Unlocking the Frank Ntilikina mystery

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One of the most common tools teachers use when they’re too lazy to think of something better to support student learning is a KWL chart. It’s not a terribly complicated tool:

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Generally, you start out a class by having kids fill in what they “know”, followed by what they want to know, or “wonder”. The goal is that by the end of the period, they can put some stuff on the right side of the page – in the column for what they “learned” throughout the lesson. Ideally, all three parts of the chart get more or less equally filled.

Before the season, the KWL chart on Frank Ntilikina looked something like this:

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We’re now 23 games into the 2018-19 season, and the KWL chart on Frank Ntilikina is barely legible.

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Instead of added clarity, we’ve gotten more confusion. The questions now surrounding Frank not only center around what (he is), but how (the coaching staff is using him), why (he can’t hit a shot), when (they’re going to try him at point guard again), who (he should be playing with) and where (he’ll be after the February trade deadline).

Regarding that last one, if you hopped on Twitter Friday morning, you’d think that every team in the league is interested in trying to swipe him from the Knicks’ grasp. This is in part because, as Marc Berman’s Friday NY Post article noted, “Fizdale and team brass are agonizing over whether he’s a point guard or wing.” Teams are thinking confusion for the Knicks equals opportunity for them.

The shame of it is that if Ntilikina didn’t exist, the narrative surrounding this season would be almost entirely positive. There would be no point guard controversy – for all their faults, the Mudiay/Burke combo would be viewed as found money. The minutes crunch that saw Damyean Dotson get four consecutive DNP-CD’s would be eliminated. With the exception of Kevin Knox, who’s likely still inhibited by his early-season ankle injury, the young players on the team have blown away expectations.

Most significantly, the Knicks have generally been far more competitive than anyone expected, and seem to be getting better. They sport a minus 2.2 net rating over their last six games (which includes Wednesday’s Philly disaster that came on the second night of a road back to back), good for 17th in the NBA over that span, one spot below the Warriors. It’s bad, but not awful.

But this Ntilikina thing…it’s the turd in the punch bowl, and the worst part is that no one’s happy1. The Frankie Truthers are convinced David Fizdale is slowly ruining him, playing him out of position and not putting him in spots where he can be successful. The Frankie Haters are more convinced than ever that the Knicks wasted a draft pick. The cops broke up the party and no one’s getting lucky.

So let’s try to sort through some of this, shall we?

For starters, a simple truth that hasn’t been mentioned enough: If Ntilikina was putting up four or five deep balls a game and converting them at an above-average clip, much if not all of this handwringing would go by the wayside. Point guard or no point guard, it would be proof enough that he’s going to be a useful offensive player. Combined with his defense, that alone would be enough to to justify his spot as part of the team’s core, if not his draft position.

That, of course, isn’t the case. Ntilikina is currently hitting 25.7% of his three 3-point attempts per game. It’s truly been a tale of two seasons: over the first seven games, Frank was hitting 41.4% on over four looks per contest. Since then, he’s gone 6-for-41 – a cool 14.6%, which sure makes it seem like there’s something to the murmuring that his shoulder is bothering him. That’s not just falling off a cliff; it’s finding a fissure and going straight through to Beijing.

Speaking of China, the other added complication no one saw coming is in the form of a young man who played there as a teenager, Emmanuel Mudiay.

I wrote about Mudiay 10 days ago, coming down on the side that, while his development was a worthy pursuit, it shouldn’t come at the expense of Frank, mostly due to Manny’s defense (he had an abysmal 116.6 defensive rating at the time) and lack of any elite skill.

Naturally, Mud has a 103.3 defensive rating since then, best among the ten Knicks who’ve appeared in all six games. He’s also continued to get a lot of looks around the rim – 40% of his shot attempts overall, which is in the 84th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass, and he’s hitting them at a respectable 57% clip. The scoring gap in terms of overall efficiency when Mudiay is on the court vs. Ntilikina is a widening chasm.

To some, all of this is evidence that Frank, as the troll dolls put it, is trash. To others, it’s Exhibit A in the argument that David Fizdale isn’t doing nearly enough to bring him along. Regardless of which side you’re on, one thing there’s no denying is that Frank has become less involved in the offense as the year has gone on.

