Where we’re at with Frank Ntilikina

Frank Ntilikina got a lump of coal in his stocking with another DNP-CD. Where does this leave him, and should Knicks fans once again be worried?

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The most famous line from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s Stalinist critique from 1945, has taken on newfound meaning to Knicks fans in 2018. Thanks to David Fizdale’s proclaimed mantra of “keep what you kill,”1 the thought from day one is that things like reputation, contract status or years of experience wouldn’t matter when it came to dolling out playing time. If you earned it, you got it, plain and simple.

By and large, this has been true. Scott Perry draftee Mario Hezonja and his .383/.293/.632 slash line have finally been relegated to the bench. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier is averaging 23 minutes per game. Co-captain Courtney Lee has seen his time fluctuate, while Damyean Dotson has already played nearly 200 more minutes than he did all of last year. Noah Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay – given up for dead by other organizations – have been given second chances at life. Overall, healthy play has warranted healthy minutes.

Yet, after the Knicks 109-95 Christmas Day loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, there is a sense that not everyone is on an equal playing field. Frank Ntilikina – whose mom flew in from across the pond to see him play – saw as many minutes of action as she did2.

Ntilikina had played in eight straight games following three consecutive DNP-CD’s3

Since then, once again, his shot has abandoned him. Frank has gone a combined 6-for-28 over his last five games.

The issue many Knicks fans have is a simple one: why isn’t Ntilikina allowed to shoot his way through slumps the same way everyone else on the team can? Kevin Knox is shooting 38% on the year and has led the team in minutes this month. Tim Hardaway Jr. has shot 36% from the field over his last 21 games and we have yet to see a repercussion. Trey Burke, who was ostensibly Ntilikina’s replacement against Milwaukee, was 1-for-7 on Christmas and is 11 for his last 61 from the field.

More than anyone, Burke seems to be the guy drawing the most criticism from Frankophones. This is someone who, after a three-month stretch of brilliance last season which included unsustainable midrange shooting, has reverted back to what he’s been for most of his career: barely an NBA player. Throw in the fact that the Knicks invested a lottery pick in Ntilikina just a year and a half ago, and it’s easy to see why people are a bit peeved.

I get it. I was sitting in front of the television sporting my French Prince T-shirt, ignoring my wife’s family, just waiting to catch a glimpse of the kid that I’ve wanted to succeed perhaps more than any other in my 25 years of being a Knicks fan.

I had a feeling I’d be disappointed going back to Fizdale’s comments after the Atlanta game when he admitted he probably should have played Frank more, after pulling him when he took only two shots in 13 minutes and looked like the same hesitant, tentative dude we watched for long stretches earlier this season and last. That it came against perhaps the worst defensive point guard rotation in basketball didn’t help matters one bit.

When Burke checked into the game vs Milwaukee, I knew that was that.

I also couldn’t be mad. I mean, I could…that would be the easy thing to do. There’s not a rational Knicks fan alive who wants to watch Burke put up brick after brick while the team’s once-and-maybe-still point guard of the future lies in wait.

But what we want also doesn’t jive with the monumental task David Fizdale has before him. “Culture reset” isn’t as easy as pushing a button. It starts and ends with getting buy in from each and every person in the locker room, and that means making those people feel like playing time is never handed out unfairly.

Has it worked? Consider, for a moment, just how bad the Knicks are. Their best player this season is a guy who they picked up off the scrap heap on a non-guaranteed deal in late July. The man who was supposed to be their best player hasn’t been able to hit the far side of a barn in two months…and that’s his better end of the court. Their leading scorers this month are a point guard, who literally any team could have had if they wanted him, and a teenager who doesn’t fully know what he’s doing yet.

Despite the dearth of NBA-ready talent, this team has been consistently competitive late into games. The talent discrepancy eventually results in the superior team pulling away on most nights, but if you’ve watched them at all this season, you’ve seen a team that plays hard almost without exception.

