Next season will be about the Knicks’ bridge to a healthy Kristaps Porzingis. In the meanwhile, finding tangible growth from teenage guard Frank Ntilikina starts with a healthy dose of summer training.
“Trust in our future.” This was the response New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina had to the question of the team’s potential as well as his own. The two are intertwined. A upwardly trending Ntilikina translates to a good Knicks team. Right now, both the team and Frank are young, which is good, too—but the asset of youth has an expiration date. Development of that youth is what separates the Sixers from the Magic or the Celtics from the Suns.
The greatest intangible asset the Knicks possess is time. The optimal time for the rebuild to near its conclusion would be the 2020 season. By then, the bad contracts (e.g. Joakim Noah) will be off the books and some marquee names will hit free agency. Right now, though, Frank finds himself as a significant piece in this project who needs all the time he can possess to harness his NBA talents.
Compared to his fellow rookies, it could easily come across as a lackluster rookie year from Frank. That is incorrect, however. His rookie campaign was a success if not only because of his ability to affect the game even without a consistently scoring style yet. Ntilikina did shoot an arctic 36.4 percent from the floor, true; on the flip side, he was also the best in the league at defending the pick-and-roll, allowing only 0.65 points per possession. He also became the first rookie in franchise history to finish the season with 250 assists, 50 three-pointers made, and 50 steals.
At his bare minimum, Frank is the team’s defensive ace on the perimeter. This summer, Frank should be thinking bigger than defensive specialist, though. He has the foundation to be a two-way nightmare. In his final two games, last season we got a glimpse of what Ntilikina could produce on the offensive end. He averaged 16.5 points on 46.9 percent shooting and, more importantly, Frankie took 16 shots a game—an astronomical difference compared to his bashful season average of 6.4 attempts per game. The simple answer for the seemingly flipped-switched mentality was aggressiveness during the final stretch.
Now former Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek has already assured us that Frank will not slack off over the summer, predicting the 19-year-old will benefit from a summer of NBA-caliber style. “I don’t worry about guys like Frank,” Hornacek revealed. “Frank wants to get good. He’s always asking questions. … we know know he’s going to work extremely hard this summer to take another step” (per Ian Begley/ESPN).
If Frank needed any added motivation of a strong summer workout, he should look no further than his captain. Kristaps Porzingis spent summer 2017 flexing on Instagram, if you will. We saw the Latvian in the gym 24/7, putting on muscle and getting up shots. The results were him exterminating the competition right from the jump. Just like KP, Frank will head home to France (in fact, he’s already there with dyed blonde hair à la Odell Beckham Jr. and attending Paris Saint-Germain matches). Additionally, a return to familiar confines should help him reset and focus.
Frank’s top priority should also be to bulk up. More muscle will allow Ntilikina to absorb contract better when driving to the hoop while creating noticeable matchup headaches for opponents. Hornacek was hesitant in having Frank deal with big guards like Ben Simmons (although there aren’t many equalizing guards who can defend the Philly guard-forward).
The good news is he’s already on this. According to Hornacek, the training staff has been working on that aspect throughout the season. The former Knickerbocker head coach mentioned Ntilikina will be working with strengthening coaches in the offseason to build muscle and improve conditioning.
A larger frame would make Frank more of a terror defending pick-and-rolls, too. As mentioned earlier, he was the best in the league at defending PnR’s, and that was thanks in part to his wingspan. You add some serious weight and now he can simply bully the pick man and really keep defenders in the Bastille.
Just look at it this way. He was able to corral one of the most elusive players in the league right now, Kyrie Irving, as a pup:
Refining Frank’s defense would be a bonus, however. The area of his game that needs the most work is his offense—more specifically scoring. The good news, though, is Ntilikina’s poor shooting numbers could be charged to acclimation. He was a solid shooter in France—48.5 percent from the floor, 43.1 percent from three—but it came with a smaller workload.
From a strictly form point of view, Frank looks just fine. During the early part of the season he seemed to hesitate. When he had the ball he would always pull it back out rather than drive. That let the defense off the hook as they were able to contest or let Frank force an awry shot. The one spot he always seemed to have confidence was the elbow. As the season progressed, he started to put together a more complete attack:
He started to drive to the hoop more which opened up his pull-up. His mission this summer is to force himself to get to the rack. He shot 55.6 percent in the restricted area last season and averaged an anemic 0.9 free-throw attempts per game. If he is able to bulk up we could start to make use of his size. He should also look to exploit his size advantage when playing the point, by putting together some post moves. I can’t recall Frank posting up anyone, really. Some of the onus is with the coaching but working on that part of his game could only be a positive.
Off the ball, Ntilikina shot most of his threes from the top of the key—129 attempts per NBA Stats—rather than from the corner where he attempted 24 shots total. If the next head coach chooses to rock with Frank off the ball the corner should become his wheelhouse.
The Knicks expect Frank to play in Vegas for the Summer League, per NorthJersey. This is the perfect place where he can put everything together. One thing to remember is that he did not play for last year’s team due to an ankle injury—that had to have an effect on how he started the season, specifically Frank’s timid offense. Reps against lesser competition can allow him to work on his offense, especially if Ntilikina puts on the expected muscle.
Until Kristaps comes back, the priority for the team is to 1) develop Ntilikina, and 2) formulate a system that integrates players seamlessly. He will have the help from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, but Frank is a vital part of the plan. A strong summer can not only set him up for a strong sophomore campaign but assure everyone involved that the Knicks doing this rebuild thing right for once. Frank asked for our trust, now it’s his turn to prove he’s worth it.