How the Knicks can maximize Frank Ntilikina’s potential

Despite the controversy that inevitably arises from the mere mention of his name, the New York Knicks should continue to let Frank Ntilikina grow.


The New York Knicks have a lot of roster decisions to make going into the 2020-21 season. Aside from the group of veterans on short-term contracts, the team will have to figure out who among their young players will be a part of the future.

It’s been frustrating for fans to see a lot of the kids riding the bench and fighting for minutes with veterans who, for the most part, won’t even be with the team next season. The lack of significant minutes has only made it harder to properly evaluate the prospects.

Much of the fanbase is divided on which players the team should continue to develop. No one seems to be more divisive than Frank Ntilikina.

After being selected eighth overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ntilkina has not lived up to expectations. To this point in his career, Ntilikina can loosely be defined as a “project player.”

He’s inconsistent but will show flashes of strong play.

Ntilikina Is Not The Knicks’ Point Guard of The Future

It’s difficult to imagine the Knicks giving Ntilikina the keys to the offense. Many people expect New York to target a point guard in the upcoming draft, and it’s hard to see Ntilikina claiming the starting spot after he couldn’t beat out journeyman Elfrid Payton this season.

This isn’t to say Ntilikina can’t play point guard.

However, the vast majority of starting point guards in the NBA have high usage rates and are typically tasked with running an offense. The rare exceptions are generally due to the presence of superstar playmaking wings like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

I don’t believe Ntilikina can be an All-Star point guard, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Ntilikina’s Versatility

He can, however, be the role player that creates multiple mismatches for an opponent. Ntilinka’s height was measured at 6’6 with a 7’1″ wingspan last summer at the FIBA World Cup. His long and lanky frame allows him to be a bothersome matchup on defense for both guards and wings.

In their last matchup with the Knicks, Utah Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell said of Ntilikina:

“He’s a great defender. He was one of the hardest guys I had to go against last year… It’s Great the Knicks continue to give him multiple shots because he deserves it.”

His defense has been his most well-documented attribute. He has untapped potential on offense as well.

Again, Ntilikina may not have Luka Doncic’s vision, but he’s more than capable of running a pick and roll and making the right reads. Having Ntilikina’s playmaking either as the point guard off the bench or as a secondary ball-handler at the 2 could be a valuable asset.

Having lineups with multiple combo guards and playmakers has become a staple of many modern small-ball lineups. An example of this would be the Oklahoma City Thunder playing Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder over 31 minutes per game—each.

Having multiple players who can drive and kick puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. It’s also a big plus if they can shoot the 3, something I see Ntilikina easily being able to improve upon.

While Ntilikina’s shooting has been erratic, there are indicators that he will be able to improve. His form is smooth and has no alarming issues. He is currently shooting a career-high 86 percent from the free-throw line.

If the Knicks can roster a team that can move the ball more efficiently and space the floor, it will lead to more in-rhythm shot opportunities. Ntilikina has shown that he can hit the open 3 when given the chance.

Since the All-Star break, he has shot catch-and-shoot 3s at 44 percent.

Giving Up On Ntilikina Would Be A Classic Impatient Knicks Move

Let’s frame it like this: If Frank Ntilikina was a second-round pick, would people be calling him a bust? Or would they be clamoring for the team to believe in his potential?

A lot of the criticism of Ntilikina comes from him being a lottery pick. When you get drafted that high, you’re put under a microscope. You will be compared to the players who excelled in just their rookie season, like Donovan Mitchell.

What about teams who have successfully developed players? What do they do when their lottery pick isn’t a star player?

They continue to develop them. One example is the Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart, who was drafted sixth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Did Smart live up to being the 6th overall pick? No, but he has developed into a key player for the team.

He’s never had a season playing less than 27 minutes per game, and his coaches allow him to play to his strengths.

Another good example is former Miami Heat and current Memphis Grizzlies player Justise Winslow. Winslow was drafted 10th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, but took a couple of years to find his groove. Winslow shared a lot of the same traits as Ntilikina.

He was promising as a defender and creator, but shot just 40 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3 in his first two seasons. Now, Winslow has turned into a versatile all-around weapon.

Those are two franchises that know how to develop their draft picks. Maybe the Knicks should start looking at how the successful teams handle their youth and ask themselves why they haven’t extended one of their draft picks since Charlie Ward in 1998.

Like any young player, Frank Ntilikina has a wide range of potential outcomes. One of those outcomes is developing into a 3-and-D combo guard who can create offense for others and defend multiple positions.

It’s up to the New York Knicks to help him get there.

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