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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 AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix

The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.

Chad Smith

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The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.

The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.

The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.

Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.

Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.

Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.

Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.

Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.

It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.

Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.

While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.

Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.

Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.

Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.

It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.

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