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  • Revisiting the 2017 NBA Draft: Was Frank Ntilikina the Right Pick?

Revisiting the 2017 NBA Draft: Was Frank Ntilikina the Right Pick?

Photo: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

New York selected French guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth-overall pick 51 weeks ago today. Given the benefit of hindsight, and a full rookie season in our rear-view mirror—was Frank the right pick?

With the NBA Draft peeking out from the horizon, we can look back at the 2017 draft class—who lived up to their selection, and who underperformed from the rookie class?. A few surprised us (Donovan Mitchell), and a few more shined even brighter come playoff time (Jayson Tatum). Questions will be asked going forward about whether the Sixers made the right decision drafting Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum, or how Donovan Mitchell fell all the way to the 13th pick.

It’s always fun looking back each year and wondering what could’ve been if a team made a different pick. Like every year, the order that players were selected in would obviously differ if teams drafted today. That said, taking ourselves back into last year knowing what we know now, would Frank Ntilikina still be the right pick for the Knicks?

The answer is yes. Let’s revisit the pick, shall we.

Before the 2017 NBA Draft, the general consensus was that the Knicks needed their point guard of the future to complement Kristaps Porzingis; preferably one with offensive prowess. Given the options at the position that were viewed as top picks, the Knicks would be in position to grab whichever one was available with the eighth pick.

It’s easy to make judgements on players that we’ve seen play in college or even high school the year prior, but playing overseas, not much was known about Frank other than his size. He was deemed a raw prospect with high defensive potential that would need time to adjust to the NBA game.

Frankly, fans don’t want to hear that—and understandably so. They want instant gratification, especially in New York. As crazy as it sounds, the dysfunction at the Garden over the years might be a blessing as disguise. Instead of continuing to put a Band-Aid over a forest fire, Knick fans, along with the front office, finally understood that a complete rebuild is the necessary approach to take. We know how long it’s been since New York has built a consistent winner, one that took pride in playing defense. It would make sense to fill a need with someone that not only gives maximum effort on that side of the floor but also fits the time frame of the new direction the organization has bought in to.

Initially, many wondered after the Phil Jackson era ended if Ntilikina would’ve been the pick if Phil wasn’t in the picture. Team president Steve Mills has reiterated on many accounts that Frank was their guy regardless of Jackson’s influence and that the Frenchman’s skill set fits any offense a coach would run, which is true. The biggest gripe from both non-Knicks fans and orange and blue diehards after year one (and going forward) will be that Dennis Smith Jr. was still on the board.

Smith Jr. was seen as one of the more explosive players in his class and was viewed as something of a steal at nine. However, if the draft was redone today, he’d probably be picked in the same range. Now, did Dennis Smith Jr. have a more productive rookie season than Frank? Sure. Did Frank have the same opportunities to show his worth like DSJ was able to? Not quite.

Smith absolutely had a strong rookie campaign and proved why he was highly touted as a prospect, averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game (per Basketball-Reference). During Summer League in 2017, his athleticism was on display from the jump, giving us plenty of dunks to choose as his best of the year.

Luckily, Smith was given the keys from day one with his role in Dallas’ organization never in doubt. Ntilikina, on the other hand, had a longer path to earn consistent minutes for the Knicks almost from the day he was drafted. Nagging injuries led to Frank missing out on Summer League and parts of training camp where he wasn’t able to fully get his feet wet until the beginning of the season. Sometimes that’s too late for rookies trying to prove their worth—especially for coaches that use training camp and practices to make informed rotation decisions, like Jeff Hornacek.

Coming into the season, the Knicks weren’t supposed to win many games even before the Carmelo Anthony trade. A surprise strong start to the 2017–18 campaign gave New York a puncher’s chance to make the playoffs. By that time, Jarrett Jack was the starter and a key piece to the Knicks’ early success. While Frank was a rotation player, Jack’s consistent minutes didn’t help Frank’s case for substantial playing time until playoff contention was officially out of the picture. Smith’s Mavericks, though, had a tough season all the way through, and the thought of placing a veteran in the rotation in front of him wasn’t ever considered.

While DSJ’s athleticism alone allowed him to be productive from opening night, Ntilikina’s ceiling is similar to Smith’s—and maybe even higher. He had a very promising season in his own right. While the season statistics won’t turn any heads or drop any jaws, Frank was able to do so much that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet in the rotation minutes that he did possess. Famously the second-youngest player in the league this season, Frank was already the best pick-and-roll defender in the NBA, allowing just 0.66 points per possession against the action. His height, length, and I.Q. are only going to get better on the defensive end while his offense is still a work in progress.

Late in the season, Jeff Hornacek experimented with some guard-heavy lineups that saw Ntilikina play off the ball with the idea that it may best for Frank going forward. Having Ntilikina at the 2 for spurts may not necessarily be a bad idea, but having him as primarily an off-guard going forward wouldn’t be smart. If his final few games at the end of the season are an indication of how confident he’ll be at holding down the point for next season, then the Knicks are going to be fine. With his willingness to pass and move the ball within the offense for others to create, it would be best to let him grow next year as the team’s starting point guard from day one.

Newly-minted head coach David Fizdale already alluded to his passing, saying he may be “a little too unselfish.” Frank will learn in time to put the onus on himself more often. If Coach Fiz can unlock Frank’s consistent aggression on offense, he has the ability and skill set to effectively play both ends of the ball in a way that Jrue Holiday showed this past season or similarly to Mike Conley while Fizdale guided Memphis.

As Knick fans, we know what we salivate over what we may have in Ntilikina. The rookie point guard has already proven himself as one of the important pieces of the franchise. With the approach that Scott Perry and company appear to be taking, which is a rebuild without skipping steps while building sustained success, Frank’s development is one of these steps that won’t be overlooked. Frank Ntilikina was and still would be the right choice if we were to redo this past draft, and he’ll continue to prove it to whoever doesn’t think so.

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