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Frank Ntilikina Passes the Eye Test

We have as much data on the other point guard draft prospects in three months of NCAA play as we do on Ntilikina’s past three years. But the French guard’s tools are undeniable, and he certainly looks the part of an NBA lottery pick.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Frank Ntilikina (for those wondering: his last name is pronounced Nee-lee-KEE-na). The 18-year-old from France first appeared on NBA radar screens at a Basketball Without Borders event during All-Star Weekend in 2015, where he was the most impressive prospect among a huge group of international players that included future Bucks lottery pick Thon Maker. However, unlike most elite international prospects, Ntilikina never played at the Nike Hoop Summit, where he would have gotten the chance to compete against the top American players in his age group, the same guys whom he is currently jockeying with for draft position in the upcoming lottery.

And while the other top point guards in this year’s draft class have gotten the chance to run their own teams playing college basketball, Ntilikina has been a role player on Strasbourg, a club team in France’s top division, averaging only 15.5 minutes a game. He turned pro at the age of 15, and he has spent the past few seasons as an apprentice, going up against grown men in practice every day and watching and learning from the bench. In all likelihood, Ntilikina could end up playing more next season for the NBA team that drafts him than he has at Strasbourg. There’s not much you can glean from his European statistics, given how small his role is. That’s one of the biggest challenges about evaluating international players for the draft.

Most of the excitement about Ntilikina stems from his star turn in the FIBA U18 European Championships in Turkey last December, where he led France to a gold medal. He was named the MVP of the tournament, averaging 15.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists a game on 50 percent shooting. After being slowed by the flu in the first two games, he got into a great rhythm as the week progressed and almost single-handedly carried France through the medal rounds. He had 23 points and nine assists against Italy in the semifinals, and then exploded for 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting against Lithuania in the championship game.

In a welcome change of pace from his club team, Ntilikina was given the keys to the French offense at the U18s, initiating the offense for most of the tournament instead of being relegated to a spot-up shooter. At 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds with a wingspan rumored to be near 7 feet, he had the size to see over the defense and shoot over the top of almost any player guarding him. There have been concerns about his shooting over the years, but that was the most impressive part of his performance in Turkey. Ntilikina shot 17-of-29 from behind the arc, and he was pulling up confidently from Steph Curry range:

There’s nothing mechanically wrong with the form on his jumper, although he does have a bit of a methodical release that could prevent him from being an elite off-the-dribble shooter against NBA defenders. Just how good a shooter he is, though, remains somewhat of a mystery, because we aren’t dealing with a huge sample of shot attempts from either his play for his club or national team.

Over the course of three years of games in six different leagues and international competitions, Ntilikina has taken a total of 158 3s (converting at a 42.4 percent clip) and 72 free throws (making 76.4 percent of them). Just as a comparison, here’s how many 3-pointers and free throws the top American point guards in this year’s draft have taken in a little over three months of college basketball.

By the time the NCAA season is over, we will have much more shooting data on the American point guards than we will have for Ntilikina. The good news is that he has clearly been improving as a shooter over the past three years, which suggests he is coachable and willing to put in the work to get better. However, it also means the data from earlier years may not tell us anything about where he is now.

That’s particularly important for Ntilikina because outside shooting is such a huge part of his game. The red flag in these numbers is that he has not been attempting a lot of free throws, whether he’s playing for Strasbourg or the French national team. That’s important not only because free throws are the purest distillation of shooting ability, but because generating contact and getting to the line is a great indicator of an ability to get to the rim. His frame certainly isn’t helping, as he’s painfully underdeveloped by NBA standards, and it’s hard for a 170-pound teenager to finish through grown men in the French pro league. Regardless of the level of competition, though, Ntilikina doesn’t get to the rim often against a set half-court defense.

