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If the only thing you've seen from Frank Ntilikina this season has been his box score statistics, then you may be forgiven for thinking he's not NBA-ready. So far, he's appeared in nine of his team's 11 games, averaging a tick under 20 minutes per contest. His per-game averages of 4.7 points (on 35.3% FG% and 26.3% 3P%), 5.0 assists and 1.9 rebounds may not inspire confidence. But, if that is all you know about the French rookie, then let me assure you: you need to take a closer look. As the second-youngest player in the NBA, Ntilikina has plenty of areas for development (which we'll get to), but he also has elements of his game where he is already making a positive impact. And, he has several areas where he's shown flashes of potential. We'll start with the positives.
Even given Frank's spectacular length and reputation as a lockdown defender, it's still surprising for rookies to be plus-defenders from the jump. In the Knicks' comeback victory against Indiana, Ntilikina made Darren Collison's life absolutely miserable, to the point where he just wanted to get the ball out of his hands. Take this crunch time play where the French Prince hounded Collison the moment he stepped over half court:
Collison proceeded to stand in the corner the rest of that play, completely removed from the action, which forced a different Pacer to run the offense. The disjointed play ended in Kristaps Porzingis drawing a charge. Deflections don't always result in steals but they do disrupt the flow of an offense and force the opposing player to second-guess their actions. Frank ranks third in the league in deflections per 36 minutes, per NBA.com.
Ntilikina has also been one of the best players in the league at forcing turnovers. When he's been on the court, Frank has recorded 58.3% of his team's total steals, by far the highest mark in the league among the 255 players to play at least 150 minutes so far this season. Among that same group, Frank also ranks first overall in steals per 36 minutes with 2.8. A couple of those steals came from just ripping the ball from noted basketball magician James Harden.
Ntilikina doesn't do all of his damage on the ball, either. He's proven to be a very strong help defender with the ability to anticipate and jump passing lanes. Take this clutch steal that helped seal the aforementioned victory against the Pacers:
You'll notice that the steal above came off a pick-and-roll, where Frank was switched off onto the Pacers' big, Domantas Sabonis. Frank used his instincts and length to get around Sabonis and poke the ball away, despite Sabonis' attempt to seal. Pick-and-roll defense has been a particular bright spot for Ntilikina. Per NBA.com, of the 44 players who have defended as many pick-and-roll ball handlers as Frank Nitty, he ranks third in points allowed per possession with 0.6 ppp. Check out Frank scrambling around multiple screens before forcing Nets wing Caris LeVert into a turnover:
Even those who came into the season with high expectations have to be delighted by how good Ntilikina has looked distributing the ball. Point guard is the position that anecdotally takes the longest to develop. There are so many reads that point guards have to make, and the NBA game is typically too fast for them initially. Frank has shown the ability to make the right pass much sooner than many Knicks fans expected. Of the 26 rookies to play at least 100 minutes, Ntilikina ranks first in assists per 36 minutes with 9.1, ahead of both Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball. That number isn't just good for rookies: it ranks fifth in the entire league. He already has a great sense of timing and angles like on these dishes to Kyle O'Quinn and Michael Beasley, respectively:
Though Ntilikina's passing overall has been a strength, his playmaking out of the pick-and-roll has been more up and down. Frank has finished 27 possessions out of a pick-and-roll (requisite small sample disclaimer), and he's averaging just 0.7 points per possession, good for the 33rd percentile in the league. Though the numbers don't look great, it's very common for rookie point guards to struggle with decision making out of the pick-and-roll. For context, Ben Simmons (0.7 ppp), Lonzo Ball (0.62 ppp) and De'Aaron Fox (0.59 ppp) are all in the bottom third of the league in pick-and-roll efficiency. With that said, Ntilikina has definitely shown the ability to make the right reads, as he does on this pick-and-roll with Beasley:
He's even shown some ability to exploit mismatches, but these have been few and far between, as I'll discuss later. Here's a side pick-and-roll where Frank was able to change direction and score over the top of Sabonis:
Playmaking Out of Drives
Many of Frank's assists have come from making the smart and simple play (which is harder than it sounds). That usually has meant just passing to Porzingis, which is the easiest way to rack up dimes. But, sometimes the point guard's job is to create offense out of nothing. This is an area to watch for Ntilikina as the season progresses. Sometimes on broadcasts, announcers have noted Frank's unwillingness to drive and get into the lane. It's too early to know if there's anything to that. What we do know, per NBA.com, is that Frank has driven the ball 28 times (I should note that the NBA's definition of a "drive" is ambiguous, so take these numbers with a grain of salt). On those 28 drives, he's shooting 4-of-11 with four assists and just one turnover.
No, these are not dynamic numbers, but for Knicks fans who survived Derrick Rose's tenure, those four assists mean a lot. In fact, though Rose has driven the ball more than twice as much as Frank this season, he has just half the drive-assists. Don't get me started on Rose.
Ntilikina has shown the occasional ability to break down the defense and dish to an open man, but he hasn't tried to create offense much for himself. That brings me to my next point.
Areas for Improvement
Saying a 19-year-old rookie point guard has room for improvement is the kind of analysis that keeps you coming back for more, I'm sure. As obvious as it is, here are a couple important areas that Frank will need to develop to reach his very high ceiling.
The concern here has nothing to do with finishing shots at the rim. If Frank just needed to add some craft or polish to his layups, that wouldn't be so worrisome. The issue is that he's been loathe to even attempt shots within the restricted area. Of his 51 total shots this season, only four of those have come within the restricted area, per NBA.com. That is the lowest total of any rookie who has been playing regular minutes so far. His apprehension in getting to the tin has led to a lot of mid-range jump shots and floater-range shots. A whopping 55% of his shots have come from those two areas, where he's shooting a combined 39%.
On this play, he has a good head of steam coming down hill toward Tyler Zeller, but instead he decides to pull-up, hesitate and clank a mid-ranger.
Missing the shot isn't the problem, though. It's the fact that he took it in the first place. I'd prefer to see more aggressive takes from Frank, even if it means forcing the issue a little. It would also likely lead to more free throw attempts and overall increased efficiency.
NBA offenses are often most productive when they get out in transition before the defense has a chance to set up. Having a point guard with the ability to push the pace when appropriate and score in transition goes a long way in contributing to an efficient offense. Ntilikina has only "used" nine possessions in transition so far, per NBA.com (that means Frank finished the play - this doesn't include transition assists). According to the player tracking data, Frank is 0-for-5 on shots in transition with four turnovers. He's been such a disruptive force on defense that he's creating turnovers and fast break situations, but so far he hasn't been cashing in. Here's a particularly egregious example of bad timing on the break, where he's unable to capitalize on a streaking Courtney Lee:
And another example where Frankie Smokes rips Harden (again) but is called for a travel on the break:
In the scheme of things, nine possessions is a drop in the bucket, but Frank's ability to get out and run is definitely something to watch going forward.
Some might look at Frank's rough shooting splits and see some cause for concern, but after watching his clutch shooting against Indiana and observing his stroke in general, he projects to be an above average shooter. It will take time, but three-point shooting shouldn't be a long-term concern until further notice.
Despite all of this "Ntit-picking" (wow), Ntilikina has been a real ray of hope for Knicks nation. When he was drafted, many fans worried he'd be a long-term project, or a triangle-exclusive point guard. But, he's come in and made a major impact right away. No statistic is more telling than this one: the Knicks have been 10.8 points per 100 possessions better when Frank has been on the floor versus when he sits. That is the second greatest disparity on the team behind only the unicorn himself, Porzingis. Expect these two guys to be making the Knicks better for many years to come.