The 2017 1st Round Pick
The next player we will discuss in our series on the young core is no other than Frank Ntilikina, aka “The French Prince” and “Frankie Smokes”. Ntilikina’s story has to be the oddest of any 1st round pick in franchise history. He is extremely popular for a player that is not a star. In fact there are people who would tell you that he is not even a good player. His detractors are mostly fans that believe a player’s value is mostly derived from their ability to score. However, most fans like myself that are members of the ‘Frank Hive’ believe in him because he is a smart unselfish player that is great on defense.
The selection of Frank with the 8th pick of the draft was controversial to say the least. Most fans and experts thought the Knicks should have drafted Dennis Smith Jr.(DSJ) instead. The team was in need of a point guard to replace Derrick Rose and DSJ seemed like a perfect replacement. DSJ was a player with superstar potential due to his electrifying athletic ability. At one time he was considered the best high school player in his class, better than Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox, all of which were drafted ahead of him. The main reason DSJ ended up being rated lower was because he had torn an ACL in high school. Many Knick fans thought they were getting a steal when DSJ was available at the 8th spot in the draft.
But the Knicks instead decided to draft a French kid that no one had heard of. This caused everyone to turned to Fran Fraschilla, who was covering the draft on television for his expert opinion. He compared Frank to George Hill, a solid complimentary player. That did not go over well with the fan base. It made no sense to pass up on a potential superstar in favor of a player with a much lower ceiling. Like usual, the Knicks got mocked. They kept showing clips of the Mavericks’ front office celebrating when DSJ unexpectedly fell to them.
What was Phil thinking?
When you look at all the point guards on Phil Jackson’s championship teams, most were orchestrators that played on the perimeter. None specialized in breaking down a defense off the dribble. Jackson relied on his wing players for that, he had three of the all-time greats Jordan, Pippen and Kobe
During his last 3-peat with the Bulls and at the beginning of his first with the Lakers he would actually have one of the wings run the offense. Pippen and Kobe ran the point so he could insert 6’6″ Ron Harper in the lineup to guard the opposing team’s point guard. So you can see why Jackson and his trusted adviser Clarence Gaines Jr. were enamored with Frank. Having an orchestrating point guard in Ron Harper’s frame was intriguing. I am sure Phil imagined having Frank covering the perimeter with his 7’0″ wingspan and having 7’3″ Kristaps Porzingis protecting the paint. Also, they both understood and liked playing in the triangle offense. However, it never came to be.
The Chaos Begins
Phil Jackson got fired shortly after the draft due to his pubic skirmishes with Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony. James Dolan then decided to promote longtime confidant and current GM Steve Mills to the role of President of Basketball operations. Instead of building on the values and philosophy Jackson was trying to instill, Mills decides to go in a different direction. This is bad for Frank because his situation just got turned upside down. All of the people that believed in him were gone and he would no longer be afforded the opportunities and consideration that come with being a team’s lottery pick. Instead he is a problem inherited by the new front office, a reminder of the failed Phil Jackson era.
The Knicks started looking for point guards that were better at creating offense off the dribble, they brought in Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay. To make matters worse, David Fizdale, who was hired before Frank’s 2nd season liked to run an offense that didn’t suit his strengths. Fizdale preferred a free flowing attacking offense that relied more on isolation than structured half-court sets. That is when Frank hit rock bottom and started racking up DNPs. Toward the middle of the season Frank appeared to have started to adopt the mindset Fizdale was trying to instill in him, being more aggressive. Unfortunately his season got cut short by a groin injury. Shortly afterwards the team acquired Dennis Smith Jr. in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. This appeared to mark the end of the Frank Ntilikina era. If that wasn’t enough, the team added another nail to the coffin by unexplicably signing Elfrid Payton. Now there were two point guards ahead of Frank on the depth chart.
Any other player would have given up and requested a trade. But Frank is cut from a different cloth, he comes from a family that has had to overcome a lot of adversity. They were forced to leave Rwanda which was being ravished by a brutal civil war. The family fled to Belgium and then eventually settled in France when Frank was 3 years old. His rise from son of refugees to one of the best prospects in Europe was due to true grit and resolve. So when he faced adversity with the Knicks, he didn’t complain or act entitled. Instead he put his head down and got to work on his game.
While the situation in New York looked bleak and hopeless, a great opportunity presented itself. Frank was selected to represent France at the FIBA 2019 World Cup games in China. The FIBA World Cup is not a big deal in the U.S., just ask David Fizdale. However, it is around the world and it was the stage Frank needed. Ntilikina flourished playing with teammates and a coach that understood how to unlock his game. Frank repeatedly took and knocked down big shots within the scheme of a structured offense. The highlight was when France beat team USA. Frank repeatedly shut down Kemba Walker and his teammates while making big shots to close the game.
