The Knicks are a quarter of the way through the season and optimism abounds around their rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina. It is early enough in Ntilikina’s career that teammates and fans can gush over his strengths, without dwelling on his weaknesses. After all, the kid is just 19 years old, the second-youngest player in the league behind Indiana’s Ike Anigbogu. He has plenty of room for growth.
Ntilikina, AKA “Frankie Smokes,” does not have the hops of Dennis Smith Jr. or the marksmanship of Malik Monk, two players the Knicks passed on when they selected the Frenchman with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft. Ntilikina’s super power is his 7’0” wingspan.
His 6’5” frame and massive wingspan made him an impact player upon arrival in the NBA. Frankie Smokes uses his long reach and keen instincts to disrupt opposing offenses by harassing elite ball-handlers, such as Dwyane Wade and James Harden. The rookie is sixth in the league with 2.3 steals per 36 minutes among players who have played a minimum of 300 minutes (NBA.com) and ranks seventeenth with 3.4 deflections per 36 minutes (NBA.com).
Ntilikina’s defense at the point of attack has helped elevate the Knicks from the 25th ranked defense last season to No. 17 this year (NBA.com) and has drawn comparisons to Knicks legend and broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who like Ntilikina earned playing time during his rookie season with his defense. Clyde has been impressed with the young Frenchman and believes he will be even more effective once he learns to improve his positioning and picks his spots for steals.
Ntilikina’s unflappable demeanor is also reminiscent of Frazier, who did not draw a technical foul over his 13-year career. Ntilikina was tested by none other than LeBron James a couple of weeks ago at Madison Square Garden. James, who openly criticized the Knicks for selecting Ntilikina over Smith Jr., bumped the rookie after making a basket. Ntilikina held his ground and extended his arm, shoving LeBron out of his way, without losing his cool. It was a coming of age moment for the rookie which earned the respect of his teammates and Knicks fans.
The big question surrounding Ntilikina’s game is what kind of offensive player will he be. He is not a brilliant passer like fellow rookies Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons or possess elite speed like Sacramento Kings rookie De’Aaron Fox. However, he does appear to have a high IQ and typically makes the right pass. Coach Hornacek has felt comfortable leaving the neophyte on the floor in crunch time of close games.
The biggest concerns regarding his offensive game are his lack of aggressiveness and poor shooting. Ntilikina is far too content to simply make the next pass, rather than probe the defense. He is averaging just 3.3 drives and .3 free throw attempts per game (NBA.com), woefully low numbers for a point guard, even given his limited minutes.
Ntilikina will likely never be an elite pick-and-roll player, considering his modest foot speed. But he has demonstrated excellent timing on the league’s most essential play and an instinctive ability to freeze the man defending the screener in order to create space for himself or the roll man. As he puts on weight, he should also learn to use his 6’5” frame to create space in the lane to get his shot off and get to the line. However, he must develop more of an attacking mentality in order to benefit from those skills.
The Frenchman rarely looks for his own shot and appears to pull the trigger reluctantly when he does so. That has resulted in abysmal shooting numbers, including 33.6 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from downtown. However, there is reason to believe that his shooting numbers will rise along with his confidence. The point guard shot 48.5 percent from the field and 43.1 percent on threes in 32 games with Strasbourg of the French LNB Pro A League last season (Basketball Reference). He also shot 40 percent from deep in 14 games for the FIBA Champions League.
Chris Herring, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article a couple of years ago which demonstrated that international players typically struggle from behind the arc in their first season in the NBA, only to rebound. Ntilikina’s teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, is a prime example. KP shot 33.3 percent from three in his first season, 35.7 percent in year two and his shooting 39.8 percent on three-pointers in this, his third season. Ntilikina’s shooting percentages should increase in the coming seasons, which will open more driving lanes for him.
Ntilikina also has to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. His turnover percentage of 21.4 ranks in the bottom four percent at his position (Cleaning the Glass). This is not an area that the Knicks should be overly concerned with. Rookie point guards typically struggle with turnovers.
Frankie Smokes has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender, with the ability to switch onto multiple positions. His offensive game has plenty of room for growth and by all accounts, he is a hard-working kid intent on maximizing his potential. He does not have the athleticism or quickness to dominate games on that end of the floor, though with his height and instincts, he could become an above-average offensive player and a solid building block alongside Porzingis.