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The Brain-Poisoned Knicks Fan's Case For Frank Ntilikina

Photo: Kathy Willens (AP)

Knicks fandom is an identity unto itself—big dummy who likes pain—but it is not one big undifferentiated blob of big dummy. These fans hold a diversity of strong opinions, on players that no healthy person should have to think about any longer than a commercial break. Heading into the new season, there is perhaps no topic that polarizes fan opinion like the past, present, and future of Frank Ntilikina, the eighth pick in the 2017 draft.

The Knicks’ front office had to decide whether to pick up the final season of Ntilikina’s contract by Oct. 31. The current regime has never been enthusiastic about the young guard, who was drafted by ex-president Phil Jackson and is the last vestige of his time at the helm. The team tried to ship Ntilikina out of town last season, but since it’s hard to deal the guy who lost all his minutes to the guy whose signature dribble move is falling on the ground, he survived the trade deadline as well as draft night. As free agency opened, I grew confident of two things: The team would sign Julius Randle and manufacture some exotic excuse not to play Frank Ntilikina. (Bingo!) Nevertheless, on Monday, the team did pick up Ntilikina’s option for the 2020-21 season. But his role on the team remains murky, as head coach David Fizdale has yet to settle on a starting point guard with the season opener on Wednesday. As he heads into the third season, I wonder: What even is a Frank Ntilikina?

And more specifically, Is Frank Ntilikina good? Sane people have reviewed the same evidence and come away with diametrically opposed conclusions. Begin with the few consensus facts: He is 21 years old, nominally a point guard, 6-foot-6, with an imposing 7-foot wingspan. But Ntilikina is also a Lovecraftian creature that, viewed for 21 minutes in a Knicks jersey, causes a person to lose their grip on reality. Nobody can really agree on what they’re looking at, just that it has long tentacles and looks quite ugly at times. I see a hyper-versatile defender and shrewd passer who just needs to approach league-average from three to be of value. Others see a timid, sluggish dud who carries the stink of Phil Jackson and will never initiate an offense due to a lack of shake or range. So, there are follow-up questions: If Ntilikina is bad, is he bad because he’s played his formative seasons in a trash heap, buried under the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay and Jarrett Jack? If he is good, as he was this summer while playing for France, how do you get that player to manifest in the NBA? The side you pick in the Frank dispute reveals a lot of your general values: which basketball skills you prize, nature vs. nurture in the NBA, and roster construction as it relates to player development.

I hold the belief that Ntilikina is good with a religious fervor that is not wholly justified by his body of work, and which may be be a subconscious response to his pleasant demeanor and handsomeness (which I suspect is true of most other advocates, too). I believe in Ntilikina’s value to such an absurd degree that it has become a matter of tribal identity, and a way of articulating exactly what I believe to be broken about this franchise, and of separating myself from people who would condemn it to more brokenness. I think he is a serviceable player in the right lineups, and is roughly a half-season under Gregg Popovich away from becoming a good one.

But Ntilikina doesn’t always make it easy to believe. His jumper has a slow release, as if his excess of arm is decelerating the motion. It doesn’t go in all too often, either. Last season, as he regressed amid limited minutes and straight-up DNPs, the Frenchman shot an alarming 39 percent on two-point field goals and 29 percent from the arc. Per Cleaning The Glass, there are basically no spots on the floor where Ntilikina has hit shots at a league-average clip, over the course of his career. It makes for bleak reading:

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Shooting percentages from various locations; the blue numbers show percentile within the NBA.
Screenshot: Cleaning The Glass

Then there’s the slight problem of having to dribble the basketball. Ntilikina is not an explosive athlete, and he is a cautious decision-maker. He’ll beat one man on the perimeter, veer towards the lane, see the help coming, and seemingly reconsider his entire decision to play professional basketball. In the half-court, he often appears to take as many dribbles retreating away from the rim as he does moving towards it.

But this past offseason brought a compelling plot twist. Ntilikina debuted a brand-new aggressive persona while representing France in the FIBA World Cup. He throttled Kemba Walker to eliminate Team USA. On the other end of the floor, he ramped his shooting up to acceptable territory: 33 percent from the arc, and 52 percent inside it. He took and made off-the-dribble threes. He drove with conviction and pulled off clever finishes in traffic that hinted at how his length could compensate for what he lacks in raw speed.