Over the season’s first five games, when Ntilikina was the starting small forward, he was averaging 48.8 touches per game, netting 3.65 seconds and 2.96 dribbles per touch. When he took the starting point guard reigns, those numbers increased to 54.5 touches, 4.35 seconds, and 3.67 dribbles2. Back on the bench primarily as a wing, the next five games saw the numbers go down to 27 touches, 3.2 seconds, and 2.35 dribbles. Finally, in the last four, they’ve cratered to 17.3 touches, 3.21 seconds, and 1.91 dribbles3.

So let’s add “decreased role” to our “know” column. What I’m “wondering” is why that is.

There are some who feel that the team, or at the very least the coaching staff, has already given up on him – not only as a point guard, but as a player. This is a great talking (head) point, but not one that stands up to logic. Even if the coaching staff had already decided Frank was terrible – and Fiz doesn’t seem capable of thinking any player is beyond repair, as we’ve seen – killing his trade value by relegating him to insignificant offensive role in furtherance of no greater purpose would be biting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

It’s far more likely that Fizdale, who in no uncertain terms will be judged on how he develops the young players on this roster, is doing this as part of some larger plan. Thus far, the dividends have been inconsistent at best. On one hand, after Frank got moved to the bench, we saw stellar efforts against Portland and Boston. Not coincidentally, those games were the most minutes he’s played since November.

We have another “wondering”: Did Frank earn more time because he played well, or did he play well because he got more time? The answer likely lies somewhere in between, but that’s besides the point. The bigger question is what is playing well under David Fizdale?

You don’t have to read between the lines much to figure out the answer. I’ll give you a dollar if you can find a media session that doesn’t include Fiz either praising a player’s aggression or demanding more of it. It’s his Golden Rule, especially for ball handlers: if you’re not trying to prod, probe or penetrate the defense, you’re not doing your job. That is Fizdale’s offense: screen, screen and screen some more until there’s a hole in the dam and then, BANG – hit it, and hit it hard. For all of their assist issues, the Knicks are 11th in the NBA in screen assists. Aggression is the key to it all.

Most Knicks fans know what an aggressive Frank Ntilikina looks like and what it doesn’t. Some may mistake taking shots for aggression, and then get confused when he gets pulled after a few bricks, thinking that Fizdale is benching him for missing open looks, which runs counter to good development. Case in point: against Philadelphia, Frank put up three shots over 12 possessions in just six first half minutes…not a bad ratio. The issue was that on eight of the other nine, Ntilikina didn’t touch the ball, never getting out of the corner. This came one night after the Detroit game, when, as Clarence Gaines noted, Frank was in “attack mode” on only three of 24 possessions.

More than anything, this is the biggest “wondering” that supporters of the young Frenchman have: how can Fizdale expect Ntilikina to be aggressive when all he does is stand in the corner as Trey Burke or Alonzo Trier go to work?

It’s a fascinating question that goes to the heart of what David Fizdale expects from his players. Even when he’s not the nominal point guard, we’ve seen stretches from Ntilikina where he gets the ball and takes control. Just because the offense calls for Frank to start out in the corner doesn’t mean he has to stay there. Fiz critics will lament possessions where Ntilikina never moves from his corner spot like a member of the Queen’s Guard, but some of this has to fall on the player too. In Fizdale’s mind, if you want it, come and get it, and it shouldn’t matter who else is on the floor with you.

In a sense, Fizdale has already been proven right. We’ve seen the neophyte 4look good on offense from the point and on the wing, as a starter and from the bench5. For what it’s worth, before the season Trey Burke had this to say about his pairing with the 20-year-old6:

“I believe last year he played better when I was on the floor with him because he had a guy to take the pressure off him handling the ball,” said Burke. “He can play a spot-up and when he’s ready to be aggressive and get in the lane and make plays, he could. I think he played much better with me, and he’d say that as well. I definitely see us in the backcourt a lot.” – Tommy Beer, Forbes

When he’s ready to be aggressive. That hasn’t happened much.

It leads us to our biggest “wondering,” the 800 lb. gorilla in the room: wouldn’t it be easier for Ntilikina to be aggressive if he were, you know…still the starting point guard?

