Early look at Frank Ntilikina’s rookie season.
The French Prince of NY
After a tumultuous season, Knicks fans were eager for the 2017 draft to come. Throughout the year, most people were talking about Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, and the other hyped American players and how they would each fit in with Kristaps Porzingis. However, picking 8th, the Knicks never had a chance at drafting any of those. Instead of picking Dennis Smith Jr out of NC State, another highly touted prospect who was a top ranked HS player in the 2016 class who was available at #8, the Knicks ended up picking Frank Ntilikina out of France (a player who I loved).
Aside from those who had seen some of Frank’s games overseas, most fans were not on board with the pick. His scouting report painted him as a defensive menace who needed some work on offense – showed flashes of a good shot and some flashes of playmaking (although he was mainly used off ball), but was viewed as raw on offense. Even though he has unbelievable measurements (6’5 with a 7’ wingspan), he is not an explosive athlete, which put him off for some people. Well…I’m willing to bet that anyone who was against picking Frank after the decision was made on June 22nd are now 100% on board with it. Let’s take a look at Frank’s impact this season thus far, his strengths, his weaknesses, and why the future is so bright.
Basics – 106.5 dRTG (112.4 when he’s on the bench, team is 5.4 points per 100 better with him on the court), 1.6 SPG (2.8 per 36, first in the league), and 2.4 deflections per game (4.4 per 36, 2nd in NBA of players who have played more than 5 games).
The most notable skill that Frank possesses is his ability to defend. He is not the most explosive athlete or the quickest, but he is a smooth athlete, has a firm understanding of how to defend (high defense IQ), how to rotate, and how to use his size/length to really bother opposing players. He’s in the 85th percentile in defending the PnR ball-handler, giving up only .6 PPP (15th out of players who have defended at least 20 possessions) with opposing teams shooting 21.1% against him. Ball handlers are also scoring on only 27.5% of all PnR action. To put some of this into perspective, the Knicks are allowing .801PPP on PnR action when the ball-handler shoots, giving up a FG% of 36.1%, and scoring on nearly 37% of the action. The Knicks’ defensive percentages are still in the middle 1/3 of the NBA for this type of play, but when Frank is the one defending the play, the defense really picks up.
If anyone wants to talk about the Knicks’ help defense and how that is potentially improving Frank’s PnR defense…that’s not going to work. In single coverage with no help, he’s giving up .75PPP which is the 83rd percentile, .667PPP when he’s able to get over the screen (85th percentile), and .455PPP when he gets caught up in the screen (98th percentile!!). All of those numbers are impressive and all show how great he is defending the PnR by himself, but the one that really catches my eye is the .455PPP when he runs into the screen. What this means is that even though Frank is getting hit by a screen, he is able to recover quickly enough and use his length to bother the shot.
Now, even though he is an absolute killer defending the PnR, he still needs some work elsewhere. Guarding spot-up jumpers (and spot up, dribble into jumper) he is allowing 1.81PPP…which is bad…1st percentile on defense, bad. Watching the games, you can see that a good chunk of the shots he’s defending on spot-up jumpers come from plays he’s having to rotate into the paint to help. Those possessions cannot be blamed on him. The Knicks are not particularly good at defending the PnR roll man (or pop) giving up 1.146PPP (19th in NBA) and they require the extra help to keep the PPP that low.
If the action is off ball for Frank and he’s guarding the guy in the corner or the wing, he splits the court as you are supposed to in order to help on the roll man – this stops the ball from getting into the paint, but requires two things to happen: 1) someone rotate to his man or 2) Frank needs to be able to get back and defend the three after helping in the paint. In a perfect world, option 1 happens because that’s what team defense is – helping the helper. However, there have been missed rotations leaving either open jumpers or Frank sinking too far in the paint and needing to rush out to guard the perimeter (which has happened). Both options should improve as Frank gets more game action, because the team will presumably continue to work on rotations as the season progresses and Frank will continue to realize just how far he needs to help to still be able to react quickly and defend the three.
All of those words and numbers, but my favorite stats are these – 32.3%, 28.9%, 2.1ast/1.9to, 87.3 . What are those numbers? The opposing team’sFG%, 3PT%, ast/to ratio, and the Knicks’ dRTG when Porzingis and Ntilikina are on the court at the same time. Even though the sample size is not that large, the numbers are absolutely ridiculous. To put into perspective how good the dRTG is, the Celtics are #1 in dRTG at 95.6…and the Knicks when KP and Frank are on the court are nearly 6 points better than that. The best two-man combination in the league has a dRTG of 88.3 (Aaron Baynes and Jaylen Brown on the Celtics), and the KP/Frank combination is a point better than that. In addition, opposing teams are shooting terribly and have a horrible assist : turnover ratio when they are on the court.
Frank has been an elite defender in the PnR, a very good help defender (unbelievably advanced considering he is a 19 year old rookie), really active with his hands, and he knows how to use his length to defend instead of relying on quickness/athleticism (which, in my opinion, bodes well for him continuing to play defense at a high level even when his offensive load picks up – he relies on smarts and will not tire out). He still needs to get better defending the spot up jumper, but the promise is there.
