For fans of the New York Knicks, they can only hope that the rest of Frank Ntilikina’s career goes a bit like his first game at Madison Square Garden did.
After beginning the season 0-3, the Knicks finally put one in the win column on Friday night when the team bested the Brooklyn Nets, 107-86.
What made the victory better, though, was the role that the rookie point guard played in it.
Ntilikina didn’t put up any numbers to rival those of Russell Westbrook, but what he did show was the game-impact and instincts that a successful point guard in the league must possess. The Frenchman finished the game with nine points and five rebounds, but made good reads in the game’s decisive frame and showed to have the ability to be patient, effective and poised.
As the season wears on, it would appear that Ntilikina is the heir apparent to the starting point guard position. At just 19 years old, he will give the Knicks its first drafted lead guard prospect with appreciable upside.
One of Ntilikina’s former teammates in France, Romeo Travis, happens to be a former high school teammate of LeBron James. Travis even sent King James a text message boasting about the rookie and warning him to “watch out” for him.
It might be a bit premature for Ntilikina to be deemed the successor to James’ throne in the Eastern Conference, but it certainly isn’t too early to recognize that Ntilikina’s combination of physical tools, outside shooting ability and game-reading instincts is above-average.
Considering the fact that Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 26.5 points and 7.8 rebounds through the team’s first four games, he seems to be at least capable of functioning as the team’s primary play maker and shot taker.
In the short term, while the losses may sting, the truth of the matter is that Porzingis’ rising, Ntilikina’s thriving and the team’s collective sputtering may actually be the best case scenario for the Knicks. As it stands, they join the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls as the teams with the poorest showings through the season’s first few weeks. If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught us, though, it’s that losing doesn’t have to be in vain. With Porzingis a certified stud, if Ntilikina proves himself to be of the same ilk, then Knicks would have two legitimate youngsters worth building around. Even better, the team would, in theory, have another high lottery selection in the 2018 NBA Draft.
If there’s one good thing that Phil Jackson did while he was in charge, it’s not mortgage the future by trading away future draft picks the way his predecessors so often did.
What’s most important at this point is to remind anyone who watches the Knicks that the win-loss record this season isn’t nearly as important as the installation of a culture that predicated on effort and ball-sharing. For the most part, those weren’t hallmarks of the Carmelo Anthony era.
So while it may feel somewhat shameful to root for the demise of one’s team, now is the time for the Knicks to actually embrace the rebuilding process. Perhaps the front office shouldn’t deliberately try to lose games, but let’s just say that if they determined that scoring a top five pick in this year’s draft was a higher priority, it’d be a wise decision.
Some of the names to keep an eye on as we begin the slow crawl through the NCAA season and into next spring’s pre-draft process are forward Michael Porter, Jr., center Mohamed Bamba, center DeAndre Ayton, guard Luka Doncic, forward Wendell Carter and forward Jaren Jackson.
Although the 2018 draft class might not be as deep as the 2017 class, there are good players there, and scoring a high draft pick will give the Knicks scouting department another opportunity to attempt to snatch up a young prospect that can fit in with the team and become a building block for the future.
Put bluntly, securing the services of one such other stud should be the end game, not winning 30-35 games and narrowly missing the playoffs or barely qualifying. While there may be some merit to wanting young players to have the experience in playing in meaningful games where there are high stakes, it’s wiser to want that for them when the team has a full deck of cards.
We know what Porzingis can be already, and for the first time, in his Madison Square Garden debut, Frank Ntilikina showed us who he may be able to become.
In more ways than one, it was only the beginning.
If one were to backtrack and take inventory of the players who have won the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award over the past 30 years, Kevin Durant (2017), Andre Iguodala (2015), LeBron James (2012-13), Chauncey Billups (2004) and Shaquille O’Neal (2000-2002) are the only players who won the award for a team that didn’t draft them or acquire them on draft night.
With very few exceptions along the way, the key to winning a championship has always been drafting intelligently, building a core of young players that thrive and grow together, and using timely trades and free agency to augment the core and plug holes. As players have shown a propensity to be more willing to leave their teams proactively, free agency can be used as a short cut, but few players are willing to proactively leave situations unless they feel that they will be improving their odds of winning.
The Golden State Warriors appear to be on their way to becoming this generation’s version of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, but even before the team added Kevin Durant, they managed to win 73 regular season games and did so primarily on the shoulders of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Andrew Bogut was a player whose acquisition by trade was well-timed, and Andre Iguodala was a piece who willingly chose the Warriors because he simply believed in what they were doing.
Indeed, if you build it, they will come. NBA superstars are no different.
For the Knicks, the master plan of turning the franchise into a contender begins with Porzingis. Ntilikina may very well be the next cog in the machine.
