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NBA Sunday: Knicks Emerge From 2017 NBA Draft As Winners

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One of the keys to succeeding in NBA is harmony. All of the talent in the world does no good if the front office and the head coach aren’t on the same page or if the front office attempts to fit square pegs into round holes.

That is precisely why the selection of Frank Ntilikina makes the New York Knicks one of the winners of the 2017 NBA draft.

Heading into the draft, there were agents and scouts that had the Knicks selecting Malik Monk with the eighth overall pick. The knock against Monk, however, was that he is considered an undersized, “score first” shooting guard whose fit into the triangle was questionable.

As for Dennis Smith, Jr., there are some that feel that he has the talent to become a perennial All-Star. Smith is explosive and athletic and, in some ways, is reminiscent to Derrick Rose, whom Phil Jackson famously (and appropriately) dubbed an “attack guard.” Weeks ago, the concerns against drafting another attack guard were discussed, with the possibility of the Knicks trading out of the eighth spot broached.

But the more Ntilikina was watched, the more it became obvious that he was precisely the type of player that Jackson would prefer to be his lead guard.

Historically, Jackson is known to have had a preference for larger-framed point guards who could both effectively operate out of the pinch-post area and play off the ball without disrupting the floor spacing on which his beloved triangle depends.

Standing at 6-foot-5, the 19-year-old Ntilikina is a tad light to play shooting guard full-time in the NBA—he’s currently estimated at 170 pounds—but gaining weight and muscle mass is one of the easier things for NBA players to do. Asking the 19-year-old to gain 25 pounds of mass over the next two to three years is a much easier task than asking an older guard to grow three inches. With an impressive wingspan (about seven feet) and what’s considered to be a high basketball IQ, from a physical standpoint, there is nothing else that one could require in a high-level prospect. Considering that Ntilikina has been playing professionally since 2015, there’s even more reason to be excited about his potential. Spending formative years in a professional setting can have a profound impact on the development and trajectory of an NBA talent. Look no further than the easy example of Tony Parker—he entered the NBA mentally and emotionally prepared for the challenges that awaited.

Obviously, at this point, there’s no guarantee that Ntilikina will amount to anything close to Parker. The Hall-of-Famer, after all, is one of the greatest international players in history.

But one of the major considerations for the Knicks must have been simply finding a piece that fits into what the organization is doing. And like it or not, Phil Jackson is still running the organization in the exact same way that the Knicks are running the triangle. It is what it is.

That being the case, drafting an explosive attack guard or a score-first shooting guard would have simply introduced more discord into a franchise that is laughably and embarrassingly at odds with its two best players in Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. So even if Monk or Smith ends up being a more prolific scorer in the long run, which is actually likely, neither would have fit into the triangle as well as Ntilikina will, and for Jackson, creating harmony within the organization needs to be a priority. That is one of the major keys to succeeding in the National Basketball Association.

That, and, of course, selecting talented players.

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Standing at the podium at Barclays Center, Commissioner Adam Silver stood before heartbroken Knicks fans, as the players that the franchise’s fans truly wanted came off the board, one-by-one.

And when Silver announced the newest member of the New York Knicks, a European player that made his way through the pre-draft process as still somewhat of an enigma, he was met with a ferocious chorus of boos.

This sounds an awful lot like what transpired last week when the Knicks selected Ntilikina with the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, but it’s easy to forget that this scene is precisely what unfolded with Kristaps Porzingis in 2015. Porzingis was famously the victim of ethnic profiling in a basketball sense. Appearing to be another in a long line of tall, smooth-shooting Europeans players, Porzingis was thought to be soft. He was labeled as being “years away” from contributing at the highest level. 

Two years later, he’s a unicorn.

The rise of Porzingis has been so dramatic that now, apparently, the Knicks can’t even entertain the possibility of trading him. Although the Knicks may still trade Porzingis, the purpose of pointing this out is simple—there is a real possibility that Ntilikina will become a great, great player. Criticizing Jackson and his regime for their mishandling of any number of situations or player personnel decisions is fair. But if fairness is a requirement, one has to give Jackson and his regime credit for both drafting Porzingis and for discovering Willy Hernangomez.

Hernangomez has already shown flashes of brilliance with his post moves and footwork and seems destined to join Pau and Marc Gasol as being excellent Spanish post players. The Knicks effectively selected Hernangomez with the 35th selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, acquiring the pick in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He also happens to be signed to a team-friendly contract that will pay him a combined $3 million over the next two seasons.

Say what you want about Jackson, and feel free to point out the laundry list of things that have gone wrong during his tenure in New York—there are a great many to choose from. But, without question, Porzingis and Hernangomez are the things he has done right.

Ntilikina, at the very least, deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt in that regard. It’s okay to be optimistic about the young guard’s prospects until he proves himself to be a fluke on the basketball court.

Both Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow were both considered to be better prospects than Porzingis.

How’d that turn out?

* * * * * *

As Phil Jackson attempts to return the Knicks to respectability, to this point, he has failed in laying the most critical brick on the Knicks’ crumbling foundation. He has seemingly gone out of his way to destroy the harmony and common accord that existed within the organization prior to his arrival  

Fortunately, for Ntilikina and the Knicks, the drafting of the 19-year-old Belgian-born point guard could signify something that hasn’t been seen nearly enough over the course of Jackson’s tenure in New York City. With Ntilikina, the Knicks, finally, aren’t attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole.

If talent is all that matters when it comes to playing winning basketball, Kevin Durant wouldn’t have had to take his talents to Oakland to win a championship.

Success requires the intersection of immense talent and the proper system.

Either Smith or Monk would have checked the talent box, without question. But buying in on the system? The belief that it would have been a disaster waiting to happen absolutely had an impact on what the Knicks opted to do with Ntilikina.

Hardly strangers to controversy and infighting, for once, the New York Knicks have managed to dodge a punch. They got themselves an intriguing prospect who appears to be a perfect fit for what the organization has decided it is going to do.

In the end, believe it or not, the Knicks may have done something wise by selecting Frank Ntilikina; they have emerged from the draft with a talent that fits.

In the end, believe it or not, that may go a longer way toward building a winning culture than selecting the most explosive athlete or prolific scorer.

And believe it or not, in at least that instance, for the first time in a long time, the Knicks can call themselves winners. 

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.