Basics – oRTG 113.7 (106.8 when he’s on the bench ), 4.7PPG (8.4 per 36 on 10.3 shots per 36), 35FG%, 26.3 3pt%, .250 FT% (major anomaly – he’s taken 4 free throws), 39.8 TS%, 5 assists (9.1 per 36, accounting for nearly 34% AST% vs a low 17.6 USG%), 2.2 turnovers (4.0 per 36), .583 PPP overall (his scoring).
After talking about his high level defense, reality sets back in a little bit when talking about his offense. Let’s go over the (very) good – his playmaking ability (note, the PPP PnR used below accounts for his scoring and passing). As you can see in the clip labeled below as (PnR, hit roll man), Frank does a VERY good job at passing in the PnR. He’s in the 93rd percentile hitting the roll man (team scoring at 1.429PPP), 61st percentile hitting the spot up shooter in the PnR (1.077PPP), and averaging 1.2 PPP hitting the cutter (sample size too small for him to rank in percentile).
Overall, he’s in the 84th percentile running the PnR at 1.282 PPP (passing) and 1.045 (81st percentile, scoring+passing) which accounts for nearly 60% of his offense. However, Frank doesn’t just lead hit the roll man with any normal pass, he hits them with perfectly placed bounce passes – showing a great feel for his passing ability and reading where the offensive player needs the pass to score.
*Overall, he is at .704PPP in PnR handler’s derived offense (where he is initiating the offense without prior movement + where he’s the one looking to score). Even though this number is only good for 33rd percentile in the league, it is #1 out of all rookie guards with at least 20 possessions. For comparison, Chris Paul was at .87PPP during his rookie year, Deron Williams was .772, John Wall was .666, James Harden at .813 (even though I still consider him a combo guard) and Rubio (considered one of the top PnR players in the league) was at .747. What I’m trying to say using these players as barometers is that even though Frank is only at .704 PPP in total PnR handler’s derived offense, that number is not lower than some of the other elite PnR players in the NBA.
Frank is helping the team score (him scoring + assists) at a VERY good rate in the halfcourt at 1.327PPP (86th percentile). He has also shown flashes in spotting up scoring 2PPP, even though he’s only used 12 possessions in this way. Now, I understand the sample size for off ball spot ups is very small, but he spent most of his time in France playing off-ball leading to plenty of spot up opportunities. * More small sample size alert *He’s also finishing at 60% within 5 feet and 45.5% between 20-24. A little projection here, but I think the finishing within 5 feet will continue to stay ~60%. Frank has a soft touch in the paint, but more importantly he has good body control. Kyrie Irving isn’t the best athlete once he gets in the paint, but he has arguably the best touch and body control in the league. I don’t think Frank will ever be as good a finisher in the paint as Kyrie is, but he’s the prototype for being an elite finisher without being an explosive athlete in the paint.
However, there are still some issues Frank needs to work with on offense. Circling back to the PnR, I love how Frank sees the court…BUT there are times he needs to be more aggressive. If you go back to my Phoenix analysis, I have a picture of a Frank/KOQ PnR with Chandler backing up – now, even though Frank hit KOQ with a nice lead pass, Frank had ~8 feet and could have taken the jumper. In the Charlotte game, there were times where Frank could have turned the corner after using the screen on a side PnR, but instead of running to the basket, he continues parallel to the sideline.
Going forward, I would love to see him a little more aggressive looking for his shot. Seeing this data that I have access to through Synergy and NBA.com’s stats section, I can only imagine what NBA teams have access too – they will realize that Frank rarely looks to shoot coming out of the PnR and they will play him for the pass forcing him to shoot. Just to show some of his passivity, he only has 28 drives on the season, 51 shots taken and only 4 within the painted area, only 9 possessions in transition (going 0-5 from the field) with 4 turnovers, and he hesitates before rising for a shot (look at two CHA clips below).
Frank also needs to work on his ability to score without a pick. He’s at .4PPP in isolation settings, which was never a huge skill of his coming into the league. As he gets older, fills out his frame, and continue to work on his dribble and shot, I see this rising fluidly. He’ll get more comfortable taking shots off the dribble and using his frame to body smaller players to get where his spots. Only 6.9% of his offense comes from isolation, which shows how unselfish he is, but also how passive he is. Going back to the previous paragraph, not having the wiggle / ability to isolate will make it easier to defend him. He has also only taken 35 jumpers this whole season, making only 13 of them (.886PPP, 40 percentile good for “average,” according to Synergy). Of those 35 jumpers, 20 have come off the dribble where has made 11 of them (.95PPP, 70 percentile, good for “very good,” according to Synergy). *The Knicks are not using him as an off ball cutter or running off screens, combining for only 8.3% of his total offense. *
His shooting also needs work, as he’s shooting poorly from the field and three…but this is not something to worry about. Shooting percentages naturally rise as the player gets more reps in. Judging by how hard a worker everyone says he is, there is no doubt in my mind his percentages will easily rise. He looks way more comfortable in pure spot up vs catch and shoot situations (running off screens and with movement, 4/14 shooting in C&S) but needs to work on his confidence and ability to shoot off the dribble (especially in the PnR, as this is where a the vast majority of his offense comes from now).
