Realistic Expectations for New York Knicks Rookie Frank Ntilikina

The first thing you notice about New York Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina is his freakish physical profile.

It’s not just that he’s a 6’5″ point guard—which aren’t exactly seen in abundance, even in the larger-than-life NBA—but it’s that he’s also armed with a 7’0″ wingspan.

Those are droolworthy measurements under any lens, but they looked particularly appealing in the triangular world of former Knicks president Phil Jackson. The executive parted ways with the franchise in late June, but not before grabbing the French floor general with the No. 8 pick.

“We like the size of this young man,” Jackson said on draft night, per ESPN.com’s Ian Begley. “We like his aptitude for the game, athleticism, actually the ability to incorporate himself in a winning type of situation.”

That Ntilikina‘s size and versatility both fit Jackson’s preferred triangle offense surely didn’t hurt. That said, new team president—general manager at the time of the selection—Steve Mills said he also would have made Ntilikina the pick, per Marc Berman of the New York Post.

Ntilikina‘s stock has gone unchanged since draft night.

His biggest buzz came courtesy of a summer-league practice jersey that had his name misspelled. A knee injury he suffered during his club’s French Pro A final kept him sidelined from the summer session, a time when several players selected behind him made waves with their play—in particular, guards Dennis Smith Jr. (No. 9, Dallas Mavericks) and Donovan Mitchell (No. 13, Utah Jazz).

Those performances only added to Ntilikina‘s pressure, which was already the typically absurd amount attached to any high-profile Knicks newcomer. It will be years before anyone knows whether he was the right selection, but what might his freshman campaign reveal about his future?

He’s not ready to be this organization’s savior, but his intelligence and athleticism will keep him from drowning during his sink-or-swim test.

        

Team Fit

If Jackson weren’t so enamored with Ntilikina‘s triangle potential, would he be a Knick? That’s hard to say, although it’s obvious the former Knicks president was a big fan.

Why that’s relevant is it seems Ntilikina was brought in to run an offense New York has no intentions of utilizing.

“We’re probably going to work on different things and add things, find an offense that fits,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said, per Scott Cacciola of the New York Times.

The good news is a lot of Ntilikina‘s triangle talents will translate to any system.

His advanced hoops IQ helps his decision-making, and his improved outside shot allows him to spot up off the ball. Both strengths are attractive to a Knicks squad that was a bottom-half performer in three-point shooting (34.8 percent, 21st) and turnovers (13.9 per game, 17th) last season.

The problem is he’s unpolished at point guard, and the Knicks don’t possess the caliber of playmakers who could alleviate some pressure. Their attempts to find him a veteran mentor have yielded only journeyman Ramon Sessions, and their top returning scorers have sticky handsKristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony averaged just 4.4 assists between them last year. 

That will make it easier for Ntilikina to find major minutes sooner rather than later, and if Hornacek adds more pick-and-rolls to the offense, the Frenchman‘s vision and instincts will shine. But offensively, he doesn’t appear to have the skills or the support to fill a featured role out of the gate.

Defensively, it’s a different story. 

Despite his youth and slender, 190-pound frame, he’s ready to guard multiple positions. He has a history of pestering opponents full-court, flashing fluid athleticism and loads of energy along the way. His aggressiveness and length help him create turnovers and spark transition opportunities.

“Ntilikina is an intelligent, hardworking defender who gets low, slides his feet and does a great job cutting off penetration using his anticipation,” DraftExpress’ Matt Kamalsky wrote. “His length allows him to be a factor in the passing lanes while contesting shots on the perimeter and interior.”

Remember New York’s last great defensive point guard? Don’t worry; no one does.

Even if Ntilikina never becomes one, he’s still a high-floor helper for a team that finished 2016-17 ranked 25th in defensive efficiency and 23rd in opponents’ scoring.

       

Biggest Concerns

Potential trumps production for almost all incoming freshman, but it’s extremely important in this case. That’s because Ntilikina is painfully light in the latter when it comes to senior-level competition.

He was the youngest player taken in the first round—and second-youngest selection overall—and will play out the entire upcoming season at the age of 19. And his French team, Strasbourg, didn’t ask a lot of him. He averaged just 5.2 points and 1.4 assists in 18.3 minutes per game last season.

He might have pro experience under his belt, but as CBS New York’s John Schmeelk noted, that doesn’t mean he is seasoned:

He is not playing point guard with an ‘on-ball’ role. He works primarily as a defender with a catch-and-shoot role, and with very low usage. There will be a huge level of projection to get from there to an NBA-level point guard. The tools seem to be there but he hasn’t done it at a high-competition level. Beating U-18 players is not high competition.

Ntilikina didn’t get a summer-league audition to test the water. And since he didn’t attend the combine, his athletic tools aren’t as defined as they could be. Under the eye test, he doesn’t appear overly explosive or shifty with the basketball.

His body needs to fill out if he’s going to defend small forwards and bigger shooting guards. His jumper is improving, but it’s not consistent or a major weapon in his arsenal (1.6 long-range attempts per game). He’s not adept at creating his own scoring chances off the bounce, and even if he was, his sometimes passive play might handcuff his impact.

“For Ntilikina, the goal is to wield those tools with more aggressiveness and consistency,” Andrew Keh of the New York Times wrote in a January profile. “He is quiet by nature. The people around him would love to see him take more risks, to make more mistakes, to show more fire.”

If Ntilikina routinely cooked defenders off the dribble, maybe he’d give himself a brighter green light. But he needs to develop both his mentality and his ability.

        

Expectations

In an ideal world, Ntilikina would be eased into the action as his game and body mature.

But he’s not in an ideal world; he’s in New York. And with the point guard depth chart showing only him, Sessions and Ron Baker, it’s highly likely Ntilikina will be thrown into the fire.

“Why, if you’re the go-nowhere Knicks, wouldn’t you hand over control to a promising rookie and see what he can do?” Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote. “Worst case: Ntilikina is nowhere near ready, the losses mount and lottery position improves.”

That’s another way of saying Ntilikina‘s playing time won’t necessarily be tied to his production. The Knicks won’t want him to crash and burn, but they should extend a long leash to what’s already their second-most important prospect.

His on-court impact is hard to gauge since there isn’t a long statistical trail behind him. But his path to minutes looks clearer than most rookies’, and he has a sneaky-good chance of pacing his draft class in steals.

“Ntilikina looks poised to create buzz and optimism with exciting flashes of two-way potential,” Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman observed. “He could even surprise by immediately producing for a rotation that has plenty of available minutes.”

Don’t be surprised when Ntilikina posts better volume numbers in his first NBA season than he did during his final Pro A campaign. But don’t expect his efficient shooting rates to surface stateside for at least a few years.

       

Complete Stat Predictions

  • Minutes: 25.7
  • Points: 8.1
  • Rebounds: 3.2
  • Assists: 5.5
  • Field-goal percentage: .422
  • Three-point percentage: .366
  • Free-throw percentage: .708

       

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Sports Reference or NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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