Since the day he was drafted back in 2017, Frank Ntilikina has been as polarizing as any prospect for fans of the New York Knicks.
While some have given up on him, others have clamored for a legitimate shot for Ntilikina, a chance to show what he can do with more minutes. In his four seasons, the front office has seemingly been unsure of what to make of him as well. And, of course, there have been rumors as to whether the team would trade him, simply cut him lose or otherwise.
But what should New York actually do with Ntilikina?
With the trade deadline fast approaching and the Knicks in the thick of a playoff race in the Eastern Conference, trading Ntilikina could be a great way for the Knicks to improve the roster. Between him and Kevin Knox, the Knicks have two young, relatively desirable pieces that the team would appear willing to flip. That said, trading Ntilikina would be a mistake.
Just 22-years-old — only a few months older than rookie teammate Obi Toppin — Ntilikina has an elite NBA skill that can help the Knicks not only win games, but push them further into the Eastern Conference postseason picture: his defense. And, while he may not play enough minutes for the casual viewer to catch on, it’s clear as day on film. In the clip below, Sacramento Kings’ guard Buddy Hield is denied the ball by Ntilikina for the entire possession, grinding the Kings’ offense to a halt. The Knicks’ defense, as a group, is equally as important, but Ntilikina’s tenacity on the ball really stands out here.
Probably my favorite defensive possession of the game. Ntilikina denies Hield the ball the entire possession. Gibson switches on to Fox and stays in front, forces TO. Burks and Quickley switch under the basket to prevent the mismatch. This is what an elite defense looks like. pic.twitter.com/HUKuGGWoJj
— Ariel (@APachecoNBA) February 26, 2021
Further, Ntilikina’s strong defense can lead to easy offense. Quick feet keep him in front of the speedy De’Aaron Fox to force the turnover, which Ntilinkina then sends up the court to Immanuel Quickley for the easy three in transition.
Something very small that goes unnoticed but is important. Holmes is rolling straight down the middle ahead of Gibson when Ntilikina stunts, cutting off the passing lane. He recovers back to Fox and forces the turnover leading to a 3-pt shot. Just really sound defense from Frank. pic.twitter.com/aD7QUsPJIP
— Ariel (@APachecoNBA) February 26, 2021
While his offensive game has been somewhat erratic, Ntilikina has also been effective on that end, albeit in limited minutes, this season. He’s made 7 of his 13 three-point attempts this year, with a net rating of plus-6.8. While it’s a limited sample size mostly coming in garbage time, it’s still reflective of how well the Knicks have played in his minutes.
Likewise, Ntilikina is an almost perfect fit alongside the rest of the Knicks’ young core, while his versatility to play on or off the ball and guard multiple positions depending on the matchup would make him an invaluable asset for any up-and-coming squad.
Out of the rotation for over a month either due to injury, the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and or coach’s decisions, Ntilikina had to the bottom of New York’s depth chart. But, a recent injury to Elfrid Payton has opened the door to a greater opportunity, one that Ntilikina, while it may not reflect in the box score, has seized more firmly than some could have hoped. Upon Payton’s return, Ntilikina should continue to see the court, whether at the expense of Payton or perhaps veteran Reggie Bullock, as he can offer the Knicks far more in terms of immediate upside on the court; not only does Ntilikina not need the ball as much as Payton to be effective, but he’s also a superior defender to both veterans.
Should they choose to move him, Ntilikina would be unlikely to return anything that would significantly move the needle for New York, certainly not as much as Ntilikina himself could if just given the opportunity. And, with his value arguably the lowest it’s ever been, a trade would be short-sighted.
Rather amazingly, Ntilikina has survived a revolving door in key management positions in his four years with the team. He was drafted by Phil Jackson, who was subsequently fired and replaced just days later. His successor, Steve Mills, was fired last season, with Scott Perry taking over until Leon Rose was named President of Basketball Operations last March. Similarly, the head coach carousel the Knicks have been stuck on in recent years would lead to struggles for even the best the NBA has to offer. Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale, Mike Miller and, now, Tom Thibodeau have all donned the mantle in Ntilikina’s short time with the team; a bit more stability should only serve to benefit him and his play.
The Knicks have also made the mistake of prioritizing veterans over his development. He’s been benched in favor of players such as Trey Burke, Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions and Emmanuel Mudiay, three of whom are no longer in the NBA. They have consistently overlooked Ntilikina before and they should avoid doing so again.
So, set to be a restricted free agent that shouldn’t command anything more than a reasonable deal, New York should do what they can to retain Ntilikina, currently their longest-tenured player. With ample untapped potential, he could prove just what the Knicks need to get back to the postseason and, assuming they can lock him up long-term for relatively cheap, Ntilikina could help them stay there for the foreseeable future.
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