Pelicans & NBA Basketball

Stefan Bondy: Hey Knicks, give Frank Ntilikina a chance

The best guard on the floor in the fourth quarter was Frank Ntilikina.

Not Kemba Walker. Not Donovan Mitchell. Not Joe Harris.

It was the Knick. He was responsible for shutting down Walker all game, then burying two clutch jumpers down the stretch to help France eliminate the U.S. on Wednesday in the FIBA World Cup, 89-79.

This may come as a shock to Knicks fans who've watched Ntilikina alternate between benched and ineffective during his two years in the NBA, but he's responded well to greater responsibilities in the World Cup. With a different coach and team, the 21-year-old has the freedom and leash the Knicks never provided.

"We needed him to have a big tournament. I think he needs that for the rest of career," Ntilikina's teammate, Nic Batum, told Slam Magazine. "It can be a big thing for him for the next couple of years."

It'd be irresponsible to proclaim one FIBA game an indication that Ntilikina has suddenly emerged, but it does provide an opportunity to make four points about the Frenchman and his rocky partnership with the Knicks:

1) The Knicks should absolutely pick up his $6.2 million option for the 2020-21 season by next month's deadline. Forget what coach David Fizdale and GM Scott Perry feel about Ntilikina's future. The only reason to pass on the contract option is because the Knicks are again prioritizing cap space for next summer. They need to quit those pipe dreams and selling theoreticals. Beyond that, Ntilikina has potential and could always be traded. Perry already gave up on Kristaps Porzingis and Victor Oladipo (as the assistant GM in Orlando) too soon. Ntilikina is not on that level but the Knicks should keep him around.

2) The Knicks need to give him a REAL chance. Ntilikina was Phil Jackson's draft pick, and the Knicks quickly decided to disrupt his development by acquiring young guards to play above him (Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke and, more recently, Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton). In addition, the Knicks have RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson and Wayne Ellington, signed for the backcourt. But Ntilikina, the eighth overall pick in 2017, deserves an opportunity to play without looking over his shoulder. He has a coach in France – Vincent Collet – who believes in Ntilikina, who coached him on the club level and understands his game. In New York, there was never such comfort in Ntilikina's first two seasons.

3) The World Cup is a small sample size but it has reinforced that Ntilikina has the potential to fulfill his projection. What is that? A defensive specialist who doesn't need shots and can contribute to a winner. The Perry/Mills/Fizdale group has prioritized athleticism over defense and team basketball. It works on the level that you can't teach speed or hops but can teach skills. But the unfortunate result last season was a team that didn't pass and gave up too many points. The Knicks lost 65 games. Ntilikina played 43 games, missing the final two months because of an injury, and averaged 21 minutes.

4) The key with Ntilikina is the jumper. In addition to the positives, the World Cup has reiterated that Ntilikina is too slow with the dribble to get by point guard defenders. With France he got past half court and immediately handed off the ball to somebody better at creating a shot. He may be able to develop a postgame if he continues to get stronger, but that's not a part of his repertoire. Ntilikina is not a playmaker. But he can play off the ball and has an important role if he spreads the floor and buries the open shot. With the Knicks, Ntilikina shot an unacceptable 35% his first two seasons, including just 30% from beyond the arc. With France, he's shooting 44% overall and 41% on 3-pointers.

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