New York Knicks: Adversity encompasses old point-guard debate

Dallas Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Dallas Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

In 2017, the New York Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina over Dennis Smith Jr. in the NBA Draft. Less than two years later, situations have changed for both players.

Seemingly an eternity ago, in Phil Jackson‘s last draft as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, he selected Frank Ntilikina No. 8 overall. It was already a point guard-heavy top 10, with Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox already taken at No. 2 and 5, respectively.

A debate never broke out for Ball and Fox, but for the Knicks pick, it became Ntilikina vs. Dennis Smith Jr., who went ninth to the Dallas Mavericks. Either the player with physical tools or the player that can impact the game now.

Ntilikina struggled to make it off the bench in his first Knicks go-around under former head coach Jeff Hornacek, showing offensively raw skills but intriguing defensive potential. That’s while Smith had 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his first month, although with a .406/.324/.639 shooting line. He even posted a double-double in his NBA debut.

LeBron James, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, thought the Knicks made the wrong choice, per ESPN (h/t the New York Post):

"“He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”"

As the season progressed, Smith continued to fill up the box score, while Ntilikina struggled to cross 10 points per game and take a slower path towards development. The gap widened between the players on paper, but defensive woes and a high volume of shots on a low shooting percentage (14.8 shots vs. 39.5 percent).

Both players were expected to take the typical step forward in their sophomore years, but Ntilikina struggled to maintain a rotation spot and looked lost shooting the ball at times and Smith found his role change Luka Doncic‘s breakout, thus leading to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN’s report:

In Wojnarowski’s extended report, he attributed it to Smith and head coach Rick Carlisle struggling to find “common ground,” whether due to Doncic taking over the ball or questionable decision-making from the North Carolina State product.

There’s also the on-court results of Smith and Doncic together which paint an unpleasant picture:

"While Doncic and Smith have built a good personal relationship, the results haven’t been good with them playing together on the floor. Doncic and Smith average only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 687 minutes this season. Doncic and rookie guard Jalen Brunson average 106.9 in 328 minutes — while Doncic and J.J. Barea were 112.6 in 232 minutes."

Maybe Smith was just a poor fit in Dallas’ current direction and will thrive elsewhere, but it’s still a surprising turn of events from the post-draft circumstances.

That’s not to say Ntilikina has leaped Smith in this point guard debate. The former lost his starting job to another former lottery pick that found difficulties with his first team, Emmanuel Mudiay, and is in no position to regain it anytime soon, barring a midseason trade.

Depending on the New York Knicks’ offseason direction, Ntilikina may need his own change of scenery, too. They can re-sign Mudiay, draft someone like Ja Morant or target Kemba Walker or Eric Bledsoe in free agency.

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Ntilikina and Smith are both age 21 and under, and their NBA careers have hardly started. No definitive assessment exists for either player, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take a rocky trajectory to reach their potential, whatever it may be. So even with one player’s stats that trumps the other, they both have career adversity to conquer. That makes them more similar than ever.