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

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Schmeelk: It's Unclear If Knicks Have Room For Frank Ntilikina

John Schmeelk
August 22, 2019 - 11:14 am
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With the days in August winding down and NBA training camps starting in September, it’s time to start figuring out what the Knicks are going to do with their brand new roster this upcoming season. 

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While nearly everyone has commented on the number of players on the team capable of playing power forward, there are gluts at nearly every position except for center. 

The Knicks are only returning seven players from last year’s roster, and that’s including two-way player Kadeem Allen. Allen, however, will compete at a position where there are four players competing for playing time: point guard. The Knicks return three players at that spot: Allen, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. They also added Elfrid Payton, a favorite of Scott Perry’s from his time in Orlando. 

Smith — the primary return from a player perspective in the Porzingis trade — will be given the opportunity to compete for the starting spot. Reports after free agency indicated Payton chose the Knicks because of an opportunity to play a prominent role. 

Is there any role left for Frank Ntilikina? Maybe not. Heading into his third year, Ntilikina is going to have to earn his keep and playing time for the Knicks this season. Despite limited opportunities, partly due to injury and partly due to coaching decisions, Ntilikina has not done enough consistently to earn playing time in his first two seasons. 

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With an improved roster, players of a much higher caliber than Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and Jarrett Jack stand between him and playing time. Ntilikina has been one of the worst offensive players in the sport the first two years of his career. His shooting (.354/.305/.735) in his first two seasons has been terrible. He has never attacked the paint or created well enough going to the basket. 

With that said, his defense has been nearly as good as his offense has been poor. Now 6’7 and getting stronger, he should be able to guard positions 1-4, and he has been one of the better isolation and pick-and-roll defenders in the league. He also rotates particularly well and is nearly always in the right spot as a team defender. 

Playing for France in FIBA competition this summer, Ntilikina has shown a more aggressive game and has flashed good passing vision and his typical high-end defense. It hasn’t shown up in the shooting numbers yet, where it must eventually, but it looks like he is a better player. 

It may seem counter-intuitive given how poor he has been as a shooter, but Ntilikina has the potential to be more than an NBA role player. He is not far away from being a good rotation player for nearly any team in the NBA. Versatile defenders are more and more valuable in an NBA that requires a lot of switching. If Ntilikina can bump his three-point shooting to 35%, or even get to the league average of 37%, he’ll play in the NBA as a “glue” guy for years. 

If you combine average shooting (and therefore the ability to spread the floor) with his defense and unselfish play, you get a player that is more valuable to good teams than he would be to bad teams. For a team like the Clippers, for example, having someone that doesn’t need the ball and can switch defensively on the floor with two scorers like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard would be a great fit. 

But Ntilikina is playing for a young, developing team like the Knicks where every piece of playing time is going to have to be earned from David Fizdale. Will Fizdale give Ntilikina a chance to compete at point guard, a position his unselfish nature and passing ability lends his game to? Last season, it seemed like he favored Ntilikina in an off-ball role given his lack of aggression. He constantly favored Mudiay and Burke over Ntilikina and it is hard to imagine he won’t feel the same way about Smith and Payton.

Can Ntilikina find minutes at the wing? The Knicks have a number of players that will be competing for minutes there. Damyean Dotson proved he can shoot and defend last season. Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock were free-agent additions. Alonzo Trier proved he can score at a high level last season. RJ Barrett was the third overall pick in the draft. Both Marcus Morris and Kevin Knox can play small forward. Ignas Brazdeikis showed glimpses in the preseason that he deserves playing time. 

Where is there room for Ntilikina? It is a good representation of a problem David Fizdale will face this year. How does he balance development and trying to win now? It is something Ntilikina can’t worry about. All he needs to worry about is playing well enough in training camp and preseason to earn minutes. If he doesn’t, then the only place he’ll find himself this season is on the bench.