One of the biggest knocks on Ntilikina is that he can be fairly passive on offense, lacking the aggressiveness and take-over mentality of a great scoring guard. That was one of the main themes of Andrew Keh’s excellent profile of Ntilikina in The New York Times. However, I’m not sure if the issue for Ntilikina is mentality as much as it is ability. He’s a good ball handler, but he struggles to create separation off the dribble. When he does attempt to create his own shot, he’s often dribbling in circles, which leads to a dead-end possession when he’s unable to create a crack in the defense.

Even when Ntilikina is switched onto a bigger and slower defender, he has a hard time getting by them at the point of attack. If guys like Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox are sports cars, Ntilikina is a Kia. He has good cruising speed, but when he slams on the gas pedal, he’s not accelerating very quickly.

He was able to take over games in the U18 tournament because he was on fire from the perimeter, and he was given the freedom to take rhythm jumpers by the coaching staff. When Ntilikina is attacking off the dribble, he’s almost always looking to pull up. He has a high enough release point that he can usually get the shot off if given enough time, but it doesn’t put a ton of pressure on the defense and it means he’s stopping just short of getting into the paint to draw contact.

Ntilikina is a very deliberate guard who plays under control and rarely gets sped up, and he will take the play that is available to him rather than force the issue. Ntilikina is at his best when he can use a ball screen to get his defender off of him, but even then, he’s usually not taking advantage of that opening to get all the way to the basket. His size allows him to pass over double-teams fairly easily; it’s just a matter of how much defensive attention he will attract at the next level.

Ntilikina is an unselfish and fundamentally sound player who generally makes the right play, which is not driving into traffic without a lane to the basket. He spends a lot of time operating in the midrange and patiently probing the defense, and he has no problem swinging the ball around the perimeter if an opening isn’t there. However, even when he can’t blow past defenders, he’s still capable of getting himself free for a runner or a floater. Making these types of shots consistently isn’t easy, but they will open up the rest of his offensive game.

Ntilikina is more advanced defensively than many of his peers, which makes sense when you consider his role on his club team. A player who comes off the bench and doesn’t have a lot of responsibility on offense can’t afford to take possessions off on defense, and he has to provide some value on that end of the floor to justify his playing time. Ntilikina’s sheer length makes him fairly valuable, as he can eat up a lot more space on a closeout than the offensive player expects, and he can get his hands on careless passes simply by unfurling his arms.

He also has quick hands and a good sense of where the offensive player wants to go. He’s always poking at the ball on defense, and his aggressiveness paid off at the U18s, where he averaged 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks a game. He regularly flipped the game from defense to offense during the tournament, using his length to clean the defensive glass and create turnovers, then pushing the ball to find the open man in transition.

For the most part, Ntilikina played excellent defense throughout the tournament. Every once in a while, though, his lack of great burst reared its head on that side of the ball. He was better in the half court than he was ball-hawking opposing guards for 94 feet, and he left himself open to being beaten off the dribble when he pressed up too closely. These are the kinds of plays that should make talent evaluators worry when they project how Ntilikina would fare against some of the speed demons that he’ll face at the next level.

Part of the issue may be a lack of physical development. Ntilikina won’t turn 19 until July, making him one of the youngest players available in this year’s draft, and, at only 170 pounds, he’s going to need to put on a lot of muscle in the NBA. His 6-foot-5 frame should allow him to gain weight as he gets older, and that will help him on both sides of the ball. Adding strength will allow him to power through opposing players and seal them off, and it’ll help with getting into his opponent’s dribble on defense and rerouting that player where Ntilikina wants him to go. He may always struggle somewhat with speed, but the extra weight will help him against bigger players at other positions. In time, he could become an excellent weapon in a switch-heavy defense.

There are a lot of things Ntilikina does right already. His length and athleticism should allow him to match up with multiple positions on defense, and his experience playing off the ball at Strasbourg will allow teams to utilize him in a lot of different lineups. He’s a smart player who knows how to get the most out of his physical abilities, and there have been plenty of players of his ilk who have carved out long NBA careers for themselves without an elite first step. Ntilikina checks most of the boxes that NBA teams are looking for in a point guard. The only one he’s missing — that burst — is the one that would make him a star.