The good news: Frank Ntilikina was one of only two members of the New York Knicks to finish Thursday night’s 128-100 blowout loss to the Boston Celtics without a plus-minus in the red. The bad news: That’s because, like fellow decommissioned guard Ron Baker, the 20-year-old never set foot on the court at TD Garden.
Thursday’s game marked the third straight DNP-CD for Ntilikina, the 6-foot-6 guard whom New York selected with the no. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA draft (a slot immortalized in some quarters as Five Spots Ahead of Donovan Mitchell). And the French prospect doesn’t seem all that happy about it. After his first benching, against the Milwaukee Bucks, Ntilikina said he felt more motivated than frustrated by the move. He reportedly seemed a bit more miffed (though still “respectful”) after the second, against the Washington Wizards. After the third, in Boston, he left the locker room quickly without speaking to reporters.
The Knicks picked Ntilikina hoping he’d be a foundational two-way piece in a long-overdue rebuilding project. But his ongoing offensive struggles—namely, a disastrous 39.2 effective field goal percentage this season—have cost him playing time and introduced uncertainty as to what role, if any, he’ll come to occupy in New York’s still-developing blueprint.
“League personnel” recently described Ntilikina to Marc Berman of the New York Post as “unaggressive,” “soft,” and stuck without a position at which he can excel. The same day the Post story hit, The Athletic and ESPN reported that multiple teams had expressed interest in Ntilikina. There’s the Orlando Magic, who have a wingspan fetish and no point-guard prospects in the pipeline. The Phoenix Suns might have designs on pairing de facto point guard Devin Booker with a defensive-minded mate, à la the James Harden–Patrick Beverley partnership in Houston. The Brooklyn Nets might prefer taking a flier on a former lottery pick to handle the ball and defend alongside Caris LeVert rather than ponying up to pay D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie when they hit free agency this summer. And the Memphis Grizzlies might like the idea of Ntilikina serving as Mike Conley’s understudy.
The jury is still out on what position Ntilikina will play, and if he can ever live up to his draft position, but there’s still potential for the NBA sophomore to become a reliable defender. He’s one of 43 players this season to spend at least 20 percent of his floor time defending point guards, 20 percent on shooting guards, and 15 percent on small forwards, according to Krishna Narsu’s defensive positional data. Such versatility remains valuable in an NBA where you can’t have enough players who guard multiple perimeter positions.
Ntilikina graded out last season as an elite defender of pick-and-roll ball handlers, allowing just 0.65 points per possession in those situations, best among defenders to guard a high volume of such plays. He hasn’t been quite as stingy this season, but he’s still holding ball handlers to the same scoring efficiency in those settings as wing stoppers like Robert Covington, Kawhi Leonard, and Josh Richardson. The Knicks allowed 4.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with Ntilikina on the court last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they’re conceding 4.1 fewer points per 100 possessions in his minutes this season. He won’t turn 21 until late July, and he’s already a legitimate quality NBA defender, no matter how far his offense has to go.
That said: His offense has a long way to go.
Widely regarded as a very raw offensive prospect entering the draft, Ntilikina confirmed during a quiet rookie season—which he started late, thanks to a sprained knee that knocked him out of summer league—that he wasn’t ready to contribute in a major way on that end. His woes have continued in Year 2: He’s averaging just 5.9 points and 2.7 assists in 23.1 minutes per game.
It gets worse. After finishing last season with the worst effective field goal percentage of any player to qualify for the minutes per game leaderboard, Ntilikina is actually shooting worse this season, putting him on pace for an ignominious repeat. He’s talked about working to be more assertive with the ball, but that has yet to translate consistently; he’s taking slightly fewer shots per minute and per possession than he did as a rookie.
Ntilikina rarely looks to penetrate, averaging just 4.4 drives per game, right in line with last season. He’s also passing out of those drives rather than looking for his own shot just about as often, and he’s getting to the free throw line even less than he did last season; among first- and second-year players to log at least 500 minutes this season, only Lonzo Ball has a lower free throw rate. Add it all up and the Knicks, who rank an already-bad 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass, produce 6.3 fewer points per 100 possessions in Ntilikina’s minutes, scoring at a rate well below even the league’s worst attacks.
With Ntilikina floundering on offense, Knicks coach David Fizdale removed him from the starting lineup in mid-November, opting for more aggressive and productive reclamation projects Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke at the point while leaning on Tim Hardaway Jr., 2017 second-rounder Damyean Dotson, and undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier on the wing. Ntilikina’s playing time sunk to under 15 minutes a game by the end of the month. Then, nine games later, on the heels of consecutive scoreless outings against Detroit and Philadelphia, he was held out entirely.
In a vacuum, you can understand Fizdale’s decision. The Knicks ranked 29th in first-quarter offensive efficiency when Ntilikina exited the starting lineup. And as the first-year head coach tries to install his system, he surely wants to reward players who provide the aggressive play he clearly prefers (Mudiay, Trier, Burke), even if their production waxes and wanes. But the Knicks’ season isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a context in which more than half the roster, including Mudiay and Burke, will hit free agency this summer, and in which only three players—Kevin Knox, Hardaway, and Ntilikina—currently have guaranteed contracts that stretch beyond the 2019-20 season.
Kristaps Porzingis will join them, provided the injured big man agrees to a lucrative extension of his rookie contract this summer. So, too, the Knicks hope, will a marquee free agent. However, landing a star to pair with Porzingis will require the financial flexibility to offer a max contract. Meaning, in all likelihood, forsaking all of their own free agents. So why pump up their minutes and value rather than continuing to give Ntilikina the chance to play through his struggles, as they did with Knox, who broke through with 26 points against the Bucks after a slew of down games?
Porzingis’s absence after tearing his ACL last season shifted the focus toward the future. After a strong start to the season in that regard, Fizdale appears to have veered toward a different course. He says that the Knicks love Ntilikina and that “it ain’t like he’s out,” but he’s kept Ntilikina out of the lineup even with backup point guard Burke sidelined by an MCL sprain. Fizdale has also suggested that he’s finally settling on a rotation—one that previously stationed Ntilikina off the ball and in the corner, to his detriment, and now doesn’t feature him at all.
Ntilikina has shown flashes of offensive competence and two-way value as the Knicks’ starting point guard, like his 17-point outing in his first start on the ball against the Golden State Warriors:
But these days, one has to wonder whether he’ll get the chance to become something more in New York.
“I know it’s been a bad moment for me, shooting-wise,” Ntilikina told reporters after going scoreless in Philadelphia, just before the start of his DNP streak. “But it’s going to be all right. It’s the story of the NBA. It’s the story of young players coming in, and you know, this is how it happens.”
Sometimes, that story has a happy ending. Sometimes, the NBA writes a different kind of story for young players who can’t yet shoot.
“We have to know who’s moving forward out of this group. And it won’t be every single player on this roster, unfortunately,” Fizdale said before Ntilikina’s third straight DNP. “That’s the nature of the business.”