2017 NBA Draft: Should Knicks Select Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina?
A No. 8 NBA draft selection puts the New York Knicks in likely contention for two talented teenaged point guards: N.C. State's score-first high-flyer Dennis Smith Jr. and Belgian defensive dynamo Frank Ntilikina.
They have varying skill sets, but each has his charms. One is more likely to draw wows; the other, sighs of relief. One may be the better talent, the other the better fit. It isn't likely that either is suited to be the elite starting point guard Knicks fans have been aching for since time immemorial, but they're no slouches.
So which should be New York's choice on June 22?
Frank Ntilikina: Pros
The No. 1 reason to draft Frank Ntilikina is his defense, which his length aids in no small part. At 6'5", he's already a nice height for a point guard, but his Giannis Antetokounmpo-esque wingspan spreads close to 7'0", per DraftExpress.
He can afford to give shooters space at the perimeter because it's hard get a clear look at the bucket over him, and his quick hands are a threat. For the season, playing for Strasbourg in France, he averaged 0.8 steals in 18.9 minutes per game, but he averaged 3.2 steals per game for France during the FIBA U18 European Tournament last winter.
Ntilikina's D doesn't just rely on his physical gifts, though. Instead of simply reaching in and swatting at the rock, he defends with his body and feet, closing off ball-handlers' driving and passing lanes. He anticipates passes, slides over screens nimbly and has great timing on blocks. He knows when and where to provide help. Few draftees come into the NBA displaying such natural ability and instinct for defense.
The Knicks were in the bottom 10 in defensive rating last season, per NBA.com, and have been in the bottom half nine of the last 10 seasons. A natural defender would be a glorious addition.
Beyond that, Ntilikina has a solid jumper (47.0 FG%, 43.1 3FG% for Strasbourg in 2016-17), is an unselfish passer and has good court vision—all of which is a good combination for someone running a triangle offense.
Dennis Smith Jr.: Pros
Dennis Smith Jr. is "arguably the most explosive athlete in the draft" according to NBADraft.net. The word "explosive" comes up a lot when people talk about Smith, and it's well-deserved.
His hesitations, jabs, crosses and step-backs create vast space for jumpers and wobble defenders' ankles as he makes aggressive drives to the cup. He draws plenty of contact (6.3 free throws attempted per game), and his burly build (6'3", 195 lbs) helps him absorb the blows.
And oh, the hops. Smith could be a dunk-contest participant, if he could be bothered to come back down to earth long enough to put the ball through the hoop.
He's at his best when the ball is in his hands, as he uses his footwork to create clear looks. But he still logged 6.2 assists per game last season as an N.C. State freshman. As Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress put it, Smith "wants buckets over dimes, but is certainly capable" as a playmaker.
Smith shot 45.5 percent from the field, 35.9 percent from behind the arc and sunk 4.5 free throws per game. He's a scorer and plain fun to watch. If you like quick point guards who are always pointed downhill, you'll enjoy his highlight reels.
Frank Ntilikina: Cons
I don't want to say Ntilikina's offense is a little boring...let's just say he's cautious. He may bang the rock idly waiting for the perfect play to emerge instead of acting decisively when the clock is ticking.
This caution, however, doesn't extend to protecting the rock. He dribbles high (odd for someone with such long arms) and far away from his body. While some passes can be laser-sharp to a cutting teammate, others are blatantly telegraphed and lazily floated crosscourt. His handles are slow and limp-wristed. All of this makes him turnover prone.
In transition he can turn on his motor, but he has no hint of Smith's quick first step. Where Smith's drives to the bucket are aggressive, Ntilikina's are tentative. Although his length makes dunking a breeze, his pace and loose handle may make it more difficult to get to the rim if he faces any genuine resistance.
Despite the Knicks' disappointing season, Derrick Rose had a comforting ability to put the team on his back when Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony were injured or having an off night. Ntilikina may not be the style of player to fill that role. Although he put up 22.7 points per game during the FIBA U18 tournament, he only averaged 5.2 points for Strasbourg.
Dennis Smith Jr.: Cons
Dennis Smith Jr. will no doubt inspire fans' oohs and ahs, but also some frustrated not-safe-for-work outbursts; one of the hardest knocks against him is inconsistency.
Smith cannot be entirely to blame for his school's losing record (15-17), nor the 4-14 end to the season, which a midseason dismissal of his head coach, Mark Gottfried, spiced up. Nevertheless, as the starting point guard he bears some of that weight. He certainly takes plays off—quarters off and maybe games off.
There's also a question of whether he is a natural distributor. Some of his passes are telegraphed and a bit lazy, though he's not selfish. Nevertheless, Schmitz's "wants buckets over dimes" comment doesn't exactly sing "lead guard in triangle offense."
Regardless, James O'Connell of Daily Knicks noted a fair assessment in that the triangle shouldn't be the excuse to pass on Smith. (That doesn't mean it won't be.) As O'Connell wrote, "Phil Jackson has just two seasons left on his current contract, and by the time Smith comes into his own as a player, the triangle offense could be long gone."
With or without the triangle, though, the team still might be better off with a pass-first point guard. The Knicks struggled this season under Derrick Rose, one of the better score-first point guards in the league when healthy. So the team may be better served signing a guard who's more inclined to feed Kristaps Porzingis (if he hasn't decided to skip town as soon as his rookie contract expires).
Schmitz also commented that Smith "didn't appear to have great rapport with teammates" and was "not vocal," although Smith's former coach, Gottfried, told NBC Sports' Scott Phillips in November (before all the losing) that he's "very likable" and "a big reason why our guys have an optimistic attitude every day."
One other small question mark: Although you wouldn't know it to watch him burst into light speed from a full stop, Smith did tear his ACL in 2015. Is that injury something that could creep up again in the future? It might factor into the front office's decision.
Offense or defense? Talent or fit? Athleticism or length? Star quality or supporting role? It's a tough call.
I'm a believer in trading for fit and drafting for talent. Could Dennis Smith Jr. be an exciting, athletic disappointment like Derrick Williams? Yes. Could he be an All-Star and Kyle Lowry lookalike? Yes. He has greater potential than Ntilikina to be a dominant player.
Sure, the Knicks need defense, but they also need an identity. Scouts, teammates and coaches may sing Ntilikina's praises for his professionalism and maturity, but who needs that in a teenager? Smith's swagger might be more useful to the Knicks than Ntilikina's good manners, and his rough edges could smooth out with age.
Despite all that, Ntilikina should be the choice.
His skills not just as an on-ball defender but also as a help defender would make him immediately useful to a team that perpetually stumbles on that end of the floor. His unique body will enable him to hold players at a variety of positions in check. Despite Smith's high ceiling, the Knicks cannot turn that opportunity away.
Perhaps it's memories of the 1990s Knicks teams that make me yearn for such things, but big blocks, closed lanes, hard picks and masterfully executed help D is the stuff that my little dreams are made of. I'll bet there are plenty of people sleeping in blue-and-orange PJs who feel the same.