Just like with defense, my favorite numbers involve Porzingis and Frank: 124.3, 71.2, and 66.3%. The numbers are the oRTG, true shooting %, and effective shooting % of the team when they are on the court together. As above with defense, the sample size is small with Frank and KP, but the 124.3oRTG would edge out Steph Curry and Kevin Durant as the #1 offensive rating for a two man lineup in the entire league. A 19 year old “raw” rookie who still needs a lot of work on offense and a 22 year old 3rd year unicorn would have the best oRTG in the league. Imagine what happens a few years down the line as they continue to improve. Again, this is scary.
All in all, there is a lot to be happy with on both sides of the ball but also some things he needs to work on. He’s a 19 year old rookie who has shown a lot of promise and, even though there will be some bumps and bruises, it will absolutely be worth it in the end. My current comparison for Frank is a longer, bigger, and better defensive Jrue Holiday, which is an all star player. The team is 10.8 points per 100 possessions better with Frank on the court, and with Frank and KP in place as franchise cornerstones, the Knicks’ future is bright.
https://streamable.com/bgw0h – Frank comes down to help, uses length to make Sabo rush, then is able to get his hand in the lane / get back to his man quick enough to get the steal. Perfect example of his help defense and use of length in recovery.
https://streamable.com/z6o76 – Frank again with the perfect help defense. He’s splitting the court while keeping his head on a swivel making sure he knows where Joseph is (his assignment on defense). He rotates over fully at the perfect time and gets the steal. What I like about this clip, is it shows that even if he hadn’t gotten the steal and Sabo had been able to receive the pass, Frank’s would have been there anyway to make things very difficult for Sabo – either with a double with KP or using his size/length to force a difficult pass or shot.
https://streamable.com/rrqwr – In the second half of the Pacers/Knicks game, the Knicks started switching everything on defense (they were getting torches by the roll/pop man in the first half, and this great adjustment by Hornacek was done to prevent this from happening. In this clip, you have Frank and Kanter switching (KP splitting court, looking to help). Collison attempts to get the ball into Sabo in the post, but Frank uses his length to tip it away and get the steal. Great example of being able to get around bigger bodies and again using his length.
https://streamable.com/shq8x – OK, so this has two examples of things to look for. The good is the great look to KOQ. As I mentioned above, and as you can see in the super long clip at the bottom, Frank loves that bounce pocket pass to the roll man. This is a great example of that. However, it’s also an example of his passiveness. KOQ does a fantastic job keeping Ulis off of Frank with Chandler backing up. As you watch this clip, look at the space Frank has on the jumper at two points and his unwillingness to take the shot even though Ulis is off of him and Chandler is giving him all the room he needs. Don’t get me wrong, I love the pass; I just think he needs to be more aggressive looking for his shot because sooner rather than later defenses will adjust to it and take the bounce pass away.
https://streamable.com/ex6fe – Here have a clip of Frank shooting, but missing. KOQ sets another great screen for Frank and Frank using a hesitation to keep Monk off of him and get from about 20 feet from the rim to about 10. Frank misses the floater in the paint, but he doesn’t hesitate in shooting it – which is the important part. We need an aggressive Frank, one who is confident in his shot.
https://streamable.com/r9ncf – Here we have another Frank miss (this time on a bad shot, one that looked like he made his mind up to shoot before he saw what the defense was doing…which wasn’t good)…but, again, the confidence in his shot is there. Repeat after me: we need an aggressive Frank, one who is confident in his shot (but takes better shots than this).
https://streamable.com/gbsh3 – Frank miss again with the floater after a great screen from KOQ, but this time is different from the one above against CHA. It looks like Frank hesitates a little, trying to find where LeVert is on defense instead of taking it strong and confidently into the paint. The Nets game was the second game Frank played in and the CHA was the most recent (as of 11/10), so you can see him gaining more confidence and a better feel for spatial recognition/where the defense is in situations like this (even though he still misses some shots/angles he should be taking).
https://streamable.com/8m3m2 – Frank hesitates again before rising for the jumper.
https://streamable.com/nxv3q – Frank hesitates before taking the off the bounce FT line jumper.
https://streamable.com/gaeie – Frank stops Harden’s isolation. How many players can say they did this at all, let alone as a 19 year old rookie? Look at how he moves his feet, uses his hands to bother Harden, and doesn’t let Harden’s dancing get in his head. In my opinion, this is his best defensive play this season
*I would like to apologize also about the links not being embedded. I am still figuring out how to use the site and embedding apparently does not work for me…yet.
*Credit to Basketball Reference, Synergy Sports, and NBA.com for the stats and clips.
* If you have any questions, as always, feel free to email me via the contact tab at the top. If you have any comments on the article, drop them below!