At first glance, the numbers from when he manned that role are kind of ugly. During that nine-game stretch, the Knicks had a 100.7 offensive rating with Frank on the floor, which is just about tied with the league-worst Hawks.

As Fiz has said repeatedly implied though, it’s about the process, not the product. If Frank was playing the way Fizdale wanted, he’d likely still have the role, no matter how rough a go it was.

Initially, he was. In his first four starts at point guard, Ntilikina averaged 8.8 drives per game in 30.6 minutes of action – nothing crazy, but more than respectable. That number would lead the Knicks for the season, is the same as Steph Curry and in the neighborhood of guys like Jamal Murray and Victor Oladipo.

During this stretch, Frank also made half of his 3.5 field goal attempts on drives and sported a 14.3 assist percentage out of such possessions. Best of all, Ntilikina attempted and made eight free throws during those four games. That obviously doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a player who has attempted only eight total free throws in the other 19 games combined, it was a lot.

As an added bonus, the Knicks held a fourth quarter lead in every one of those contests, winning twice and losing to Indiana and Golden State.

The next four games were a very different story. Frank’s drives dipped to an average of 4.5 in 21.6 minutes of action. He shot it at about the same rate (50% on 2.0 FGA per game), but his assist percentage plummeted to 5.6. The first of those four games came against John Wall in Washington, when it seemed like Ntilikina became unnerved on both ends from Wall’s aggression. The next three – vs Chicago, at Atlanta and at Toronto – didn’t get any better. The game after that was the 5:45 affair at home against Orlando when he looked perhaps more out of sorts than ever in his brief stint.

In total, New York’s offensive rating over his final five games running the show was an abysmal 85.8 in 92 minutes. Their overall net rating with Frank on the floor during that time was a negative 19.2.

It leaves us “wondering”: did Fiz bench Ntilikina because Frank wasn’t playing the way he wanted him to, because he felt he was doing more harm than good to his own development, or simply because he felt he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of being a starting NBA point guard?

Based off of what we know about Fizdale, one thing we can be pretty sure of is that Frank wasn’t benched simply for poor play7. Need proof? Ntilikina’s four highest minute totals have come in games where he’s gone a combined 8-for-29 from the floor. That’s not what matters to this coach.

It seems far more likely that Fiz simply felt the time wasn’t right to keep the experiment going. Is it because he wanted to teach the kid a lesson? Maybe a little. It’s just as probable that he felt Ntilikina would lose too much confidence if things kept progressing the way they were. It also can’t be discounted that he wanted to continue to put forth starting lineups that remained competitive in games as he tries to instill a culture where losing is abhorred as opposed to simply frowned upon, or worse, accepted as the norm.

Has he given up on the idea that Frank can play the point? His stints during garbage time at the end of both the Detroit and Philly games would seem to indicate otherwise.

So our final “Wondering” is this: how much of the blame, if any, does Fiz deserve here?

Could there be a more sophisticated offensive system in place that garners more natural opportunities for Frank to find a rhythm? Probably. Could Fiz simply spare a handful of possessions per game where he lets Frank operate out of the pick and roll? Of course. Could there be at least some possessions every night when Ntilikina doesn’t share the court with another ball-dominant guy? Definitely.

Is it in Fizdale’s style to make these accommodations? At the moment, the answer seems to be a fim “no.” This might be the only thing we’ve really “learned” so far. If the scout in Berman’s article is to be believed – that Ntilikina is soft, unaggressive and lacks instincts to play point guard – maybe tough love is the approach he needs to emerge from the darkness and harness the gifts he clearly possesses. Luckily, his confidence doesn’t appear to be wavering, at least if you take his word for it.

If nothing else, more patience is warranted. As another scout quoted in the article noted, having an unselfish player who just wants to make the right play and doesn’t care about scoring is invaluable to have on an NBA roster where most guys are just looking to get buckets.

Ultimately, time will tell if Frank can achieve the balance between his natural instinct to distribute and the learned trait of attacking relentlessly. It requires a rewiring of the brain, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that 23 games in, it’s gotten worse before it’s gotten better. Luckily, they still have plenty of season left – more time for us all to fill in that last column, hopefully with something more positive than we have so far.