Schmeelk: Numbers Show Ntilikina Having Biggest Impact On Knicks

John Schmeelk
November 21, 2019 - 12:25 pm

The narrative on Frank Ntilikina has officially flipped. 

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After the Knicks lost to the 76ers on Wednesday night, I found my replies on Twitter littered with fans complaining that coach David Fizdale took Ntilikina out of the game and left him on the bench for a measly 4:47 at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter. Just last year, the same space would have been filled with tweets that he was a draft bust and didn’t deserve 10 minutes of floor time, let alone 32. 

Why? The Knicks were outscored by 14 points during that stretch without Ntilikina, and their 79-66 lead turned into an 83-82 deficit. He finished one point off his career high of 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, 2-of-4 from behind the arc, and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line. In a game the Knicks lost by five, they outscored the Sixers by two when Ntilikina was on the floor. 

It’s been a pattern since Ntilikina was made the Knicks’ starting point guard Nov. 1. Since then, the Knicks have outscored teams by a half-point per 100 possessions when Ntilikina has been in the game. It might seem like a pedestrian number, but when you consider the team has been outscored by 6.5 points per game overall in those 10 contests, it looks more impressive. No other Knick has a better number. 

When the 21-year-old has been off the floor, the Knicks have been outscored by 17.4 points per 100 possessions. No other player who has played more than 15 minutes over that stretch of games can claim anywhere near that big of a difference between their on- and off-court net rating differential. The numbers say no one has been more important to overall team performance than Ntilikina. 

It should surprise no one that the Knicks defend better with Ntilikina on the floor, allowing 6.6 fewer points per possession when he is on the floor versus on the bench in his 10 starts. The difference this season is that the Knicks are also performing better offensively when Ntilikina is their point guard. They score 12.2 more points per possession when he is on the floor than when he is on the bench in his 10 starts.

The difference in those offensive numbers can be partially attributed to the fact that the Knicks had no backup point guard for a number of games this season. The time he was off the floor is a really small sample size with poorly constructed lineups. 

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina dribbles against the 76ers on Nov. 20, 2019, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Images

In Ntilikina’s starts, he is shooting 44.6% from the field, 40% from behind the arc and 71.4% from the free-throw line. All those numbers except for his free-throw shooting would be career highs by more than 8%. His effective field goal percentage (52.3%) and true shooting percentage (54.8%) would both be improvements of more than 10% over his past career bests. 

Ntilikina’s impact goes beyond the numbers. When playing with players who want the ball such as Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, someone like Ntilikina, who is willing to move the ball, is necessary. The Knicks assist on 4% more of their baskets when he is on the floor as opposed to on the bench. Their turnover percentage also drops by 2%. He’s averaging 3.7 assists to only 1.2 turnovers since being inserted into the starting lineup. 

Defensively, Ntilikina’s size allows the Knicks to switch more freely with his ability to guard up to the power forward position. His defensive rotations are nearly always correct, and his hands find the basketball all the time. He’s averaging just under two steals and a block per game since becoming a starter. 

Ntilikina still isn’t taking nearly enough shots (6.5 field goal attempts per game) or 3s (2.5 per game). He isn’t nearly aggressive enough using pick-and-rolls to get to the basket to create shots for himself or his teammates. He doesn’t use his size well enough once he gets in the paint to finish through smaller players or draw fouls. As defenses start paying more attention to him, Ntilikina will have to continue to improve offensively to sustain his shooting. 

His most important area for improvement is his willingness to take charge of the offense. The Knicks’ offense has a bad tendency to deteriorate into isolation basketball with a lack of ball movement. Ntilikina, much like at the end of the Sixers game Wednesday, will too often dribble the ball up the court and hand it off to Morris or Randle, who go one-on-one. 

Ntilikina is an effective pick-and-roll passer, and with his improved shot, he should initiate more pick-and-roll offense that gets the ball and players moving for the Knicks offense. At 6-foot-5, he can see over smaller defenders to spot open teammates and make passes over the top. The offense looks much better when he initiates these sets instead of the ball being in the hands of Morris and Randle beyond the 3-point line. 

It took the Knicks more than two seasons and for every other point guard on the roster to get injured for Ntilikina to finally get a chance to start and get consistent minutes. Fizdale found Ntilikina the same way Columbus found North America while he was looking for East Asia. It might have been a mistake but it is one that could have consequential results. 

It remains to be seen if Ntilikina will become a player whom an offense can run through and score enough points to win games. What he has proven is that he is an NBA-caliber player who will help his team win games. It could be as a versatile wing that is a secondary or tertiary ballhandler. It could be as a 3-and-D wing player. Or he might still find his way as a full-time point guard. 

We don’t know, but at least everyone is going to be given a chance to see for themselves. Ntilikina has been freed and is starting to show he might have been worth the eighth pick in the 2017 draft after all. 

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can also check out “The Bank Shot,” his Knicks podcast, on most popular podcast platforms. On the most recent episode, John reacts to the loss to the 76ers on Wednesday night.