriors, Celtics) targeting: a player who has length and can switch on multiple match ups to make him almost positionless.
While Frank provides this unique ability on defense, he still needs to mature his offensive game to turn from a lottery player to an eventual cornerstone piece on a competitive Knicks team. Through twenty games, Knicks fans might want to see more from his offense, but they should feel good that he is doing many of the same things he did as an amateur. In other words, he isn’t suddenly struggling in a way that is foreign to him. He is playing his game, one that is made, at least defensively, for the modern NBA. Once he builds the strength and courage to take it to the rack, he should be a great piece for the organization.