Do we need to adjust our attitudes towards the concept of Frank as the “point guard?”
Frank Ntilikina is a man of many backgrounds, and despite positioning himself as a point guard, he may be a player of multiple positions, too.
Ntilikina was born in Belgium, grew up in France, and—at 19 years old—is living in the chopped cheese cosmopolitan of New York City. Frank has done what has been asked of him by the Knicks through two-thirds of a rookie season, but he may have to adapt more to an off-ball guard position.
Although he may be uncomfortable with the change, the Ntilikinas are accustomed to uprooting their livelihoods. When his mother, Jacqueline Ntilikina, opened up to the press during her son’s L.A. stage moment last weekend, we learned more about her family’s struggle to find safety and comfort. Ntilikina raised her youngest son, along with the elder sons who were born in Rwanda, on her own after the father was out of the picture. Frank was born to Belgian father and Rwandan mother but grew up in Strasbourg, France, the Rhine city with German roots, which switched possession between the two nations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Frankie Smokes” made his debut in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend on Friday night in Los Angeles. The 6’5″ guard from France is the New York Knicks’ latest lottery pick, selected eighth overall in 2017. While Ntilikina stuffed the stat sheet in L.A. with his fellow rookies and sophomores on the court, his role on the floor—and one we’re starting to see with the arrival of Emmanuel Mudiay—is starting to turn away from the “point guard” position as we know it and into a question mark.
We’ve seen Ntilikina flourish with the ball in his hands. Granted, his 23.3 turnover percentage is nothing to brag about, but Frank has an uncanny ability to create (open) shots for his teammates, best exhibited when he shared the floor with Kristaps Porzingis.
Now, the Knicks plan to utilize Ntilikina slightly differently than in the past. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has begun experimenting with the “French Connection” backcourt: the Francophones Ntilikina and Mudiay make up a backcourt with playful athleticism but lousy finishing ability around the rim. While Frank slowly learns how to stride in the lane, Mudiay’s tremendous ability to penetrate to the basket needs to be topped off with finding open men on the perimeter. This is where the new, positionless Ntilikina finds himself.
Without the ball in his hands, Frank must reinvent how he fits in the offense. How will Ntilikina respond to defenses covering him with space instead of closing the distance as a ball-handler? In other words, can Frank excel at cutting and hitting the three-ball at a consistent clip?
While all of that is important for Ntilikina to advance his game in a league where surely great individual defense can keep a player around for a long time, what will break him further into the NBA (and for the Knicks) is the potential nightmare problems he can create on the floor—with or without the ball in his hands. Frank is currently shooting 33.7 percent from three-point range on 1.8 attempts per game, per NBA Stats. Hopefully, as we see Frank’s minutes rise during the remainder of the season, a corresponding increase in attempts and three-point percentage follows. However, unlike how we’ve seen with Frank playing the 1, the Frenchman will have to adapt to pulling up from three on catch-and-shoot opportunities more often than long-ball attempts off the dribble and via screens. Considering Frank has trouble finishing around the rim—and opponents know this thorn in his game—the rookie needs to make teams pay for staying back in the paint and letting him shoot. Once Frank proves to be a force from downtown, he can catch opponents off guard with driving to the hoop.
However, with Mudiay slotted at point guard next to Ntilikina, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of Frank hooping with the ball in his hands. In a spotty analogy, even Chris Paul and James Harden can function playing in the same backcourt. Nevertheless, for Ntilikina, opportunities will still arise that will require him being the secondary ball-handler along with creating shots for teammates, possibly by posting up or drawing defenders’ attention with growing confidence in driving to the basket. Collapsing defenses will then create open shots for folks like Mudiay, Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, Michael Beasley, Damyean Dotson, and more.
The final 23 games of the 2017–18 for New York will be neither fun nor palatable by most basketball standards. Nonetheless, the Knicks and Ntilikina still have to explore avenues to success—and that includes reinventing how we think of the six-foot-five mold of an athlete’s role on the team. It may be an unknown and uncomfortable change, but it’s not the first time Frank has had to move places in a snap.