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NBA Daily: What Is Frank Ntilikina’s Future In New York?

Despite playing in only his third season, Frank Ntilikina is no stranger to trade rumors. Drew Maresca caught up with Ntilikina about his desire to remain with the New York Knicks. Will the organization allow him to reach his potential in The Big Apple?

Drew Maresca

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Despite the fact that the Knicks haven’t been a traditional trade deadline buyer in almost a decade, every trade deadline in recent memory has seen its share of Knicks rumors and activity, including last year’s paradigm-shifting trade with Dallas. This year will be no different. The Knicks added a number of salary-cap friendly veterans who could help other teams make and advance in the playoffs. And they should be open to dealing any/all of them.

But what about inquiries for their younger players? Technically, no one should be off-limits. If the Clippers wanted to deal Kawhi Leonard for RJ Barrett, the Knicks would do it, right? But in reality, offers are made based on a player’s ceiling, contract and production. So what should the Knicks do with their younger players if teams come knocking– namely, Frank Ntilikina? 

Ntilikina’s been a polarizing player since arriving in New York in 2017. He was drafted eighth overall when he was only 18 years old ahead of other players who fans and the media thought would fit better with the team, including Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. Offensively, Ntilikina was raw and inconsistent. He scored 5.9 points and tallied only 3.2 assists in 21.9 minutes per game in 2017-18. He was clearly uncomfortable operating as a shoot-first guard having attempted only 6.9 shots per game as a rookie.

His second season was more of the same – 5.7 points on 6.6 field-goal attempts and 2.8 assists in 21 minutes per game. And while he was clearly perplexed with his inconsistent role, he was also beginning to get regular questions from members of the media about his lack of development and his unwillingness to shoot the ball. He struggled to understand how to secure consistent minutes, and it showed in his demeanor before and after games in the locker room.

Ntilikina entered his third season with a renewed confidence, at least partially driven by his success in the FIBA World Cup over the summer – where he helped lead France to the Bronze Medal as the team’s starting point guard.

And to the delight of many within the organization, it looked like he’d turned a corner.  Ntilikina logged 30 or more minutes in 9 of the team’s 14 games in November 2019. Across those games, Ntilikina started all 14 and averaged 8.1 points on 7.5 field goal attempts in 31 minutes per game. He shot 35.9% from three-point range, dished out 4.2 assists per game and was similarly impactful on the defensive end. Further, he had some inspiring individual performances, like in a win against Dallas when he tallied 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks, which put his entire repertoire on display.

But it didn’t result in wins. The Knicks were 3-12 in November. Further complicating matters, then-head coach David Fizdale was fired by the team in early December after finally relenting more minutes to the young point guard. And just like that, Ntilikina’s role was back in flux.

With the team floundering and the front office under an increasing amount of scrutiny, it wouldn’t be surprising if interim coach Mike Miller was told to win regardless of the cost. Or maybe he just preferred the veteran, Elfrid Payton. But Coach Miller spoke highly about Ntilikina’s skill set prior to the Jan. 24 home game against Toronto.

“I think he’s growing with his role as he goes and he’s getting good shots,” Miller said, “So you look at the shots he’s taking, I think we talked about this after the (last) game, I love to see him attacking the basket the way he did, going in there, he got an open-court three, he got a couple pull-ups. So he’s getting to his spots and taking the shots that he should be looking for.”

Ntilikina’s shot and his willingness to use it are clearly improving. He’s become especially adept at shooting mid-range jump shots when his defender goes under screens. He’s connecting on 46.3% of his long-range two-point shots, of which he’s taken 54 already this season – up from 29.4% on only 34 attempts in the entire 2018-19 season.

“I’m just trying to play the right way and take good shots,” Ntilikina told Basketball Insiders. “I know they’re going to come. I’m going to get to my spot each and every night. So just working on them and trying to be ready come game time.

“I realize I have to take it because it’s a good shot and the defense gives it to me –and you have to take what the defense gives you,” Ntilikina continued. “It’s also confidence because since I’ve known the defense was going to give to me, I’ve been working on that shot. And I’ve been successful at taking it and making it.”

In addition, Ntilikina’s obviously far more comfortable throwing lobs to teammate Mitchell Robinson than he’s been in the recent past – another valuable part of his game that’s developed since his rookie season. Granted, Robinson makes for an easy target, but games like the Jan. 1 contest against the Portland Trail Blazers is a perfect example of Ntilikina’s progress. Against Portland, Ntilikina tallied 10 assists, putting on a passing clinic along the way.

But he’s still struggled to make the leap with Coach Miller. Ntilikina averaged only 4.5 points and 2.0 assists in 16.2 minutes per game in December and 6.2 points and 3.2 assists in only 17.1 minutes per game in January — a monumental change in playing time from November to December and January.

It’s unclear if speaking to the coach, front office or his agent would help Ntilikina secure a more consistent role in New York. But in typical Ntilikina-fashion, he’s chosen to let his play do the talking for him.

“Right now, I ask for minutes and opportunity by working my ass off and giving everything that I can to my team,” Ntilikina said.

But when will the team show that level of trust in Ntilikina?

Coach Miller continues to rely heavily on Elfrid Payton, playing him 29.5 minutes per game so far in January. Payton is a fine player. But he’s 25 years old and has been in the league since 2016. We know his strengths and weaknesses. But we don’t know what Ntilikina can be.

We won’t know for sure until next Thursday, but it’s unlikely that Ntilikina is traded before the deadline considering his lack of impact this season.

So assuming he’s kept beyond the deadline, the Knicks must let him play. They should take off the training wheels and let him prove that he can bounce back after a bad night, and that he can continue his improved shooting with more volume. The team is currently 13-36 – ostensibly eliminated from playoff contention. With nothing left to play for, there’s nothing left to lose.

And if all else fails, Ntilikina is still a lock-down defender. Ntilikina ranked first overall in the NBA in points allowed per pick-and-roll possession in his rookie season, according to Synergy Sports Technology. And while he may not have maintained that specific achievement last season, he’s still an accomplished and versatile defender who is regularly assigned the opposing team’s best player – be it Trae Young or Luka Doncic.

“With Frank and his value, defensively, he’s been high level,” coach Miller said. “He’s been really good. So he’s not impacted when that ball’s not going in. He’s still doing his job on that (defensive) end.”

That’s noteworthy because lots of guys let misses affect their overall effort when in a shooting slump. It’s unfortunate that the Knicks apparently undervalue Ntilikina’s defense and selflessness. He might become a star and he might not. But he has the makings of someone who should be in the league for a long time. And shockingly, he prefers New York – for now.

“This is a good organization,” Ntilikina said. “I’m thankful that they picked up my option (for 2020-21). I really want to be here long term and end my career here. And I want to be successful with the franchise.”

It’s unclear when success and Knicks will be uttered in the same sentence. But Ntilikina wants to stick around to see it through. And he’s even willing to do some of the leg work. They shouldn’t take that for granted.

“Definitely,” Ntilikina replied when asked if he’d like to help recruit free agents to New York.

Hopefully, he’s still around to do so — this offseason and beyond.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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NBA

Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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