On top of that, every young player on the roster, save for Ntilikina, has exceeded expectations. That speaks to development, the other pillar of the 2018-19 New York Knicks season: Discard Mudiay and Vonleh’s achievements as part of this conversation at your own peril; they are 45 years old between them. There is no universe in which what they’ve accomplished is bad for this franchise, on several levels.

But there is a feeling amidst some that if Frank fails, it will all be for naught. It’s not an unfair position to take, especially when their approach towards him has been questioned so heavily.

As Mike Vorkunov thoughtfully dove into earlier this month, other organizations skew in favor of giving lottery picks more time whether they’ve earned it or not. It would seem, at first glance, that Frank is not getting the same benefit. He is, on the surface, getting treated the exact same as Burke, who was benched himself for the two games heading into Christmas Day.

The thing most people seem to be ignoring is that with David Fizdale, results are only part of the equation. For him, approach seems to matter just as much.

In no uncertain terms, Frank has been horrible on the offensive end this year, and that is maybe not a strong enough word to describe his performance. Of the 159 players this season with a 16 usage rate or higher who’ve played at least 10 games and 20 minutes a night, Ntilikina’s 43.6 true shooting percentage ranks dead last. Yet that didn’t stop Fizdale from giving him another bite at the apple after a few games on the bench earlier this month.

Had Frank maintained the approach he had in those first three games, regardless of the results, he likely would have been able to give his mom a Merry Christmas. That wasn’t the case though. We know Frank is doing what the coaching staff asks when he drives the lane and shoots without hesitation. In his two outbursts against Charlotte and Cleveland, Ntilikina had seven and nine drives, respectively, to go with 24 total shots. In the five games after that, he averaged only 5.2 drives and 5.6 field goal attempts.

That might not seem like a drastic enough difference to warrant a seat back on the bench, but when you factor in the results – 21% shooting over those five games – yeah, it kind of does.

Is David Fizdale making the right choice? Is he correct to emphasize an approach on offense that essentially boils down to “attack first, think never,” even if that results in more and more shots that don’t go in?

Again, we go back to the “results vs approach” conversation. The Knicks are not trying to win games this year. At some point, hopefully soon, they will have players on the roster that will change that. This year is about putting systems in place such that, when the players taking those shots improve, so will the results. Say what you will about the misses that Timmy, Burke & Co. are generating, but most of these aren’t bad looks. The Knicks currently rank 9th in the NBA in frequency of open looks.[footnote]defined as the closest defender within 4 to 6 feet. They’re just not going in.

What has become painfully apparent is that hesitation plays no part in Fizdale’s coaching philosophy. For Frank Ntilikina, for the moment at least, that means another stint spent watching from the sidelines.

Like last time, it probably won’t be for long. Fizdale once again emphasized after the Bucks game that his rotations are always in flux. This would probably calm the nerves of many Knicks fans a lot more if they were certain the organization still had faith in the young Frenchman.

If David Fizdale is to be believed, they do, and this is simply their preferred method of bringing him along. Here’s what he said to Steve Popper a few days ago:

“He still resorts back but that’s part of his process…It’s just like any habit is. You’ve just got to stay with it where you build a habit of playing free without worrying about what people say, about what the coach is thinking, what anybody is thinking. It’s just because he’s so unselfish, he’s concerned about that stuff. But it’s the further that I can get him away to where he’s not really harboring those thoughts, I think the better off he’s going to be.

“You can see it. When you’re around him long enough, you can tell when he’s like, ‘Screw it. I’m just letting it all hang out and I’m just going to play.’ And you can see when he’s thinking about, ‘If I miss this or if I screw this up, what’s going to happen? What’s the consequence?’ You can see his brain going through that process. How far can I move him away from that is what I’m trying to get him to where he’s constantly in a clear state of mind.”

The ultimate question is whether time on the bench is the best way to get a kid to play without fear of getting sent to the bench. Earlier this month, the method seemed to work.

That, plus Fizdale’s believe that this doesn’t count as a regression, but is instead “part of his process,” should be encouraging.

For many Knicks fans though, words aren’t enough. They need to see proof…both from Ntilikina and the man tasked with bringing him along.

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