Focusing on the Youth, Part 1: Frank Ntilikina

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The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Knicks were MAJOR players. Now that the dust has settled – vets gone, cap space created, draft picks added – we can spend these last few months focused on what was supposed to be our top priority in the first place:  YOUTH.

The three months between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected.  With only two guys left over the age of 25, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what may be. 

Part I of this series focuses on who else but FRANK NTILIKINA.



If you favor ball-dominant scoring point guards – like the NBA in 2019 seems to do – no amount of patience will bring you around to Frank’s side. But you know what
is on his side? Time. The kid is 20 years old.  

I’ve never spoken to Scott Perry or Steve Mills, but I imagine the main reason they’ve rebuffed interest in Ntilikina during each of the past two deadlines is because he possesses things you simply can’t teach: elite size / length for his position; an IQ beyond his years; deceptively effective quickness and athleticism (just ask Rudy Gobert); and 1st Team All-Defense potential.  

Yet despite all that, he’s one of the most polarizing young players in the league, mainly because of who the Knicks passed over to take him and how those peers have performed in comparison. He simply hasn’t figured it out yet. 

And honestly, I don’t care. The kid is 20 years old. He can still fulfill any destiny. He can become the All-Star that many projected before the draft (highest All-Star odds of any player in his class according to ESPN Draft experts); he can be a solid starter for 12-15 years; he can become an important rotational piece off the bench. But I don’t see any possibility for “bust,” because even if he never lives up to his draft position, whatever he becomes is something the Knicks need.

No way he’ll ever be an All-Star. Look at those numbers. We’d have seen signs by now.

Yeah, you’re probably right. No one ever performs this poorly, especially shooting the ball, and then develops into an All-Star caliber player…

Ideally, this chart would show what each future All-Star was doing at 20. Problem is, most of them weren’t in the league yet. Kyle Lowry is the only 20-year-old on the list. Everyone else is at least 21.

Now this group was not compiled based on similar physical profiles or styles of play; it’s merely to show that for some guys, it takes time. Rondo shot 21% from three as a rookie and somehow figured out a way to survive and thrive throughout his career as a non-shooter. Kemba shot worse as a 21-year-old than Frank at 19, and yet he’s become one of the most lethal scorers in the League, dropping 60 point earlier this season. Even guys reputed as shooters – Billups, Mo Williams – struggled to do what would eventually become their bread-and-butter. Billups was jettisoned 50 games into his rookie year (again, as a 21-year-old) because the results weren’t immediate.    

In fact, four of the six players above went on to become All-Stars after being discarded by their original teams.  What’d I say the key word was?

You’re out of your mind.  The guy will be back in France in three years.

I’ll concede that I don’t expect him to ever represent the Knicks or any other team in February’s scoring bonanza, but you’re missing the point if you think you can declare any definitive outcome for Ntilikina.

THE KID IS 20 YEARS OLD.

And frankly, he doesn’t need to be an All-Star. The Knicks don’t need that either. All they (and we as fans) really need is for him to grow into himself, do what he does best, and fill a role on what will soon be a totally revamped roster. Maybe in a year or two, we’re talking about him as one of the NBA’s bright up-and-comers at the position:

Is it crazy to think he could one day produce like Spencer Dinwiddie has this year?  Or like Terry Rozier does whenever Kyrie is out? The Utah Jazz refused to include Dante Exum in trade offers for MIKE CONLEY…is it crazy to think that Frank could one day have that value for us?  

(By the way, those numbers above – that’s through Dinwiddie and Rozier’s Age-22 seasons.  Exum, 21. Have I mentioned Frank is still 20?)

I don’t know what his destiny is. I don’t know if he has multiple 6th Man of the Year awards in his future, or if he’ll set the single-game assists record, or back up an MVP so well that the team barely misses a beat when he’s in. I don’t know if he’ll ever be the heart-and-soul of a contender like Smart, or a steadying offensive maestro like Rubio. I don’t know if he’ll ever be prime Derek Harper (17+ PPG in six consecutive seasons) or the Derek Harper whose 9 points and 4 assists per game helped us reach Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

And you don’t either. That’s the point. Frank Ntilikina is currently the 19th-youngest in a league that has about 450 players. He plays on the youngest team in the league for a head coach that, as of February 12th, still hasn’t coached the equivalent of two full seasons. The circumstances are not ideal and the numbers are cringe-worthy, but stop worrying about that stuff. Especially the percentages. Sometimes when you play the hardest position in basketball and you’re trying to learn to read the game and adjust to the speed and physicality of NBA competition, you miss some shots. He, like most of these guys, will figure it out one way or another. As a fan in a lost season, instead of checking box scores or living and dying with every make and miss, focus instead on the following post-All Star break:

  • Is he attacking the basket like he’d been before his injury?  
  • Is he taking open jumpers, or is he hesitating?
  • Is he creating shots for himself?
  • Is the quality of his defense back to last year’s elite level?  

Kyle Lowry didn’t hit 30 minutes or double-digit points per game until his Age-24 season. Dragic didn’t crack 20 MPG until Age 25. Kemba didn’t become a plus three-point shooter until the same age. Frank Ntilikina is not a lost cause. The potential is undeniable, and the precedent – overcoming young struggles to lead successful careers – is firmly established.

How successful will he be? Only time will tell. But whether his destiny is well-rounded DPOY like Alvin Robertson or underappreciated-in-the-shadow-of-stars a la Ron Harper or Derek Fisher (or more recently, Shaun Livingston), we should value what he brings. So over these final 26, let’s ignore the numbers. Let’s pay more attention to his mindset, to the way he plays and the intangibles he possesses. And instead of stressing about what he isn’t, let’s focus instead on the possibilities.  

After all, he’s only 20.  

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