New York Knicks: Can Frank Ntilikina regain confidence with simplicity?

New York Knicks Frank Ntilikina (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
New York Knicks Frank Ntilikina (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Frank Ntilikina has struggled mightily shooting the ball for the New York Knicks.

From the 2017 NBA Draft, Frank Ntilikina joined the New York Knicks with offensive questions. He was this raw, physically-intriguing prospect with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and 6-foot-5 (now 6-foot-6) heght.

Shooting was supposed to develop for Ntilikina with time. In New York, of course, there’s little time usually given for players to grow, especially incrimently. So, the fact the Frenchman has not taken a step forward from his rookie to sophomore year has raised a few eyebrows.

There were glimpses of improvement in October, when Ntilikina had back-to-back games of double-digit points: 17 on 6-for-11 shooting and 16 on 5-for-13 shooting. He made baskets from deep, too, with three in each game and displayed this newfound confidence.

However, that 16-point night happened exactly one month ago, and Ntilikina has just one double-digit point game since.

Ntilikina’s game log tells the story, with five scoreless outings in his last 13 games. The most recent were in back-to-back appearances against the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers. He shot a combined 0-for-8 and had two assists in 29 minutes. No rebounds, either.

Maybe it’s Ntilikina’s confidence. Maybe he’s just not the shooter everyone expected him to be in Year Two. Maybe he won’t ever develop into one and stick as a top-end defender.

Problems stem from Ntilikina’s altered shot selection. Sure, his rookie season didn’t stand out, with a 36.4 shooting percent and 31.8 percent on three-pointers, but he never went back-to-back games without a point in at least 12 minutes. Plus, his numbers in 2017-18’s final month were at least intriguing: 40 percent shooting on 8.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

So, what can Ntilikina do to start finding successful baskets and at least tease what he showed last season?

As the NBA has trended towards the three-point line, so has Ntilikina. The problem, though: he’s 6-for-39 on three-pointers in November. That’s just 15.3 percent.

45.9 percent of his shots come from behind the arc — a spike from 31.4 percent in 2017-18. That’s tied with Tim Hardaway Jr., maybe New York’s best shooter, for the team lead; it doesn’t factor Ron Baker or Luke Kornet, given their lack of respective playing time.

Maybe head coach David Fizdale gave Ntilikina the green light to shoot from distance, to become a more aggressive offensive player. If so, it’s not working, even as the Knicks try to spread the floor.

The other unusual stat: Just 12.2 percent of his shot attempts are from zero-to-three feet, making 56.9 percent of them — good for ninth of thirteen players. Basically, that’s a layup. Only Lance Thomas, who’s out with an injury, has a lower percentage at 9.8.

Ntilikina didn’t take many close shots in 2017-18, either, at 17.4 percent. Kristaps Porzingis, Trey Burke and Courtney Lee all had lower marks, but each player can shoot at a high level from behind the arc, so it’s not as notable.

With that, not only is Ntilikina tied for the highest percentage of shots from zero-to-three feet, but he leads the team in shots from 10-to-16 feet. He makes 53.6 percent of them, which isn’t bad at all, but those have become the most inefficient shots since they don’t capitalize on the three-point revolution and the high percentage of attempts around the rim.

Is the solution just taking more closer shots? It’s like playing pick-up basketball, when someone has an airball in shootaround and follows with a layup. This maintains confidence so the next shot, hopefully, doesn’t miss everything, again.

Hypothetically, Ntilikina trying more layups makes sense. However, he just hasn’t shown the athleticism to make cuts without the ball and driving to the hoop with the ball. So, it keeps him away from the rim and forces longer shots. Ball-handling isn’t a strongsuit, either, which limits his penetration ability.

It’s in a tricky spot for Ntilikina. Fizdale hasn’t played him at point guard, even in a reserve role, since his last game as a starter. Instead, the former No. 8 overall pick has taken the backup shooting-guard role, which he’s also not at this stage of his career. Not until he develops consistency.

Maybe it all arrives with developed aggressiveness, a teachable trait to tap into someone’s personality. Thus, increasing his confidence. It’s easy to forget he’s 20-years-old and hardly a finished product, too, so that’s not the only aspect that will come around.

It’s a waiting game, though, and no positive steps in Ntilikina’s offense will cause impatience with a fan base that wants hopeful looks into the future, like what Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier have done.

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There’s plenty of time in 2018-19. The New York Knicks are just 23 of 82 games in. It’s just Ntilikina’s second season of basketball in North America, as well. He can turn it around with experience, increased confidence and a realization of what he must do to improve, but it won’t happen overnight.