New York Knicks: Is Frank Ntilikina better suited as reserve?

Frank Ntilikina struggled as a starter, and he still hasn’t found offense off the bench for the New York Knicks. But, is he better suited as a reserve?

No one will mistake Frank Ntilikina for his offensive wizardry. Maybe it will develop as 2018-19 continues and into his third season with the New York Knicks, but it’s not the focus of the sophomore’s game.

Just three weeks ago, it seemed Ntilikina took a step forward. He knocked down 41.4 percent of his three-point shots and had back-to-back games of double-digit points in seven games.

It led to 9.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game on 40 percent shooting.

Since then? Ntilikina has three scoreless games, averaging 4.4 points, 1.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 28.6 percent shooting. It’s across 10 appearances, and a slump that once seemed like an anomaly has carried on since Halloween. It also led to a reserve role since Nov. 14.

Offense has remained absent for Ntilikina in his first bench duty of the season, with 4-for-13 shooting, 0-for-5 on three-pointers and eight points in a combined three games and 56 minutes.

It’s a concern, but the Frenchman has leaned into the comfort part of his game to compensate: defense.

Since Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson went to the bench for Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox, the Knicks have allowed 129.3 points per game. It’s the most any NBA team has allowed in the past three games, with the Chicago Bulls at 118.7 points next.

Why is it so poor? Mudiay and Tim Hardaway Jr. each have a defensive rating over 130. Allonzo Trier’s is 128.2 since entering the lineup.

It’s not just them; the Knicks have struggled on defense as a unit — almost. The exception is Ntilikina.

While his offense has been nonexistent as a reserve, the 20-year-old’s defensive rating is 104.7 overall, per NBA Advanced Stats. When off the court, New York’s is 132.8 in this three-game stretch, and the team’s overall number is 123.6 — worst in the NBA.

As Posting and Toasting noted, Ntilikina’s defensive work was on display when the Knicks were pounded by another offensive attack from the Orlando Magic to open the game. He contributed towards just 14 points allowed in eight minutes, compared to 39 in the first nine.

No one will question what Ntilikina and his 7-foot-1 wingspan can do defensively. It’s there each game for head coach David Fizdale.

If that’s where Ntilikina is comfortable, and off the ball as Fizdale has utilized him, might this reserve role be his long-term future?

It’s a low-pressure situation for the former lottery pick, who acts as a versatile piece away from point guard, locks down one of the opposition’s best offensive players and uses his offense when necessary. Knicks fans may not accept this as his end-game, but if he wants to play pass-first, the team could eventually give in.

It may just be this incarnation of the Knicks, but they also need an offensive generator at point guard, which Mudiay and even Trey Burke provide more of than Ntilikina.

Of course, Ntilikina is the equivalent of a junior in college, so there’s ample time left in his development. He can develop offense in two years and still be 22-years-old, which is still ridiculously young for the NBA.

Plus, at just 17 games into Ntilikina’s second season playing North American basketball, it’s a transition, potentially making these concerns on “Will he or won’t he? come through shooting the basketball moot, rather than definitive, for now.

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So far, Ntilikina looks comfortable off the bench. That may be his future in the NBA, but he’s young, and this is just through three games. It’s a process with maybe the New York Knicks’ most physically-gifted player, and the final product remains difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint.

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