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Frank Ntilikina: A Quiet Defensive Star

Jason Miller-Getty Images

As New York eyes a rebuild, rookie Frank Ntilikina has Knicks fans excited with his defensive prowess

Although the Knicks are a couple weeks into a declared “rebuilding” season, they have proven surprisingly competitive with a 3-3 record and statement wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers and crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets. Thanks in large part to MVP-level play from franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have, for what seems like the first time in decades, legitimate hope for the future. While six games is not a satisfactory sample size to draw conclusions good or bad, it seems the Knicks and head coach Jeff Hornacek have a promising young crew. Built on the mantra of athleticism, defense, and competitiveness, New York finally looks to be on the right track, and their most recent lottery pick embodies all these principles.  

When embattled Knicks’ President Phil Jackson ended up with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, he was presented with two NBA-ready prospects in Malik Monk and Dennis Smith Jr., but instead elected for an unknown quantity in France’s Frank Ntilikina. While Jackson made many questionable decisions during his tenure in New York, drafting was almost certainly his strongest suit. With the help of reclusive scout Clarence Gaines, the Knicks have hit on several international talents including Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez (2016 All-Rookie First Team), bench piece Mindaugas Kuzminskas, and most recently Ntilikina. While Monk and Smith Jr. would have been interesting fits, Ntilikina might address New York’s biggest needs better than either: defense and playmaking.

At just 19 years old, Frank Ntilikina already has three years of professional basketball experience under his belt with French leagues. Although he did not put up gaudy numbers by any means, Ntilikina has shown the necessary skills to play the game well at the highest levels. His career averages in France of 12.7 minutes, 1.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 3.2 points from 2014 to 2017 do not jump off the page, but that is not the type of player Ntilikina is at this point in his career. Currently, he appears to be an ‘intangibles’ player, doing the little things that make a team better.

While marked as a virtual unknown around draft time thanks to his international status and pedestrian numbers, Ntilikina did come into the draft with one reputation: defense. Just as Kristaps Porzingis is gifted on the defensive end because of his 7’3” frame, Ntilikina has the physicality for defense because of his 7’1” wingspan, which is one of the largest (if not the largest) among active guards in the NBA. Already with a sweet jumper, Ntilikina will learn to rise up over smaller guards in time punishing opponents’ defense from the arc.  

Ntilikina has not put up big steal numbers in his young career (0.4 in France, 1.3 in six Knicks games), but he has a knack for getting in the passing lanes and deflecting passes. Even when not actively stealing or deflecting, Frank has shown the ability to pressure opposing guards with his lateral quickness and length. He carried this reputation into the NBA, and he has shown flashes of his capacity to become a defensive stalwart, especially in his home debut against the Brooklyn Nets.  


Although Ntilikina played minor minutes in the Knicks’ first game against Oklahoma City, he did not make an appreciable impact for New York until their first win of the season last week. Matching up with D’Angelo Russell and other Brooklyn guards, Ntilikina had a strong showing with 9 points, 2 steals, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. Again, his stats don’t jump off the page, but he finished with a +10 for the night and his impact clearly trickled down to his fellow Knick defenders.

  

In the game against the Nets, it was clear to see that his on-ball pressure and hands up in the passing lanes disrupted the Brooklyn offense, fresh off a win against the Cavaliers two days earlier in which they scored 112 points. In the highlight video above, you can see three areas in which Frank excels compared to most rookies (and even many veterans): he stays on his feet on closeouts, keeps his hands up to contest and fights over screens well (as MSG broadcaster/Knick legend Walt Frazier would say, “with gusto”). All of these little habits on defense lead to turnovers and makes the opponents’ offenses grind to a halt when they can’t settle into their half-court offensive sets.

Beyond his individual efforts on defense, Ntilikina’s play takes pressure off New York bigs to guard the paint. After suffering through lethargic defenders like Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose, Knicks big men would be bombarded with opponent drives, which almost always resulted in a foul, layup, or kick to an open three-point shooter. In the Knicks’ first three games of the season with Ramon Sessions playing major minutes, they owned a 106.7 defensive rating (22nd in NBA) and an 0-3 record. In their last three games with the two-man PG rotation of Jarrett Jack and Ntilikina, their rating is down to 98.7 (seventh in NBA) and they have three consecutive wins against the Nets, Cavs and Nuggets. 

 

Although the Knicks’ selection of Frank Ntilikina with the ninth overall pick in the last draft was met with apprehension (much like KP’s selection in 2015), he has already shown enough potential to excite the Knicks faithful. Evoking memories of Walt Frazier’s tenacious defense, Ntilikina looks to bring stability and consistency to the point guard position moving forward. The youngster is far from a finished product, but he will polish his rough edges as he gains NBA experience, and as this young Knicks team grows together. In all this hype, it is easy to forget that the kid is still just 19 years old, and that his NBA transition will not be easy. But in his first three games, he has quieted his (and Phil Jackson’s) critics, and has Knicks fans swooning over the potential Ntilikina-Porzingis foundation built on defense and athleticism.

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

SQuiz
What team did Frank Ntilikina play with during his French professional career?
Created 10/31/17
  1. Antibes Sharks
  2. Limoges CSP
  3. SIG Strasbourg
  4. Elan Chalon

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