It’s sink or swim for Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay as their common backstory and athletic gifts hang in the balance of a backcourt partnership in New York.

New York Knicks guards Frank Ntilikina and new acquisition Emmanuel Mudiay share more in common than a backcourt.

The Knicks drafted Ntilikina eighth overall in 2017 based on his track record of playing professionally in France. Frank was primarily raised by his mother and older brothers after the family sought refuge from the central African nation of Rwanda.

Mudiay, drafted by Denver seventh overall in 2015, was born in the Congo—then Zaire—to a mother and two older brothers. His father perished when Emmanuel was young, and at the turn of the millennium, the Mudiay family emigrated to the United States, building a home in Texas. Emmanuel spoke French at home before assimilating to the English language in the U.S.

Around the same time, the Ntilikinas moved from Belgium to France. Frank later signed with the Strasbourg youth team, heavily scouted from a young age. When he matriculated to the big boy team, Frank was pushed around by adults.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Mudiay was a top ranked prospect in high school, helping his prep school compete with the best Texas programs and leaving bread crumbs for scouts to follow his trail. Controversially, Mudiay, who had intended to play at SMU for former Knicks head coach Larry Brown, de-committed from the collegiate basketball program and instead signed a one-year contract to play professionally in China with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Although the two guards arrived in New York on different paths, Mudiay and Ntilikina share much more—both are fluent in the French language, for example. They were, for the most part, raised by a single mother and older brothers, they come from central Africa, they played professionally outside of continental America before entering the NBA, and they both have the physical tools to dramatically transform the Knicks’ backcourt.

Both Ntilikina and Mudiay stand at an impressive 6’5″ height for nominally positioned point guards. When Scott Perry and the Knicks swung a trade for Mudiay in exchange for Doug McDermott and a second-round pick-swap with Denver, there were whispers that the move signaled a possible loss of confidence in New York’s lottery pick, Ntilikina. A closer look at the two guards, however, signals a potential backcourt dynamic that represents an evolutionary step in NBA guards.

For Mudiay, critics lampoon poor shot selection, spotty shooting distance, and risky passes, which lead to turnovers. On the other hand, Mudiay thrives when he penetrates and has space between himself and the basket. The Knicks do not normally rely on invasive guards to create off the dribble like Mudiay desires on offense, but an opportunistic find at the trade deadline provides the ‘Bockers with an athletic perimeter player that has longed escaped the grips of the organization.

For Ntilikina, his rookie season has been defined by turbulence: unstable minutes from game-to-game have been characterized by matches where Frank played entire fourth quarters and others where he got cozy on the bench for whole second halves. The inconsistent playing time has dented the clear future prognostic of being New York’s point guard of the future. Frank has a fundamentally sound jumper, albeit poor shooting numbers, and a tendency to feed his teammates before himself, like some misguided bread and fish Christ analogy. In his first season, Frank has been frightened at times to attack the basket and capitalize on close range shots.


Per Austin Clemens (h/t Matt Spendley)

Frank and Emmanuel’s shot charts, combined, help fill in the blanks in each other’s selections. Ntilikina, averse to near-ranged shots, is forgiven with Mudiay’s penchant to drive and bank attempts off the glass. Mudiay, probing for space closet to the basket, does not have a rhythm from three-point distance (alongside his funky leg kick on jumper), but that is buoyed by Frank’s smoothness on perimeter shots. In other words, the Frank-enstein’d backcourt of Ntilikina and Mudiay can be utilized to compensate for each other’s deficiencies.

Frank can shoot the straight-away three-pointer (and treys in general) while Mudi prefers attacking the hoop. If Ntilikina can gain confidence in his outside shooting (along with playing passable three-point shooting lineups), then Mudiay’s driving ability can create fantastic looks from the perimeter off-ball for Ntilikina and the other New York shooters.

On defense, the two athletic guards can compensate for a glaring lack of speed that has torpedoed former Knicks guards. Navigating around screens and staying in front of their men could be greatly improved with Frank and Emmanuel dodging picks (and communicating on the court with French). Mudiay has not succeeded on the defensive end in the past—his Defensive Rating in all three seasons has been greater than 110 including a -2.5 Defensive Box Plus/Minus in 2017–18—but giving up on the defensive potential for Mudiay would be futile considering the new setting and expectations set for him. Emmanuel will be tasked with keeping up with backup point guards for now (the Knicks could see a starting lineup change after the All-Star Break, according to Jeff Hornacek), but more importantly, defense is effort over everything, and the Knicks either succeed together or fall apart individually. While Frank’s on-ball defense sticks out like a sore thumb (in a good way), Mudiay will have to exhibit his speed to slow down his assignment.

With Mudiay in his corner, Ntilikina has a chance to succeed. Given the two guards’ common backstory and their respective paths reaching the Knicks, Frank and Emmanuel have faced setbacks during their brief NBA careers. However, at 19 and 21 years old, their futures are not sealed. Bringing speed, energy, and effort to New York can reinvigorate the team with 25 games to go. And after that, Ntilikina and Mudiay can push their names in the conversation to be part of a meaningful building plan for the Knicks’ top brass next season.