5 Reasons New York Knicks Should Make Frank Ntilikina Their Top NBA Draft Target
The New York Knicks own the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, which means they won't get to select Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. However, their next-best option, Frank Ntilikina, is likely to still be on the board.
Marc Berman of the New York Post reported on May 3, before the lottery determined the Knicks would select eighth:
"According to an NBA source, Knicks general manager Steve Mills jetted to France to catch 18-year-old point guard Frank Ntilikina play Tuesday night for Strasbourg in a French League match against Nanterre. The 6'5" Ntikilina is considered the top international prospect in the draft, and if the Knicks stay with the seventh pick, he would be heavily considered."
The Knicks have had their struggles since Phil Jackson started running the show in 2014, but the one thing he has done well is identify and draft European talent (see: Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez).
Ntilikina could fall into that pattern of success and should be on top of the Knicks' draft board. Here are the five biggest reasons for that based on team need and fit.
He's a Point Guard
The Knicks have been looking for the answer at point guard for years. The last time they had an All-Star floor general was 1989 with Mark Jackson.
The last floor general to start more than half his games in three consecutive seasons was Stephon Marbury (2004-05 to 2006-07).
Over the past decade, they've had Ron Baker, Jose Calderon, Jamal Crawford, Jeremy Lin, Toney Douglas, Chris Duhon, Raymond Felton, Jerian Grant, Brandon Jennings, Pablo Prigioni, Nate Robinson, Derrick Rose and a 39-year-old Jason Kidd try to fill the role. There's probably a few others who have been forgotten.
Can anyone remember everyone who has been through the turnstile that has been New York's point guard position since Marbury left in 2008?
Ntilikina could finally put an end to that search. That's especially important considering a quality point guard is a requirement to winning in this era. Look at the playoffs this year. The teams that made it to the second round had Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, George Hill and James Harden running the point on their teams. Of those, the only ones who weren't in the All-Star Game were Hill and Parker, and the San Antonio Spurs guard is going to be in the Hall of Fame.
The 18-year-old is the best option to run the team next year and into the future. Dennis Smith is the other viable point guard selection, but he isn't as optimal a choice, as we'll discuss later.
There may be a reason the Knicks have done well with drafting European players: They are more adaptable to the triangle offense Jackson seems intent on running.
Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News explains:
"Phil Jackson has established his preference for European players, or the type whose personalities haven't been exposed to the pick-and-roll heavy AAU game. The thinking is that the Europeans are more amenable to running the triangle. It's why you shouldn't be surprised if the Knicks go for Ntilikina, a Frenchman, who played professionally in Belgium last season. Ntilikina has nice size and plays selflessly, but there are questions about his ability to matchup up physically with bigger and stronger athletes in the NBA. In other words, the same concerns with most European prospects."
Ntilikina is also just 18, so adding weight and muscle shouldn't be an issue. And some of those concerns with European prospects are based on generalities. We've seen with Porzingis and Hernangomez that being from Europe doesn't equate to being soft.
What matters more is that Ntilikina doesn't have habits that are going to ruin him for the triangle. We could have quite a spirited discussion on the merits of the triangle here, but the fact is that discussion is moot. Whether they should be running the antiquated offense doesn't much matter; it looks like they will be as long as Jackson is president.
And if that's the case, you might as well have someone who is seemingly willing to run it, and Ntilikina fits that bill far better than Smith.
He Fits on Offense
It's one thing to be willing to run the triangle, but that doesn't help much if a player doesn't have the capacity to do it.
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress broke down some of the reasons Ntilikina could be such a great fit on the Knicks:
- "Unselfish player who thinks the game at a high level
- Excellent court vision, particularly in the pick-and-roll, where he's capable of making complex reads and delivering the ball decisively and accurately in tight spaces for easy baskets.
- Plays the game with impressive confidence and poise.
- Significantly improved perimeter shooter, with feet set and especially off the bounce. Made shots at a very high rate all tournament long, with impressive volume, degree of difficulty and confidence. Has good touch, which lends itself to his ability to finish off the glass and convert from the free-throw line.
