For Frank Ntilikina, could less be more?


Look, I get it.

I get it.

We all expected this to be simpler.

They hired a developmental coach. The kid lived in the gym all summer and went from Bonds 2000 to Bonds 2001 in weight. They gave him – finally – the starting point guard job. All of the pieces were in place. The only thing left to do was roll out the ball, let him take his lumps, and watch his game grow like a Chia Pet. Like water, if you just added playing time, Frank Ntilikina’s game would grow like magic.

So much for that. Ntilikina is in a bad, bad place right now, and it seems to be getting the better of him.

Right now, things ain’t pretty for our beloved French son. Other than a nice home effort against the Hawks, he’s looked mostly out of sorts on offense the last seven games, culminating in last night’s six-minute, zero-point, two-turnover performance against the Magic. Most disconcerting, a player who was billed as a future plus-shooter coming into the draft is three for his last 23 from downtown.

The problem appears to be above the ears, and it seems like his coach knows it. Pulling a player after half a quarter is a reaction to one of two things: lack of effort – which has never been a problem with Frank; or the need to save a player who is doing more harm to himself than good by being on the floor.

When asked about the benching after the game, Fiz would only say it was because he wanted to see a different look and that Trey Burke’s scoring was more what they needed. He’s not stupid. If you’re benching a player because he’s too in-his-own-head to be successful, it does no good to hear your coach say it aloud to the masses.

Is overthinking actually what’s happening though? Mike Vorkunov’s excellent recent profile is telling on that front. In his various quotes from the article, Ntilikina used the words “think” or “thinking” a dozen times, including this one:

“I think about it a lot of times. I talk about it a lot of times with some of my friends and some basketball players. Because basketball goes way further than just what you’re seeing on the court. It’s a whole thing mentally. It’s a whole thing technically and tactically. That’s the beauty of the sport.”

There’s a phrase in sports about letting the game come to you. Frank appears to be doing the opposite.

Later on in last night’s press conference, Fizdale gave an extended reminder that the starting lineup is a fluid being, that he’s going to be changing it all year long, and that it has nothing to do with any individual player or players, but rather the overall fit. It seemed to be a precursor to an impending move – softening the blow, if you will.

If Frank does indeed get pulled from the starting lineup, is it the right move?

Those inside the locker room know best, but we often learn that forcing time on a player who just isn’t right can begin to have diminishing returns. Is that the case here?

Before we answer, a quick aside: In my math class, we started off the year teaching linear functions, where for every value of x, there is a certain value for y. When you plot one of these functions out on a graph, it’s a straight line. Give any x value, and you can see where the corresponding y value will end up. Works the same, every time.

It’s tempting to think developing a young player works the same way. “If you play him 20 minutes, he’ll grow at this rate, but if you play him 30 minutes, watch out…”

Sadly, development doesn’t work like that. Did you know there are sixteen definitions for the word “develop” in the dictionary? That’s because it’s complicated, and there’s no one way to properly do it. If there was, every coach of every young player in every sport would employ it. As it is, most young point guards get thrown into the fire and learn on the fly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it fails, is that because the method was wrong, or was it because the player never had what it took to begin with?

It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s not like a less linear approach hasn’t worked before.

Last season, the San Antonio Spurs  – arguably the most soundly functioning organization in professional sports over the last two decades – began the season with Dejounte Murray as their starting point guard. Like Ntilikina, Murray was a naturally gifted defender still trying to learn the nuances of the offensive game. Also like Frank, he was entering his second year, and though just 21 years old, seemed to be ready for the opportunity.

He wasn’t. Pop moved him back to the bench after just seven games, where he mostly remained until January, at which point he regained the starting job. Over his three-month stint as a reserve, Murray played under 10 minutes 10 times, including one stretch in December where he saw just nine minutes and change over three games.

Over that time, something seemingly clicked. After Murray took Tony Parker’s place for good, he shot 47% for the rest of the season, up from 41% prior. Coming into this year, before a torn ACL derailed his season before it began, there was no buzz-ier player in the NBA than Murray.

Another example Fizdale knows very well and who Frank has also been compared to is Mike Conley, who himself was relegated to the bench for a 20-game stretch during his sophomore campaign. There are more examples scattered throughout NBA history.

Is there a guarantee that a period of time with a lessened load will be the cure-all for Ntilikina? Of course not. But for fans to take the approach that less playing time or a removal from the temporary starting lineup would unquestionably be the wrong decision and that such a move would only further damage an already fragile confidence level is shortsighted. Nothing hurts one’s confidence more than repeatedly trying and failing, which is exactly what’s been happening. Sometimes less can indeed be more.

One more quick story: as some of you know, before becoming a teacher and blogger, I was a lawyer. As Editor-in-Chief of Fordham’s Mock Trial team, I thought I was hot shit, and when I got to my firm, I insisted I should immediately be put on trial work. They obliged.

What followed was not great. I experienced loss…after loss…after loss. I lost a pedestrian knockdown case where my client was a nine-year-old kid…in the Bronx, where juries give out verdicts like candy on Halloween. Through it all, my firm kept sending me out there. Never once did a partner step in and suggest that I second seat a trial, just to get the feel of the real thing without all the pressure.

After just over three years, I’d had enough. I was so frustrated with the profession that I quit. There were many other reasons, for sure, but my lack of success at the one thing I thought I was good at played a huge part. Seemingly, things worked out for the best, but there’s a part of me that will always wonder “what if?”

There are no perfect approaches to building a point guard on the fly. It is often trial and error1. If nothing else, Frank’s mental makeup and work ethic would seem to indicate that he will find his way out of the darkness, regardless of what happens from here on in. It just might be a little harder than he – and we – imagined.

And that is totally fine.