New York Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina is just 19 years old, so his emergence is nothing short of electrifying. Please forgive the Madison Square Garden faithful for being elated about the club’s future.
Just a few months removed from the French Pro A League, the teenage newcomer is now getting key minutes and making clutch plays at the sport’s highest level. After showing brief flashes of competitiveness during his first eight games, he enjoyed something of a coming-out party on Sunday. He supplied 10 points, seven assists and some crucial defense in New York’s 108-101 comeback triumph over the Indiana Pacers.
Kristaps Porzingis deservedly grabbed a bunch of headlines thanks to his 40-point performance. But “Frankie Nicotine” gave the Knicks huge doses of two things they’ve missed for years: versatile defense and smooth playmaking.
Most NBA rookies struggle mightily on defense. Some players never achieve success on that end, so it’s no small feat that Ntilikina is thriving. His basketball IQ, timing and physical gifts are already problematic for opponents. He effectively slowed down Indiana on several occasions Sunday night.
Ntilikina’s shifty feet and long arms make for terrific isolation defense, as we witnessed against James Harden last week. However, he’s much more than a slasher stopper. He uncorked superb pick-and-roll defense and help defense against the Pacers by slowing down the ballhandler and switching onto the roll man.
Here are a few examples of his footwork and execution from The Knicks Wall. Ntilikina switched onto Domantas Sabonis and broke up a pick-and-roll pass, then switched back and forth from Cory Joseph to Sabonis and back, effectively altering Joseph’s shot. The third clip is his weak-side interception of Thaddeus Young’s pick-and-roll pass:
Ntilikina’s long arms and thievery are impressive, but the most striking aspect of his defense is his timing and coordination. He makes far fewer mistakes than the average rookie, and most of the time he has a perfect sense of where to be. Even though the youngster’s defensive potential was a major factor in Phil Jackson’s decision to draft him at No. 8, it’s still remarkable to see him deliver stretches of veteran-esque stoppage already.
On the other end, Ntilikina doled out a nice mix of playmaking and timely scoring against the Pacers. He’s clearly more comfortable at the helm of the offense than he was a couple of weeks ago in the opener. He dished out seven assists in 24 minutes against Indy, including several pinpoint pick-and-roll dimes.
Six of his assists came in the second half, including four in the fourth quarter; Ntilikina set the table for Porzingis’ comeback scoring spree. It’s exciting to watch the chemistry and trust build between the two Europeans.
Note Ntilkina’s patience and timing on his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop passes. He already has a nice feel for when to pull the trigger and give his teammates the best scoring chance:
Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer discussed Ntilikina’s playmaking success:
Ntilikina could always defend at a high level. But his ball handling has improved, which has opened up his passing ability. So impressive.
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 6, 2017
He still has loads of room for improvement when it comes to creating off the bounce and consistently making plays. Ntilikina still lacks polished, advanced moves to break down defenders in isolation. However, as O’Connor noted, his handle has improved enough in pick-and-roll situations to effectively draw help defenders and create passing pockets.
Ntilkina’s connection with Porzingis and his effectiveness alongside the big fella is reflected in the Knicks’ point differential when they’re on the floor. According to ESPN’s Mark Simon, the Knicks outscored the Pacers 45-20 when the two prodigies shared the floor. The duo’s offensive rating,per NBA.com, through the first nine games is 124.o, and their defensive rating is 87.7 (net rating of 36.3).
The cherry on top of Ntilikina’s strong performance against Indiana was his clutch shooting. His jump shot has been spotty so far this season, and he’s still trying to find consistency from the NBA 3-point arc, but he had a steady hand Sunday. He went 4-of-7 from the field, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.
His biggest shot of the night came with 1:34 left in the game, with the score knotted at 99. Ntilkina’s catch-and-shoot trey gave the Knicks’ their final edge and sent the Garden into a frenzy:
The Knicks can’t expect him to come up huge like this every time. He’s still so young and he’ll make plenty of mistakes this season while he gains critical on-the-job training. However, New York die-hards should be encouraged that he’s showing the poise and tools to compete as a floor general and multidimensional defender.
With a go-to scorer in the frontcourt like Porzingis, Ntilikina is an ideal type of high-end role player for the Knicks to groom. He keeps the offense flowing as a willing passer, is an engaged, aggressive perimeter defender, and he’s not afraid to take big shots when the defense collapses on Porzingis. Sunday night’s heroics gave the Big Apple a delicious taste of what the future could hold for their latest European prize.
More NBA Coverage
- 2017-18 NBA Rookie Preview | Frank Ntilikina
- 2017-18 NBA rookie class could be an all-time great
- Porzingis blossoming into scorer we thought he could be