You would swear that New York was a French territory by the reaction online. Knick fans were rooting for Frank instead of their own country. Coach Fizdale and the Knicks got mocked by the fans. A lot of “Take That For Data” memes circulated Knicks twittersphere. Frank had proved his detractors wrong, all he needed was a leveled playing field.
Knick fans to the rescue
In the end, Frank like everyone of us is responsible for his own success. However, the hard road traveled named adversity can not be overcome with some help along the way. While the dysfunctional culture of the Knicks was getting ready to swallow Frank whole. the Knick fans wouldn’t allow it. The Knick fans are too smart, they understand basketball. They appreciate defense and recognized that Frank was a smart and unselfish player. Any other fan base would have gone along with what the front office was trying to do just because the box scores didn’t look good. Luckily, the fan base put pressure on the front office.
The 3rd Season
There was a lot of excitement at the start of the season due to Frank’s performance in the World Cup. Unfortunately, he got relegated to the bench after a poor shooting performance in the preseason. After barely playing in the first 3 games of the season Frank got pressed into action. Fizdale was forced to play Frank big minutes due to injuries to all the other point guards. Frank performed admirably and shot better. His confidence improved since he no longer had to worry about hitting his first couple of shots in order to stay in the game. His 3-point FG% improved to 34% during his 15 game stretch as the full-time starter. However, Frank eventually got relegated back to the bench when Elfrid Payton returned. But Frank at least proved that he belonged and showed enough promise for the team to continue investing in him.
Studying at the numbers
#1 in the @NBA at defending the pick-and-roll this season? 👉 @FrankLikina, allowing only .65 points per possession. Jrue Holiday of the Pelicans finished second at .71 PPP. (@SynergySST) pic.twitter.com/f6JPUwbb32
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 24, 2018
Before we get into the offensive numbers, lets not forget that there are two side of the court. While we like focus on offensive numbers, but as you can see above, Frank as been an all-star caliber defender since day one. That is something you can’t say about many young players in the NBA.
2019/20 season stats as of 3/11/20, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
Offensive stats don’t tell the whole story but they can not be ignored. While Frank’s offensive stats are not good, they should be compared to those of his contemporaries. As you can see above, except for De’Aaron Fox who broke out in his 2nd season, the other point guards selected ahead of him have not done great this season. Lonzo is having a good season thanks to his improved 3-point shooting, 38%, however he has performed similar to Frank on 2-point shots, 45%. Markelle Fultz, the 1st player selected in the draft is only shooting 25% on 3-pointers. When it comes to free throw shooting, Frank has been the best of the group at 87%. Most players that are good at free throws usually end up being good shooters. Another thing to keep in mind is that Frank is the youngest of the four at 21 years old. Ball and Fox are a year older and Fultz is older by a few months.
One issue that traditional stats don’t account for is usage. The other point guards have gotten a lot more usage than Frank. Even when Frank has gotten extended minutes under Fizdale, his usage was low. Above is a summary of Frank’s stats when he has taken 10 or more shots in a game. There have only been 27 games which is a 3rd of a full season, but they are telling. As you can see above, Frank is a better shooter when you look at a larger sample size of shots per game. He averaged 12 ppg in just under 29 minutes per game, shot 42% overall, 39% on 3-pointers and 82% on free throws. Those stats are better than those of Lonzo Ball. While it’s hard to predict how Frank would produce with more usage, one thing is certain, he could only be better. Any player who does not get a chance to shoot themselves out of bad starts is going to have bad stats. It is evident that Frank’s offense gets better the longer plays. He likes to get a feel for the game and looks to get his teammates involved first. He should not feel pressure to hit his first couple of shots in order to get playing time.
We tend to forget how young these players are. As we just mentioned Frank is in his 3rd season, but is only 21 years old. However, the NBA is an unforgiving environment. All the criticisms that were written in pencil will start being set to ink in his fourth season. One of the things the Knicks could do is get creative, like the Warriors did with Draymond Green. Dallas Amico, aka the ‘Basketball Robot’ was a guest of the Knick of Time show a couple weeks back. He suggested that the Knicks try a lineup with Frank at the power forward. He astutely pointed out that Frank is not just a great on-ball defender, but also a great help defender as well. He could guard the other team’s stretch 4s for short periods of the game, Click here to watch that segment of the interview.
Regardless, Frank has to improve his offense in order to reach his potential. He is a totally different player when he gets into the paint. Defenses collapse as they need to help their point guard that is usually smaller than Frank. He also needs to have the same mindset on offense that he has on defense. He needs to be aggressive, fearless and intimidating. With that said, I truly believe will blossom next season just based on the relentless work ethic and mindset he has displayed. Below are a couple of videos on our guy, the French Prince of New York. Vive le Prince.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 22, 2017
Donovan Mitchell on facing Frank Ntilikina: “He’s one of the toughest defenders I’ve had to face”
— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) March 5, 2020
FRANK NTILIKINA NELES!
— KNICKS DA DEPRÊ! ❁ (@KnicksDaDepre) March 9, 2020