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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: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?

With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.

Ariel Pacheco

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After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off. 

Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine. 

This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.

Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.

Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past. 

Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.

The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self. 

There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.

Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.

Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan. 

“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.” 

Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating. 

The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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