Frank Ntilikina controls the ball against the Brooklyn Nets during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden.

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Schmeelk: What Does Frank Ntilikina's Future With Knicks Hold?

John Schmeelk
April 03, 2019 - 9:54 am

The Knicks season (unmercifully) goes on, but Frank Ntilikina’s second season has come to an end. The Knicks announced over the weekend that Ntilikina’s reoccurring groin injury will force him to miss the rest of the year. At this point so late in the season, rushing him back and forcing further aggravation of the groin could put his offseason development in jeopardy.

It wouldn’t be fair to call Ntilikina’s second season anything other than an abject failure. The development of the Knicks eighth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was a primary goal this season, and rather than showing improvement, Ntilikina regressed in a few key areas.

Ntilikina’s shooting dropped from .364/.318/.721 to .337/.287/.767. There is no more important skill that Ntilikina needs to improve upon than his shooting. Even if Ntilikina never develops into a pure point guard or an effective penetrator, he can be a useful player in the league if he can improve his three-point shooting to the point where can shoot at least 35%. That jump was supposed to happen this season, but instead, his shooting got worse.

Ntilikina’s defense wasn’t as consistent as it was in his first season either. As a rookie, he was in the 90th percentile in defending the pick-and-roll ball handler. This season he was just in the 64th percentile. His isolation defense did improve, jumping from the 86th percentile to the 94th percentile. He was still a good defender, just not elite.

The advanced numbers show Ntilikina didn’t positively impact the team when he was on the floor. The team didn’t perform any better on the court whether Ntilikina played or not. The team’s defensive rating only jumped 2.5 points when he played. The impact wasn’t there, even in the areas Ntilikina performed best in as a rookie.

By most advanced metrics, Ntilikina was one of the worst point guards in the league, finishing third to last in both Offensive Real Plus-Minus (ORPM) and overall RPM. He was next to last among point guards in PER. He was one of the worst offensive players in the entire NBA.

Who’s to blame? As always, it starts with the player himself. Regardless of the way the Knicks used him, Ntilikina has no one to blame but himself for not becoming a better shooter. There’s a simple way to become a better shooter: repetitions. Even if fans want to give him some benefit of the doubt and blame his struggles on a lack of confidence stemming from his usage, an NBA player has to be mentally tough enough to work through that.

Ntilikina’s mental approach is part of the problem as he seems to lose confidence and becomes increasingly hesitant after he misses a couple of shots or makes some mistakes. He did flash a better handle this season, which allowed him to navigate the court more effectively, but it was not consistent enough.

The Knicks, specifically head coach David Fizdale, didn’t help matters. Despite understanding Ntilikina’s fragile confidence, he yanked him in and out of the lineup and moved him between roles game to game based on simple things like how he shot the ball. His treatment of Ntilikina, showing tough love and punishing him for poor play, was the opposite of the tact he took with Kevin Knox, who played just as poorly.

With Ntilikina’s unselfish pass-first mentality, but the frame of a wing, it was important for the Knicks to determine whether or not he had the potential to be the franchise’s point guard of the future. Instead, Fizdale chose to give Emmanuel Mudiay, a player on an expiring contract and little future the majority of the playing time at the position instead. It’s possible that Ntilikina was always destined to be a “three and D” wing, but the Knicks still have no tangible evidence if he can play point guard.

Related: 'The Bank Shot' Podcast: Draft Talk With Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman

There was a stretch earlier in the season when he started with Tim Hardaway Jr., Damyean Dotson, Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson where it looked like the team might have actually committed to a defensive-oriented lineup with Ntilikina as the primary ball handler that worked. Through eight games and 94 minutes, that team had a positive net rating of +8.1. After a bad half of basketball, Fizdale went back to Enes Kanter and Emmanuel Mudiay, ending Ntilikina’s best shot at succeeding.

Fizdale’s common refrain was that Ntilikina was never aggressive enough, yet he constantly played him with other ball dominant players like Mudiay or Allonzo Trier. It magnified his passivity and didn’t put him in the best position to give Fizdale what he was asking for. As much as Ntilikina failed himself, he was also failed by the organization’s player development team.

The past can’t be changed, so there’s only the matter of what his future is. Marc Berman has reported many times that the Knicks might look to trade Ntilikina on draft night for future assets and additional cap space. It would be a mistake.

Ntiikina’s value is at an all-time low. The Knicks would be fortunate to get a first-round pick between picks 25 and 30. There’s a realistic chance they would only be able to coax a second-round pick in return for him. Any player drafted in the second round would not have Ntilikina’s defensive potential.

If the Knicks do manage to land big free agents this summer, Ntilikina is the exact type of player they’ll need to supplement high volume scorers. If he can improve his three-point shooting just 3-5% over what he did as a rookie and approaches league average, his defensive versatility is exactly what a team with two ball-dominant stars needs. Players like that can be very difficult to find.

Andre Roberson signed a three-year, $30 million contract prior to the 2017 season, having never shot better than 31% from behind the arc or averaging more than 6.6 points per game. Players like Roberson and Ntilikina are most valuable on good teams, something the latter hasn’t been able to show as a Knick.

Ntilikina makes $4.85 million next season, and it is unlikely the Knicks could find another player with his defensive upside with that available money. There’s a chance Ntilikina doesn’t improve his shooting and his offense makes him unplayable, but it’s far less likely the Knicks find someone that can help their team more for a starting salary of less than five million dollars.

If the Knicks do fail to land big free agents, it makes more sense to continue to develop a strong perimeter defender like Ntilikina that is only 20 years old than to roll the dice on a late first-round or second-round pick that would require just as much if not more developmental time.

Ntilikina’s career is off to a bad start, and it might be best for him to end up with a different organization that will develop him properly, but it doesn’t make sense for the Knicks to go down that path yet. His upside is still higher than whatever the Knicks could get in return for him in a trade. Players develop at different rates, and the best option for the Knicks is to continue to exercise patience with Frank Ntilikina.

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