The core, however, lies with three, and based on what we’ve seen in the early goings, the Knicks may very well have an opportunity to put another stud on the roster. The likelihood of landing such a piece is higher if the team continues to do something like win one out of every four games.
So long as Ntilikina continues to grow, it won’t all be in vain.
NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss
The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.
The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.
Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.
All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.
First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.
Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.
Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.
The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.
De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.
Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.
Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.
Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.
There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.
The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!
Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.
There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.
Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”
NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact
Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.
Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts.
Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason.
- Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard).
- DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place.
- New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
- Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
- Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.
One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.
NBA Daily: Will Philadelphia Struggle From Downtown?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have enough outside shooting talent to spread the floor on the offensive end? Jordan Hicks takes a look.
It’s only been one game, and this could likely be an overreaction, but will the Philadelphia 76ers struggle this season from beyond-the-arc? With the departure of two highly capable shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, it might not be insane to say this could turn into a large problem throughout the season.
Last season for the 76ers, Belinelli finished 38.5 percent from three and Ilyasova finished at 36.1 percent. While neither of those percentages is staggering, both sit above the league average, and those players shoot and make threes at a consistent pace. Neither player was necessarily streaky from downtown, so you knew what to expect from them on a nightly basis.
What the two players brought more than anything was gravity. Each game, teams had to strategically plan how to stop them from making three-point shots. Players had to maintain certain spots on the floor defensively, which in turn left offensive players in advantageous positions. Losing both Belinelli and Ilyasova allows defenses to suck in closer to the paint so they can better defend Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at what they do best – attack the rim.
This is precisely what the Boston Celtics did to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and the final score definitely told the tale. The Celtics ended up winning, 105-87. Boston is a talented squad, and playing at the TD Garden is never an easy task, but the 76ers are too good to lose by high double-digits.
Apart from Boston’s stellar defense, Philadelphia’s mark from the perimeter paints a clear picture of what they might struggle with throughout the season. They finished 5-for-26, good for 19.7 percent.
It’s not like they don’t have any help from three. Robert Covington led the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season and J.J. Redick shot a scorching career 41.5 percent from deep. Their third option from three is likely Dario Saric, who finished last season at 39.3 percent. But after those three the drop-off is significant. Embiid might come in next, and he shot a poor 30.8 percent last season.
By the end of the season, the top three scorers for Philadelphia could likely be Simmons, Embiid and last year’s first-round pick, Markelle Fultz. Not one of those players can shoot the three consistently, certainly not at an efficient mark. Simmons and Fultz have never even made a three-point field goal in their young careers.
All three of those players have the ability to score efficiently around the rim, and they’ll likely get their buckets. But with fewer players on the roster to worry about as a deep threat, teams will mirror Boston’s success and crowd the paint.
If Brett Brown continues to play Saric, Covington and Redick in limited minutes – they played just eight minutes together on Tuesday – most of their lineups will only ever feature two above average three-point shooters. This can begin to get highly problematic for the 76ers as the season progresses. As previously mentioned, teams will just stuff the area around the hoop with great rim protectors and only worry about crashing the boards when mid-range jumpers clank off the basket.
Teams that had the most success last season, à la the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, had at minimum three high-level deep threats on the floor at all times. This allowed them to spread the offense, keep defenses guessing and find an open shooter after throwing the ball around from player to player or cutting to the basket. With the fact that multiple shooters on the court can spread out the defense and essentially keep them on their toes, all it takes is an intelligent cut or a crafty pass to find someone open at the rim. If teams don’t have enough efficient shooters on the floor, defenses can just suck in and stop players going to the hoop.
But when there are three or more plus shooters on the court, defenders have a really difficult decision to make. Do you try and play help defense by attempting to stop the shot at the rim? This can leave your opponent open for an easy three. Will help defense get there in time to defend the three? Maybe, but then another quick pass can find another open shooter. So do you stay on your man? Sure, but then you give up an easy basket at the rim.
That last paragraph was elementary. Most teams and fans understand this concept. The importance of efficient shooters in today’s league is at an all-time high. The 76ers have a very talented, young team. Simmons and Embiid are a phenomenal duo to build around. But their lack of players that hold any sort of gravity from three-point land could really give them struggles.
Alas, we are only one game into the season. A handful of teams have yet to play, so there is still plenty of basketball to be had. The 76ers are still monstrous on defense and can obviously generate baskets on the offensive end. Thanks in part to Simmons, they are one of the most electric teams in transition, and can often score with ease around the hoop.
Are the 76ers a playoff team? That’s essentially a lock. Can they go deep in the playoffs? It certainly appears so. But in order for them to make a legitimate run to the Finals, they’ll need to find more efficiency from the three-point line. Not simply because they could use those points, but because they need that spacing for their offense to function at an elite level.