Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina controls the ball against Chicago Bulls point guard Cameron Payne on Nov. 5, 2018, at Madison Square Garden.

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Schmeelk: Ntilikina At Critical Juncture In Development

How Young Knick Responds To Struggles Is Important

John Schmeelk
November 07, 2018 - 11:53 am
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We’re about to learn a lot about Frank Ntilikina and where he is heading as a basketball player. With Ntilikina still just 20 years old, nothing that happens in the next couple weeks will be definitive either good or bad, but it will be telling. It will also be telling how head coach David Fizdale chooses to handle him.

After being given the starting point guard job on Oct. 26, Ntilikina played some of his best basketball of his young NBA career. over the next two games He scored 33 points, shot 6-of-12 on 3s, 11-of-24 on field goals overall and 5-of-5 from the free-throw line. His defense was excellent, which is no surprise.

Since then, however, Ntilikina’s shooting has been an abomination. He has shot 7-of-29 from the field and 0-of-13 from the 3-point line, and he only took three free throws, scoring with a total of 17 points in his past four games. His play was so bad against the Bulls that Fizdale played him only 16 minutes despite Tim Hardaway Jr. being out. In his time on the floor, the Knicks were outscored by 17 points. In his 22 minutes in the previous game against the Wizards, the Knicks were outscored by 13 points.

Of all the things Ntilikina needed to improve on in the offseason, shooting was the most essential. Even if he never became a creator for himself and others off the dribble, if Ntilikina became a reliable perimeter shooter it would make him a useful NBA player given his prodigious defense. His recent slump has put his season shooting numbers at .348/.286/.900, which are worse than the poor numbers from his rookie season.

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As bad as those numbers are, Ntilikina’s reaction to those struggles has been even more discouraging. As he missed more and more shots, you could see a physical change as his confidence dissolved. It was almost as if he was shrinking into an invisible shell on his back. His improved aggressiveness from earlier in the season all but disappeared. He wasn’t attacking anymore. His passivity was back. He wasn’t shooting with any confidence.  

It should surprise no one that a young player like Ntilikina would go through ebbs and flows and even struggle to this extent at points early in his career. It’s important, however, that he is able to pull himself out of a slump like this. He needs to believe in himself enough to play himself out of his bad shooting, which is something he hasn’t been able to do so far.

It will also be interesting to see how Fizdale manages a player like Ntilikina. As Mike Vorkunov detailed in his fine story in The Athletic, Ntilikina’s mindset as a European player is different than an American. He is passive because of the way European basketball is taught. He thinks about his role on the court and his objectives differently than American players who matured on the AAU circuit.

If Fizdale reacts to Ntilikina’s struggles by benching him in favor of Emmanuel Mudiay or Trey Burke, it might shatter his confidence even further. As painful as watching his struggles might be, letting him play through them is likely the only way to get him back to where he needs to be. Reducing his minutes and role might only push him further into passivity. Encouragement to continue to play with the appropriate aggression despite the missed shots might be the best path to try to bring the better version of Ntilikina to the floor every night.

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Fizdale seems to have a knack for handling his players and understanding what they need from him to succeed. He has also been very cognizant of player development in his lineup decisions, prioritizing young players over veterans. It might be possible Fizdale sees a better way forward in handling his young guard, and given his track record, he does deserve the benefit of the doubt. It would be surprising, however, if he decided to bury Ntilikina, which would run counter to the emphasis the Knicks organization has put on Craig Robinson and his player development program.

It will be a good early season test for the head coach to manage the first big problem with one of his building blocks. How Ntilikina responds to his struggles is even more important. The good players in the league never let their confidence be shattered the way it looks like Ntilikina’s has. He needs to come out of it, and it needs to happen soon.

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