Frank Ntilikina has forced Knicks fans to examine the very idea of a point guard. Maybe we’re thinking too much into it. Jonathan Macri explains.
Ask any basketball fan who came of age during the early to mid-90’s what their earliest image of a point guard was, and the answer should be John Stockton.
It has to be. When you’re a kid just learning about sports, the back of a trading card is your holy grail. Your mind isn’t that well-developed, so when you turned the card around and saw certain numbers in bold, you took notice.
Besides MJ, no one had more bold numbers on the back of their card than Stockton. Not only did he lead the league in assists nine consecutive years (including seven of the top nine seasons in history), but he finished first in steals twice and played the maximum 82 games 16 times. For a few years after Magic and Isiah and before Kidd and the Glove, he was the Point God.
Maybe it’s just my outdated sensibilities, but somewhere deep within the recesses of my brain, when I think of a point guard, I still think of the little white guy in the little white shorts.
On one hand, that notion is silly. Stockton was more athletic than people give him credit for, but he couldn’t hold a candle to what we see today. Forget style or pace of play; the game we’re witnessing is qualitatively different from what we saw twenty or even ten years ago. Three is more than two, and most of the NBA1 seems to have caught on to the basic math2. The game is now played from the inside out, not the other way around, and the best way to assure yourself open looks from distance is by getting the defense to collapse towards the basket, and the best way to do that is by having a guard who can get to the rim at will.
Think back to last season…how many times did we see someone wearing orange and blue sprint from the paint back out towards their man in one of the corners as a guard kicked it out, usually after driving the lane unencumbered? More than we’d like to remember, sadly. Often, the defender didn’t get there in time, and yet another player had availed himself to the most efficient shot in basketball – the short corner three – at the Knicks’ expense. Of course, the alternative isn’t great either: don’t send help, and let the man driving the lane have a relatively easy layup. This is the impossible choice NBA defenses face on a nightly basis.
Back to Stockton. Once upon a time, the things he did better than anyone – find the open man, own the pick and roll, make shots and defend the point of attack – were all that was expected of a point guard. Now, if you’re a lead ball handler who can’t shake the man that’s guarding you and own the paint, the general consensus is that you’re not doing your job. For many fans, Russell Westbrook – the antithesis of Stockton – is the new ideal for what a point guard should be.
If there’s any question about this, just follow the money. Four of the eight highest NBA salaries next year will go to players who finished in the top 15 in drives per game in either of the last two seasons. Two others – Steph Curry and Chris Paul – are guards who’ve proven over the years that they can get to the rim when they need to, and they consistently use their opponents’ fear against them to open up other parts of their games. It drives home the popular notion that if a team doesn’t have one of these lightning bolts, it makes it nearly impossible to put together an offense capable of contending for a title.
This all brings us to the young Knicks Frenchman, eleven in our programs but first in our hearts, Frank Ntilikina. If you put all of the comments on Knicks Twitter into a pie chart, those discussing Frank would represent the daddy-sized piece. He dominates the conversation. Is he or isn’t he a point guard? Does it even matter? Should he get more time on the ball than Trey Burke? Is the team jeopardizing his (and its) long term ceiling by playing him off ball? Does the team need to sign a big-time lead guard at some point? Does Frank realize how much trouble his boyish good looks will get him into in this city3?
Every one of these questions essentially boils down to one basic unknown: are there things Frank can’t do that the Knicks need him to if he’s going to run the offense moving forward?
The organization seems to be asking itself this now, and they hope this season will give them the answer. Following the loss to Brooklyn last week, David Fizdale said that Frank “is going to fill out his role as we play more games. And I’m going to let him tell me what that is.” Translation: everything is still up in the air, but the ball is in Frank’s court.
If this were twenty years ago, it wouldn’t even be a question because Frank would have all the boxes checked. The defense, well…the defense needs little discussion:
It wouldn’t be Knicks season without a Frank defense video:
A lot has been made about who Ntilikina matches up against on defense. What is often overlooked is his match-up with the screener, and how he wins that battle.
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 19, 2018
Ditto for the passing, which, for a 20-year-old, is damn near elite:
No look Frank pic.twitter.com/RJcpXHh12P
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 18, 2018
The shooting isn’t there yet, but everyone seems to agree this will come in time. The same goes for his aptitude on the pick and roll. Last season, Ntilikina’s 259 possessions as the P&R ball handler produced an average of 0.67 points. That’s not good, but was right in line with most of his contemporaries4.
