The NBA’s Benjamin Button
Somehow, Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina’s game was polarizing before he even officially joined the NBA.
An ESPN analysis of 2017 draft prospects gave him the highest probability of someday becoming an All-Star and the greatest likelihood of being a lottery bust. And to some extent, fans haven’t been any more unified in how they feel about Ntilikina’s game, which isn’t the most well-rounded yet, given the gaps in his role as a ball-handler.
But there’s an argument to be made that many are simply looking at the 20-year-old the wrong way. He may be the pro basketball version of Benjamin Button, a player whose skills age and develop in reverse, with defensive mastery coming before offensive. Once fans accept that possibility, they may be able to better enjoy the unique talent they have on their hands.
Those underwhelmed by Ntilikina would point to his rookie season, in which he averaged 5.9 points a night and hit just 38.5 percent of his shots from 2-point range, one of the worst marks for a first-year player27 over the past 15 seasons, according to Basketball-Reference.com. (It’s early, but so far, he’s on pace to do the same this season, shooting 38.7 percent on 2-pointers.)
The NBA is more positionless than ever, but Ntilikina’s tweener status on offense hasn’t helped matters. He hasn’t shown enough consistency with his jumper to be a spot-up shooter, but he also isn’t always decisive or aggressive enough to be the lone point guard on the court. (He got his first career start as the only point guard on Friday against Golden State, when his 17 points tied a career high.) When he does drive to the rim, Ntilikina dishes to teammates 41 percent of the time, the NBA’s ninth-highest rate among those who penetrate at least five times a game. In some ways, he’s like a young Ricky Rubio, with less passing skill and far more defensive potential because of his length and versatility.
While it might be challenging for the Knicks’ front office to determine which players fit best with franchise centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis (who’s still on the mend following an ACL tear last season), the club does have some data to use when it comes to Ntilikina. Not all of it is glowing, though. Porzingis shot 8 percentage points worse in 366 minutes alongside the Frenchman than when Ntilikina was on the bench, perhaps a sign that defenses didn’t respect Ntilikina as enough of a threat around the rim to free up his pick-and-pop partner. (New York scored just 102.6 points per 100 possessions with the duo on the court last season, a mark that, over the course of a full season, would have tied the Suns for the worst offense in the league.)
Understandably, these factors together raise questions about how long it will take Ntilikina to develop into a net positive on offense, if that ever truly happens. (Those questions likely explain the additions to the roster of Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay, who often share time with Ntilikina even though the Knicks took him at No. 8 in the 2017 draft.) But it’s also worth acknowledging that good defensive players — particularly young guards — don’t jump off the screen the same way that good offensive ones do for the average fan. This was somewhat true of Kawhi Leonard before he won the NBA Finals MVP in 2014. The same phenomenon seemed to come into play with Denver’s Gary Harris, who has long been solid on defense but began seeing his national profile rise after taking considerable steps on the offensive side.
Take even the slightest glance in Ntilikina’s direction, though, and his best attribute — aside from his 6-foot-5 height or 7-foot-plus wingspan — quickly becomes evident. He has exceptional foot speed and can recover almost instantly even when he gets screened or is beaten with an initial first step. Considering how integral the screen-and-roll game has become in recent years, the ability of teams to neutralize that play call with a solid defender is monumentally important. And in looking at both film and metrics, Ntilikina is not merely good at that skill — he’s great at it.
His 0.65 points surrendered per possession while guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handlers last season ranked best in the NBA among those who defended at least 200 such plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology.28 That’s a laughably low figure considering that he was the NBA’s second-youngest player.
When I spoke with Ntilikina last season, he said he was primarily focused on nailing down how to use his long arms to bother shooters without fouling too much and how to effectively shade and funnel ball-handlers toward the 7-foot-3 shot-blocking wall that is Porzingis. “We want to force teams into shots they don’t want to take,” he said. “Make them shoot over our length.”
While the duo didn’t break scoreboards on offense, it could be a dominant defensive force. With both Ntilikina and Porzingis on the court last season, the Knicks held opponents to 95.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have led the league by a mile over a full season, according to NBA.com. (That’s a welcome sign for a club that has posted a bottom-10 defense a whopping 12 of the 16 seasons since defensive guru Jeff Van Gundy resigned.) Just as encouraging: New York’s 6.7 net rating with the pair on the floor — meaning the Knicks outscored opponents by 6.7 points for every 100 possessions — was the best for any Knick duo that played 100 minutes together last year.
Even without Porzingis, though, Ntilikina has shown an ability to tag and identify cutters while switching to defend several different positions. That includes the post, where he fronts bigs in hopes of denying passes to them — a rare skill for a point guard. Among guards, only Warriors guard/forward Andre Iguodala was stingier than Ntilikina while defending the post29 last season, according to Second Spectrum.
The jury is still out on Ntilikina’s offense, although so far this season, he has shown encouraging signs on that end, too. Almost half of Ntilikina’s shot attempts have been 3-pointers, up from 31 percent last year. And like many Euros who join the league, he has seen steep second-year improvement in accuracy from long range, perhaps having fully adjusted to the NBA’s 3-point distance.
Maybe the most promising development, though, is his use of countermoves to get off floaters in and around the paint. The moves — a bargain bin version of the ones Dwyane Wade has used for years to get his shots off in traffic — do just enough to freeze defenders within reach of Ntilikina.
Knick officials have expressed privately that they have faith that Ntilikina will develop into an impact player on offense because he took over games when squaring off against players his own age in Europe, using stepbacks and torching defenders off of screens.
Perhaps that awareness and dominance will kick in at some point here. But even if it takes a while, or if it never comes, Knick fans — ones who fell in love with those hard-nosed defenses from the 1990s — would be wise to appreciate the skill set that Ntilikina has already shown.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.