Apr 11, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina (11) dribbles with the ball in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

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Schmeelk: Frank Ntilikina Should Start For Knicks

John Schmeelk
October 16, 2018 - 1:19 pm
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As the Knicks prepare for their first regular season game on Wednesday, the only real question about the starting lineup is who will start at point guard. It should be second year player, Frank Ntilikina. It will probably be Trey Burke. The bigger and more consequential decision for Fizdale will be how much Ntilikina will play, and in what role.

Ntilikina should start for a few different reasons. The Knicks are still in a developmental stage, and priority should be given to a 20 year old former top ten pick with excellent physical tools. Trey Burke is on the last year of his contract, and is under six feet tall without elite athleticism. Ntilikina is 6’6, possibly still growing, and added 10-15 pounds of muscle in the offseason.

Based on the small sample sizes from the NBA Summer League and preseason play, it looks like Ntilikina’s shot has improved. He shot 45% from the field in the preseason, and 43% in the summer league. He shot 50% from beyond the three point line in the preseason. Those are all much better numbers than his .364/.318/.721 slash from his rookie season.

Ntilikina has also shown more of a willingness to be aggressive on the offense. Rather than immediately passing the ball to a teammate after crossing half court, he is initiating the offense with pick and rolls. He’s getting to the basket more and has learned to use his size and length to finish over smaller players with dunks, spin moves, pivots, and turnaround jumpers. He looks like a much more competent player offensively.

MORE: Knicks Pick Up Frank Ntilikina's 3rd-Year Option

Defensively, Ntilikina could end up being one the more versatile perimeter defenders in the league. He can already guard 1-3 at a high level, and his added strength makes it possible to switch him onto power forwards without an ensuing panic. He gets in the passing lanes with his long arms, and harasses ball handlers and shooters consistently. With starters Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kevin Knox that all struggle at times on defense, having a player like Ntilikina on the floor with them can balance the lineup.

Despite all that, all indications are that David Fizdale is going to start Trey Burke. In an excellent story by Mike Vorkunov in the Athletic (subscription necessary) on Ntilikina, Fizdale stated why he doesn’t want to use Ntilikina as a pure point guard.

“If you look at a guy like Frank, what do you call him?” Fizdale said. “You can play him as a two or a three and now you’ve got three point guards in your rotation. I think that’s where Frank really gives me a lot of flexibility from the standpoint of what he brings to the table. That’s why I don’t want to get into labeling him as much. But we know Trey Burke is a point guard. Mudiay is a combo … Frank can do both. Instead of trying to label them ‘Oh this is what you’re trying to be’ and put them in that box, I just feel like it gives me more flexibility to call them guards and be able to play them, mix and match, next to each other… That’s where I do, I see Frank in that kind of mold, as a multi-talented, multi-faceted guy.”

In the modern NBA, a multi-positional player that can do those things is extremely valuable, but so would a point guard with that same versatility.

Not starting Ntilikina would be a mistake, but not an epic one, as long as he plays starter minutes and is used the right way when he is in the game. Fizdale has indicated he does not expect any of his starters to play much more than 30 minutes a game because of the effort and pace he expects from his team this year.

It opens the door for a player like Ntilikina that plays multiple positions and would likely be the first player off the bench, to play just as many minutes as the starters. He should be averaging at minimum 27-28 minutes per game if Fizdale is being honest about his player usage. Ideally, he would be closer 32 minutes per game.

When he is on the floor, Ntilikina needs to be heavily involved in the offense, and have the ball in his hands a lot. He shouldn’t be placed behind the three point line on the wing or in the corner waiting for a kickout. The franchise needs to figure out how he plays with the ball as a facilitator. He will only improve in those areas if he has a chance to do it against NBA players in high leverage situations. Mistakes will happen, but the team can afford them at this point in its development.

Ntilikina should be the primary backup point guard, with Emmanuel Mudiay only playing if foul trouble dictates it. Even when he shares the floor with Burke, he should handle the ball a lot. Burke’s superior jump shot allows him to stretch the floor without the ball and even score when the shot clock is running down when needed. 20 minutes on the floor as the lone point guard and another dozen on the floor with Burke is a legitimate goal for Ntilikina.

One of the reasons the Knicks front office hired David Fizdale as their head coach was his ability to develop players. Ntilikina, Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier will be front and center. Their improvement can make this season a success no matter how many games the Knicks win. Ntilikina can be a big part of the Knicks future, and this season will be an important in determining exactly how he’ll fit in down the road.

You can follow me on twitter for everything on Knicks, Giants and the world of sports @Schmeelk.