Three quarters into the season, the Knicks introduced more, albeit younger, competition at both guard positions. While Frank has been edged out of predominantly point guard minutes, he’s come a long way to build a successful path at the 2 guard role.
Frank Ntilikina, the eighth overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, had a rough time before the All-Star Break. For a portion of the season, his minutes were cut in favor of veteran guard Jarrett Jack, and management’s reiteration of their dedication to a youth movement was accompanied by the emergence of two new entries into the guard corps: Emmanuel Mudiay via trade and Trey Burke through G League promotion. In the blink of an eye, depth at point guard went from dangerously thin to just as crowded as the center position.
While it seems Ntilikina has been pushed out of the 1 spot and into a backup shooting guard role, this position change may be the best thing to happen to him this season. Let’s examine head coach Jeff Hornacek’s move for the rookie.
Maximizing Length as the 2 Guard
Besides his monstrous wingspan, Frank Ntilikina isn’t known for his physical gifts. He’s neither strong nor fast, but Frank’s length still manages to help him get around the hardwood. However, driving has never been his strong suit. As seen in the Knicks’ recent matchup with the Boston Celtics, Ntilikina is easily contained and quick to defer when defenses offer even a little resistance around the rim.
He may not be able to get to the rim as the primary ball-handler, but if he gets there, Ntilikina can finish. His trouble lies in getting around defenders, so, an off-ball screen or a quick cut on a lax defender prove to be effective more times than not:
I’ve been wanting to see Frank cut more often off the ball. Great play here off out of bounds set pic.twitter.com/33AUduLgZL
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) February 27, 2018
The patented Kyle O’Quinn entry pass to a cutting wing worked perfectly in the above play. Frank’s deliberate movement on the court was essential—he didn’t even need an off-ball screen. Ntilikina purposely switched onto a defender, who was on the outside of him and preoccupied with Tim Hardaway Jr., and used his long arms to coral a pass in the paint from a big man on the perimeter. With the rim protectors out of the paint, he scores on a one-on-one against a late Andre Iguodala.
Ntilikina is shooting 57.6 percent at the rim, per Basketball-Reference. Yet, only 25 percent of his layups have been assisted on this season. If the above play demonstrates anything, it’s that he knows how to conduct himself in the paint. To maximize his uses there, the Knicks should try setting more off-ball screens to free him when Luke Kornet or O’Quinn have baited their defenders out onto the perimeter. Kornet may not be known as an effective passer like O’Quinn, but his ability to shoot from long-range forces defenders to challenge his shot. These plays may not work so well with Enes Kanter, a big man who knows no place other than the paint, but it does warrant some looking into the future when Ntilikina is on the court with the other big men on the depth chart.
From Primary Ball-Handler to Proficient Catch-and-Shoot Guard
Quite frankly, Ntilikina has some lackluster ball-handling. When he attempts a sophisticated crossover it can easily end in a turnover. Prior to the All-Star Break, he was averaging 1.8 turnovers per game. It’s not horrible on 20 minutes per game, but in relation to a measly 3.2 assists per game it doesn’t make up for much. His assist percentage, 22 percent, pales in comparison to his rival Dennis Smith Jr. who has posted a 28 percent assist percentage on 4.8 assists per game (granted, with more playing time). It may seem like six percentage is minuscule, but it adds to the story when Smith Jr. has a lower turnover ratio than Ntilikina as well. Per 100 possessions, Ntilikina averages 16.1 assists and Smith Jr. averages 12. For the sake of comparison, Jordan Clarkson is averaging 9.5 turnovers per 100 possessions this year and D’Angelo Russell has a 13.6 turnover ratio this season (via NBA Stats). So, it’s probably in his best interest not to be the primary ball-handler.
This year Ntilikina is shooting 36.1 percent on catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities, much closer to the league average than his season average of 32.7 percent from three. While the All-Star Break has seen his three-point shooting dip, the data shows that, if given the appropriate time, Ntilikina can be a proficient three-point shooter. Currently, he’s shooting 50 percent on one-dribble two-point shots. To address the turnover problem, he’s averaging only one per game since the All-Star Game.
The Knicks’ best bet to capitalize on Frank’s shooting this season is to allow their slashing players to drive and dish to Ntilikina if the defense collapses:
Frank Ntilikina gets the ball to roll in after a Troy Williams assist
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 3, 2018
This prime example of driving small forward Troy Williams passing to a patient Ntilikina on the perimeter is exactly the kind of teamwork he needs to be successful as a three-point shooter this season. If Hardaway Jr. and Burke can find a way to draw a sagging defender away from Ntilikina, then it could bode well for him for an open shot. The same could be said when a mismatch in the paint presents itself for Kanter or Kristaps Porzingis (get well soon). A quick back down and pass to the corner could yield fruitful results since 73.5 percent of Ntilikina’s threes are assisted from teammates.
Figuring Out the Young Guard Corps
Ntilikina and Mudiay haven’t been on the court together much, but the the little time they did share together left a lot to be desired. Little data exists, but the most frequented lineups featuring both players had a NetRtg of -7.0 with a field-goal percentage below 50 percent. Hornacek has only gone to this set in two games and it’s probably for the best—what would three shooting guards be doing on the court at one time?
Frank and Emmanuel sets may not be practical, but when Burke takes the court, Frank’s value as a running mate skyrockets. The sample size again is painfully small, but three of the top-four lineups that include both Ntilikina and Burke have positive plus-minus ratings and have them shooting over 50 percent, a complete contrast to Ntilikina’s on-court relationship with Mudiay.
Burke’s quickness and Ntilikina covering ground in a few, quick long strides and extending his long arms could be a tandem essential for the Knicks future when they run the fastbreak:
Trey Burke to Frank Ntilikina.
This is nice. I like this. pic.twitter.com/mwFctPKtQ7
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 25, 2018
Burke is averaging 3.4 assists, but if a Burke–Ntilikina backcourt spends enough time on the floor, both players could see a bump in their stats. Remember: plays like the Troy Williams assist above could be run by Burke as well. An open shooter is always a welcome alternative to a clogged lane. He’s averaging 10.5 points in 15.8 minutes and defenders would be foolish not to respect his jumper. His mid-range shooting has been superb and Ntilikina’s ability to hide Burke’s defensive shortcomings by guarding the better of their two counterparts on the opposition could be a successful plan in the short- and long-term.
Ntilikina has been adjusting to the shooting guard position fairly well. He’s even reportedly been studying Toronto Raptors All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan. These last few games have shown he could be so much different—hopefully more—than a 3-and-D role player. The Knicks chew up players and spit them out. If Frank can finish this year with a handful of experience and direction for his future, then the worst is already behind him.