More than the numbers, the eye test tells you everything you need to know about Ntilikina’s aptitude with the ball in his hands and a screener who know what the hell he’s doing:
Frank find the little pocket for Kanter pic.twitter.com/w5cLXTyvSo
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 20, 2018
For an in depth view of just how good Ntilikina is on the pick and roll, check out this super detailed film study by our own @FrontOfficeEye. He’s way more advanced than any 20-year-old has a right to be.
And yet, despite all of this, there are questions, largely because so many guys in the league today can just pull this out of their hat when need be:
— NBA (@NBA) October 13, 2018
That’s Dennis Smith Jr., the man some Knick fans will compare Frank to until the day one of them hangs it up. He finished last year 13th in drives per game, and this season sits at 11th, with 14.5 paint forays per contest. Frank, meanwhile, had 4.5 drives per game during his rookie year. Just five years ago – the first year the NBA began keeping track of this data – that would have ranked inside the top 100 league-wide. Last season, it was tied for 144th.
The lack of athleticism needed to attack the basket with abandon was the major knock on Frank throughout the pre-draft process. Have we seen instances of him using deceptive quickness to make his way to the basket? Of course, because he’s smart and crafty, especially for someone his age:
Nice counter by the Knicks here
Initial action a double screen for Burke with Frank setting a pindown for THJ (as @frontofficeeye has broken down for us)
Burke drives instead and passes to Frank on nice cut pic.twitter.com/I5hmdTW08B
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 23, 2018
Still, it would be foolish to expect regular rim runs to become a huge part of his game. It will be one of many tools Ntilikina keeps in the garage, but it’s not the oversized hammer others have at their disposal.
Does it make a difference though? The short answer: it depends.
If we go on the premise that an NBA contender needs to have a top-ten offense5, a look back at the top ten offenses from the last few years provide us with some clues.
Over the last five years, according to NBA.com/Stats, 44 of the 50 teams that ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating also had someone on the roster that ranked in the top 30 in drives per game, each totaling at least 10 drives per contest6. The exceptions? Golden State – the greatest shooting team of all time – in each of the last four seasons, and the Denver Nuggets – who might have the most talented passing big man in history by the time all is said and done – in each of the last two.
So yeah, if you want to have an elite offense and you aren’t banking on being a monumental historical outlier, it’s somewhat necessary to have a guy who can get to the rim.
Does that mean Frank is out of luck? Not necessarily, because as much as the data is clear, there are a couple of caveats.
First and foremost, the penetrator on your team doesn’t need to be the point guard, or even the primary ball handler. Of the top offenses over the last five seasons, a few were led in drives by players who played other positions: DaMar DeRozan, Andrew Wiggins, Tyreke Evans, Dwyane Wade and James Harden (pre-2017). There’s no reason someone else on the Knicks can’t pick up the slack7.
Second, we’ve seen nontraditional point guards figure out ways to penetrate the defense on a regular basis before. Prime Tony Parker routinely found himself among the leaders in this category, and while he’s one of the NBA’s all-time great maestros with the ball, he was anything but speedy. Frank’s handle has already come a long way; it’s possible he has another level to get to.
One comp for Frank that hasn’t been talked about much8 is Chauncey Billups. No, the Warriorsation of the league hadn’t yet happened when he was in his prime, but Billups’ Denver offenses ranked seventh and third in the NBA, while his last three Detroit teams ranked seventh, sixth and fourth. If there’s an analog for the effect on an offense that Frank could have, it might be Mr. Big Shot. He didn’t enter the NBA until he was 21, and didn’t come into his own as a point guard until five years after that. As with many young ball handlers, this stuff takes time.
Of course, all the comparisons and analysis in the world can’t provide us with as much information as we’d get if the Knicks just put the ball in Frank’s hands and forced him to run the offense for 25 minutes a night.
Yes, forced. Much has been written about what the Knicks are and aren’t “letting” or “allowing” Ntilikina do when he’s on the floor, but anyone who’s watched the games knows that’s not accurate. There are plenty of possessions where Frank will touch the ball with the opportunity to make something happen, then survey the situation, and finally toss it back from whence it came.
Is that evidence of a passive player? Of someone lacking confidence? Of a player who has unselfishness hardwired into their brain to the detriment of his team? Or is it a 20-year-old learning how to play the toughest position on the court in the hardest league in the world against perhaps the greatest crop of point guards to ever grace the NBA at one time?9
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, what seems foolish is the idea of force-feeding a player who seems to possess a head for the game and knows when he should and shouldn’t push the issue. The numbers aren’t yet there to back it up, but when Ntilikina is running the show, things just seem to be under control. To the extent that any offense with so few reliable options can have a flow to it, when Frank has the ball in his hands, it sure seems to. This, and his seemingly unwavering confidence, might just be his best qualities moving forward.