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.