The Knicks are through three years of Frank Ntilikina’s development, and he still isn’t where the team needs him to be. While there have been flashes of special skills and sparks of optimism, there has never been any sustained success in enough facets of his game except his defense.
While Ntilikina’s ability to defend point guards, shooting guards and wings will always give him value, if he wants to become a player who can be relied upon as a starter or a 20-plus-minutes-per-game performer on a good team, he needs to become a more efficient and consistent offensive player.
With Ntilikina entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract next season, the Knicks need to determine whether he can realize those skills and bloom a little later in his career. When looking at any young player, it is easy to be intoxicated by flashes of brilliance or skill. But just because a player is able to do something once, it doesn’t mean he is going to be able to do it consistently in the future. That’s what separates the ones who make it and the ones who don’t.
There were some glimpses of hope if you dig a little deeper into his numbers. On corner 3-point shots, Ntilikina has shot 14-of-29 this season. Although it is a small sample, the 48% from that area is encouraging. His shooting from 16 to 24 feet, where he’s made 26 of 64 shots (45.3%) also indicates that his midrange shot is in decent shape.
It makes sense given the big jump Ntilikina took in his free-throw shooting this year, making 86.4% of his 68 attempts. He has a good, consistent stroke from the free-throw line but, for now, he can’t seem to extend that consistent stroke further out. On 3-pointers “above the break” this season, he has shot only 28%.
If Ntilikina can extend that range by improving his strength and taking offseason reps, there’s a chance his 3-point shooting can take a bigger jump next season. There doesn’t seem to be anything broken with his form.
Ntilikina can also improve his offense by getting to the rim more often. This season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, 20% of Ntilikina’s shots came within 3 feet of the rim. It was a career high for him but still too low of a number, especially when combined with the fact that he only averaged one free throw attempt per game.
One part of Ntilikina’s game that isn’t quantifiable that looked visibly better this year was his handle, which helped him penetrate into the heart of opposing defenses more. Too often early in the season, he would stop short of the rim and settle for tough shots from 5 to 14 feet where he only shot 30%. As the season went along, he kept his dribble alive long and was better at getting all the way to the rim.
The frequency of those forays into the paint have to keep improving as his handle improves to give him higher percentage looks at the rim and open more passing opportunities to take advantage of his strong court vision. Ntilikina had a career best 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season and is always looking to find his teammates.
When he did try to finish at the hoop, Ntilikina has shot 55% in the restricted area this season, a number that is still too low. Too often Ntilikina will try to finish with finesse, using one-handed scoop shots as though he were under 6 feet tall. He would be better off taking advantage of his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame to attack defenders at the rim. He would draw more contact and get to the free-throw line, where he is an excellent shooter.
Despite his improvements in some areas, Ntilikina still has a lot of work to do offensively. Not only must he shoot better, he needs to be more aggressive attacking defenses to create offense for himself and his teammates. If he ever wants to be a starting point guard in the league and be anything close to a primary ballhandler, this has to improve by leaps and bounds.
Defensively, Ntilikina remains impressive. He can guard three positions, and there is no reason to think he cannot hold his own against smaller stretch fours on switches. He can still foul a little too much, but his on-ball defense against opposing playmakers, whether point guards or wings, makes a difference. He gets over screens well despite his length and is often in the right place as a help defender.
The Knicks allowed four fewer points per 100 possession when he was on the floor. When Nitilikina and Mitchell Robinson shared the floor, the team was another two points better, and their defensive rating playing together if extrapolated would have made the Knicks the sixth-best defense in the NBA. Ntilikina’s defensive real plus-minus puts him at about the 65th percentile of point guards defensively.
When you look at Ntilikina’s overall game, projecting him to be starting point guard and offensive engine is a reach. Ntilkikina continuing to improve his jump shot, strength, handle and aggressiveness enough that he can be a secondary or tertiary ballhandler who plays next to an alpha scorer and defends the opponent’s best scorer is much more realistic. But he still has a lot of work to do to even get there.
Given Ntilikina’s production so far in his career, he does not hold much value on the trade market. The Knicks are better off giving him another year to develop and even consider signing him to a low-cost, multiyear contract (about $5 million to $6 million a year) to see if his game can take that next step.
His age (21), frame, basketball intelligence and defensive prowess give the team some confidence that his floor makes him, at the very least, a back-of-the-rotation player. This route gives the Knicks the best chance of maximizing his value and getting something out of him, whether the team is still in developmental mode or becomes a playoff team.