Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke
Frank Ntilikina, intimately known as the French Prince amongst Knicks fans, has divided opinion amongst basketball analysts and the Garden faithful.
Some believe the Knicks should have drafted highly touted rookies Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, or Donovan Mitchell, while others believe Ntilikina was the right choice for a Knicks team who were void of a point guard that could clamp down opponents on defense.
Regardless of the opinion basketball analysts or Knicks fans may have of Ntilikina, one fact is certain — his confidence is growing by game, and he has shown signs of adjusting to the speed, and skill level, of the NBA.
Not many knew what to expect of Ntilikina on draft night. To most fans, he was known as a kid, who was born in France, and he played professionally in the French basketball league LNB Pro A. As with most foreign players, fans would rather their team draft a player from the NCAA because they’ve seen those players play, and there is no mystery behind their game. This is a very reasonable approach to take, but sometimes the unknown commodity can end up budding into a superstar — like Kristaps Porzingis.
This may very well be the case for Ntilikina, even though it’s still too early to tell, but recent signs have shown there is a lot for Knicks fans to be encouraged about with his development.
Early in the season, Ntilikina seemed lost on the hardwood floor. He sat out summer league, and played only one preseason game, due to a bruised knee injury, and it didn’t help that his first taste of real action was against the three-headed monster of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even though the Thunder has regressed recently, at the beginning of the season, many believed Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George would be the trio to possibly take down the Warriors.
Unfortunately, the star-studded trio are playing like players, with bad eyesight, who forgot to put on their contacts to see the basket clearly. The amount of bricks they’ve thrown up can be used to build a new town, but back to the topic at hand.
Ntilikina was like a deer in highlights against Westbrook, and early signs pointed to him being a bust.
On the offensive end, he seemed to be very timid. He wouldn’t drive to the basket, and he would give up the ball early on offense, then rotate away from the ball which lowered the chances of him possessing the ball again. He facilitated the offense decently, but even Stevie Wonder could tell that his offensive game needed a lot of work. What made him earn all of his playing time after his dismal performance against the Thunder was his great play defensively.
Through November, he had average performances, but in December, he began to show what he’s capable of once confidence began to flow through his veins.
He began to drive to the basket aggressively on fast break situations, and his three-point shot improved significantly. One of his major offensive highlights was when he pulled up in the 4th quarter, near the Knicks logo, for three against the Lakers — the game which saw LaVar Ball and Spike Lee become the best of friends at Celebrity Row. That bucket gave the Knicks a 95-90 lead over the Lakers with 4:12 remaining in the game.
He also showed flashes of brilliance in his passing game. His most notable assist was against the Chicago Bulls when he stripped Kris Dunn, in the backcourt, and fed Porzingis with a no-look pass for the dunk. The Knicks ended up losing to the Bulls 104-102, but his strip and dime were one of the main highlights of the game.
Last month, he averaged 4.7 points per game (ppg), 1.8 rebounds per game (rpg), 3.6 assists per game (apg), and he shot a dismal 20.8% from three. So far in December, he has shown a wide range of improvement statistically. This month he’s averaging 7.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, and he’s shooting 44.4% from three. His stats still aren’t overly impressive, but by watching his game, it’s easy to see that he more than belongs in the NBA.
It remains to be seen if he will be better than Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, and Donovan Mitchell in the long run, but what’s evident is the Knicks may have found themselves a diamond in the rough. If cultivated properly, everyone will know who Ntilikina is.
Especially opposing point guards.