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  • Through Growing Pains, the Knicks Should Start Ntilikina, Prioritize His Development

Through Growing Pains, the Knicks Should Start Ntilikina, Prioritize His Development

Jeff Hornacek and the Knicks have ramped up rookie Frank Ntilikina’s minutes. The next step? Starting the teenaged point guard and molding the team’s future floor general.

For years, the point guard position has consistently been a weak spot for the Knicks. The last 15 seasons of New York basketball have seen the likes of Toney Douglas, Ray Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Alexey Shved, and countless other obscure names run the offense with overall bad results. Now more than ever, the point guard position is crucial to every NBA team, and any championship team needs a skilled playmaker running the show.

Last season it was Derrick Rose at the helm for the Knickerbockers, and like many that came before him, it didn’t work out. Rose was clearly past his prime and didn’t want to play for a team that wasn’t at least contending for a playoff spot, and he left New York for Cleveland at the end of the season as a free agent. Then, a gaping hole at point guard opened, and a draft class stacked with guards in 2017, made it a no-brainer to select a playmaker in last year’s draft.

New York drafted Frank Ntilikina out of France with the 8th overall pick, a “project” type of player that would take a few years to show off his potential. Now, 36 games into the season, Frank has taken strides on both offense and defense and proven himself as one of the most promising rookies in the league. However, the Frenchman continues to back up veteran Jarrett Jack at point, and while that’s okay for now, it’ll have to change in the near future if the Knicks plan on leaning towards the ceiling of Frank.

Ntilikina has already began closing out games, often while guarding the opposing team’s star point guard, and guarding them effectively, too. Frank’s length and athleticism combined with his basketball I.Q. already make him a great defender at such a young age. He’s gone up against the NBA’s star point guards in Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, improving with each subsequent matchup. On offense, Frank is less polished but slowly improving. He’s seen a boost in scoring in the month of December, averaging 7.5 points per game on 38.5 percent shooting compared to 4.7 points on 34.2 percent shooting in November. He’s also improved his passing, racking up a career-high 11 assists against the Spurs last Thursday and has seen a slight uptick in assist numbers this month, putting up 3.7 per game in December compared to 3.1 on the rest of the season.

While his game has developed quickly, there remain a few drawbacks in Frank’s game that account for why he’s still on the bench. Ntilikina struggles to run the offense at times, which is to be expected from a 19-year-old point guard (a position often associated with a lengthy learning curve). Nevertheless, the offense simply tends to flow smoother with Jack on the floor, one of the advantages of having a vet at point. Frank’s ability to be at the head of an offense will come with time, and playing around experienced playmakers like Jack and Ramon Sessions can only help with that. Additionally, Ntilikina can be a bit passive with the ball. While he’s been a bit more aggressive recently he still doesn’t drive as much as he should, and when he does he can take it up weakly. On a positive note, though, Ntilikina and Porzingis share the team’s highest two-player lineup net rating for qualified minutes at 17.5, per NBA/Stats. The encouraging figure points towards the necessity to match the Knicks’ emerging star in KP with the young point guard in the French Prince, thus building a potentially lethal chemistry to stretch the floor and shake up the league.

With Jarrett Jack coming off his early season hot streak and Frank only getting better, a starting lineup change is starting to look more and more inevitable. Per Basketball-Reference’s database, no teenager has ever started at point guard in Knicks history (records go back to 1983). Regardless of how the season plays out, Ntilikina should be starting at point guard before it’s over. Player development must be a priority for the Knicks, and that means giving the young guys playing time (#FreeWilly), despite short-term coaching decisions towards winning every game. If not now, then Frank ought to be New York’s starting one sooner than later.

TKW’s resident youngin’. Steve Novak is my hero.

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