Schmeelk: Ntilikina's FIBA Performance Showcased Blueprint For Knicks Potential

John Schmeelk
September 17, 2019 - 1:14 pm

About three weeks ago, I wrote a story in this same space that wondered whether or not the Knicks had room at the inn for Frank Ntilikina. Well, they better make room. Ntilikina took advantage of his opportunity to start for the French National Team in the FIBA Basketball Cup, and helped lead them to a bronze medal.

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Ntilikina concluded the tournament with a quiet Bronze Medal game against Australia in which he only shot 1-7 and scored two points, but it did not overshadow his work in the prior two games. In the first round of the single-elimination tournament, Ntilikina scored 11 points against Team USA that included a three and step-back long two that buried Team USA late in the fourth quarter. Ntilikina was plus-22 and one of the best players on the floor.

In the following game against Argentina, he shot 7-12 from the field and scored a team-high (tied with Evan Fournier) 16 points. He was 6-7 on two-pointers and was very assertive when France attempted a late comeback.

Ntilikina proved what most of his advocates have argued for the past two years: there’s a good basketball player there that needs to be brought out by the right coach. Ntilikina flashed his typically excellent defense for France and helped contain Kemba Walker in the game against Team USA. He showed enough ball handling and playmaking to be the team’s starting point guard. He was far more aggressive going to the basket and looked for his offense a lot more than he ever did with the Knicks.

Ntilikina’s shooting was still a work in progress, but .436/.333/.889 is an improvement over what he tallied in his first two NBA seasons. If he can get to 45% from the field and 35% from behind the arc, he will be an extremely useful NBA player and an asset to almost any team. Combined with his unselfish attitude, growing frame, and defensive ability, the Knicks need to give him a real chance to earn playing time.

Nothing should be handed out on the Knicks this season, given the depth of talent at nearly all the positions, but head coach David Fizdale needs to give Ntilikina an honest chance to win time in the rotation. Not every player is going to be an alpha-dog scorer, nor should teams want all their players to have that approach. Ntilikina is a player that would work well around those types of players.

He might still be growing at 21 years old and is already 6’6. With added bulk to his frame, he could comfortably play point guard, shooting guard, or small forward. He is the ultimate switchable defender and can guard one through four. He does not need the ball in his hand to be effective.

The French National team provided a perfect blueprint for how to use Ntilikina. He can play next to a more dominant ball-handler, handle a portion of the point guard duties, and be helpful on and off the ball. Defensively, he often covered the other team’s best perimeter player and can serve in that same role in the NBA.  

Ntilikina could play next to Dennis Smith Jr. or RJ Barrett as a secondary ball-handler and defender. He could play point guard with Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Mitchell Robinson and Damyean Dotson in a defense-heavy lineup. He could be the lone defender in an offense-heavy lineup with Dennis Smith Jr., RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, and Julius Randle. His ability to run the pick and roll with Rudy Gobert at the World Cup should transfer well to the rim-dunking machine known as Mitchell Robinson.

His combination of skills, approach and play style is something no one else on the Knicks roster provides. No one else is ready to be an unselfish secondary or primary ball-handler and a switchable high-end defender. He is unique and could be a versatile Swiss-army knife that would allow Fizdale to mix and match different players into a variety of lineups. Any scoring he would provide would be a bonus.

No one should advocate Ntilikina playing no matter his performance, but he has to be given a fair chance to earn minutes in the preseason. Fizdale needs to appreciate the things he can do that other players on the roster can’t, and not obsess over the things he can’t do at a high level. It is clear neither of those things has been done in the past.

The Knicks have until October 31st to decide whether they want to pick up Ntilikina’s fourth-year option for a mere $6 million. It would give the team low-cost control on a potential asset if Ntilikina does improve. With so many expiring contracts and plenty of potential cap space in the summer of 2020, it is a no-brainer decision to pick it up. Even if Ntilikina doesn’t pan out, that contract would not be any sort of detriment to their long-term planning.

If the Knicks choose not to extend Ntilikina, it would show a disconcerting lack of strategic thinking to cut loose a player that even has potential value for very little benefit in return. Gaining $6 million in potential cap space next summer when the free-agent class is weak and the Knicks can have more than enough money would give little tangible benefit.

Ntilikina has proven, at least in international competition that he has it in him to be a productive NBA player. It’s the responsibility of Knicks player development people and David Fizdale to bring it out in him and give him a chance to show those skills in the NBA. The Knicks have a player that can help them win games if their staff can figure out how to use him properly.

Very few people are still camped out on Ntilikina Island, holding onto their real estate. Property values have dropped. Mudiay Mansion and Chateau Burke have been built there and demolished. There’s a chance Payton Place will be erected next. Dennis Smith Jr. has a fine home there. There’s still a chance all those arrivals will be driven away. More bets are being placed that the early investment in Ntilikina real estate will end up paying off. We’ll find out this year if that’s true.

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