- Terrific intangibles and family background. Looks like a coach's dream."
What can be derived from that is he is a point guard who is able to run the triangle. Doing so requires two primary capabilities because of the nature and design of the offense.
Because so much of it is reading and reacting, it requires a high basketball IQ and good decision-making. So things such as "thinks the game at a high level," "excellent court vision," "capable of making complex reads" and "coaches dream" sound like the attributes of a player who can run the triangle quite well.
The primary ball-handlers in the two most successful renditions of Jackson's offense were Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. While technically not point guards, as the primary decision-makers in the offense, they both were known for their outstanding conclusions. Ntilikina has the gray matter to make things work. Both his 1.62 assist-to-turnover ratio and 0.37 pure point rating indicate this.
The second thing the Knicks will need from the point guard is the ability to play with or without the ball, as the triangle involves a lot of movement. So seeing that Ntilikina can make a jump shot is a big help. He shot 41.5 percent from deep across 34 games in Europe last year, which should be enough to present an off-ball threat as well.
Smith is probably the better scorer, but he's not going to run the offense as well, and there's a good chance Porzingis wouldn't thrive as much with Smith running the show as he would with his fellow European.
He Fits on Defense
The Knicks were bad on defense last year. Their 108.7 defensive rating was ranked 25th, according to NBA.com, and even worse (111.1) when Rose was on the court. But their offense was stagnant when Rose sat (101.8 compared to 107.3).
What they need isn't just a point guard who can make the offense go but one who can also hold down the fort on defense while doing so, which is where I start loving the idea of Ntilikina to the Knicks.
DraftExpress projects him to be 6'5" with a near-7-foot wingspan. That's ridiculous length for a point guard. Ntilikina is also able to parlay that length into tremendous, versatile defense, per Givony:
- "Multi-positional defender. Has excellent tools to lock down either guard spot with size and length, but also puts great pride in his work on this end of the floor. Can put strong pressure on the ball. Does a great job of staying in front.
- Gets blocks, steals and rebounds with his physical tools and feel for the game"
With the way the NBA is evolving, regardless of what kind of offense the Knicks are running, they're going to see a lot of high pick-and-rolls and screens. The best way to defend those types of offenses is by making regular use of switching. The benefit of having a 1 who can defend, takes pride in it and has the length to guard all the way up to stretch 4s becomes obvious.
The goal of those offensive sets is to create mismatches, but when the defense has someone with Ntilikina's versatility, that becomes a much more difficult task. It's going to take a little time for him to adapt and fill out, but once he does, he has the potential to be all-defense.
Smith, by comparison, seems to be a lot like Rose in all the wrong ways.
Ntilikina has the potential to be a difference-maker on both sides of the ball, and that's a value you can't understate. See Kawhi Leonard if you have any questions.
New York fans are a passionate bunch. They can also be a wee bit on the fickle side, and by that, I'm delicately pointing out that they can love you one moment and tear out your larynx with their teeth the next.
The city of New York has been hosting professional basketball for over a century. The Knickerbockers were one of the original NBA teams. As a group, they are as informed as they are apt to vacillate.
It takes a person with a special kind of mettle to play in the Big Apple because of that. It's not at all for the faint of heart. That's just another reason Ntilikina is the better choice than Smith. While the latter disappeared in some key moments in college (seven points on 37.5 percent shooting and three assists against Clemson in the ACC Tournament, for example), Ntilikina's biggest game was his most important, per Mike Schmitz and Bogdan Karaicic of Draft Express:
"Ntilkina's 31-point outburst against Lithuania in the finals reminded NBA scouts why the Belgian-born Strasbourg product is considered a lottery-level prospect in the 2017 draft. The long-armed, versatile guard was tremendous defensively and answered a lot of questions about his outside shot, scoring a ridiculous 1.727 points per possession (22 attempts) on pull up jumpers, far and away the best mark in the tournament."
There's character in that. Someone who willingly steps into adversity and thrives is just the type of player who can excel in New York, and Ntilikina's huge performance in the EuroLeague Finals demonstrates that sort of fortitude. He seems the type of player who can be sharpened by New York, not defeated by it.