People noticed, including Vincent Collet, who coached Ntilikina as a teenager in France’s Pro A League and again this World Cup. “I think he is going to change,” Collet said to The Athletic’s Mike Vornukov. “I felt on the court this summer it is going to change. I think he understood he has no choice. He must force his personality.”

Ntilikina’s lowkey attitude doesn’t always serve him well on the court, not least because it closes off opportunities to make productive mistakes. Why not take it to the rack and see what happens? What is the point of a lottery pick if the Knicks don’t bother to suss out what he is? This team is winning 25 games.

“When you start the camp, you must show them you are not the same Frank anymore,” Collet added. Ntilikina would benefit from a bit of delusional self-confidence. (Also: a corner three. And a tighter handle. And an appetite for contact.) This is the basic pain of Frank fandom: it hinges on his youth, as the second-youngest player in his draft class, and the hope that he will wake up one day and choose to approach one half of his job quite differently.

Despite all those caveats, Ntilikina is still the man for the starting job. His competition is not inspiring. Elfrid Payton is a 25-year-old on a hired-gun contract and has answered any questions about the player he might become. He is not the future of this or any team. Dennis Smith Jr., drafted one spot after Ntilikina in the 2017, has long been a popular frame of reference for the anti-Frank brigade (including, bafflingly, LeBron James). That made it especially funny to see them wash up onto the same roster last season, and jockeying for the same starting slot this season. Last season Fizdale strongly favored the trade acquisition, even before Ntilikina was shut down with a groin injury. Smith Jr. started 18 of his 21 games in New York, with unmemorable results. Supporters of DSJ want to see the Knicks continue to start an undersized, defensively mystified, occasionally overweight, non-shooter at point guard. I think I’ve seen that movie before!

What I haven’t seen in recent Garden history is any player who defends the point of attack and prevents the other team’s best scorer from sleepwalking into the lane and doing whatever he pleases. Ntilikina has indicated that he can do just that. In his rookie season, then the second-youngest player in the NBA, he conceded just 0.65 points per possession when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, best of any NBA player who had 200 of those plays. (He did not maintain that level in his sophomore slump.) I’ve been a believer ever since I saw him give James Harden a headache as a rookie, and remained one as he gave Trae Young fits last week. For all his reluctance elsewhere in his game, he seems to relish any chance to trip up the league’s savviest ball-handlers. This is something to build on. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to see the path forward for DSJ, who is good at jumping but can neither defend nor shoot, to become a quality NBA starter.

What’s easy to envision, though, is an environment where Ntilikina could thrive even with his existing flaws, so long as those in charge are open to the idea. Fizdale’s lineup decisions last year were perplexing, keeping Frank on a short leash and leaning heavily on awful backcourt defenders despite all his bluster about changing the team’s toxic relationship to defense. But the formula for a successful Ntilikina seems simple. Pair him with a ball-dominant wing, let him grow into a Pat Beverley role, and profit from an on-ball pest with the length and the brains to switch across three positions. The Knicks already have two ball-dominant wings in Julius Randle, who’s styled himself as a bulldozing point-forward, and R.J. Barrett, who’s also burly, with an offensive feel that belies his 19 years. Ntilikina would then be free to take on the toughest defensive assignment and search for his rhythm on catch-and-shoots, without the pressures of making tough decisions off the dribble every trip down the floor. Round out the defense with Mitchell Robinson at center, and a semi-coherent picture emerges.

Besides Robinson, that’s the lineup that the Knicks used to close out their preseason loss to the Atlanta Hawks last week, which I attended as a fan. Seated nearby was an older gentleman, who had seen the Knicks win their two championships in person. He asked me why I hooted and hollered as Ntilikina was introduced, and why I rose to my feet anytime he so much as took an uncontested jumper. These are fair questions, ones I will be forced to ask myself in my old age. I blubbered about his four-position defensive potential and his apparent reinvention in international play. My neighbor was unconvinced. Every time Ntilikina made a good play, he offered me a begrudging fist bump. I got five fist bumps over four quarters; for the rest of the game he roasted the Frenchman. But I know—we know—that he’ll earn more of those fist bumps, with time. Even if he’s playing for the Spurs by then.

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