Frank Ntilikina arrived at the New York Knicks last season via the 8th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, and the then Knicks coach, Jeff Hornacek was clear on what he wanted to do with him: the Belgian-born Rwandan-French guard, who had played two years in the French league as a point guard, was definitely going to keep developing in that direction.
And in that single season under Hornacek, ‘The French Prince’ totalled an average of 21.9 minutes in 78 games, starting just nine of them. The rookie was the third option at the point guard position behind Jarret Jack and Emmanuel Mudiay, and ended up with an average of 5.9 points and 3.2 assists per game. And from all indications, everything was on course.
Then, David Fizdale arrived.
The former Memphis Grizzlies coach, on arrival at New York, immediately announced that all the spots on the roster were up for grabs, and any player that worked hard enough would get a starting spot. He also impressed it on the players and the media that his team will play ‘position-less basketball’, defense, and he would love all his players to grow as the season progresses.
Then, the first game of the season came, the point guard and the Knicks stepped on the floor for the first time under Fizdale, and defeated the Atlanta Hawks. The new coach said of Ntilikina: “I thought he played a great game. You don’t see it on the stat sheet but it stood out. You can’t say he didn’t get after it. He made it tough. Every catch, every entry pass, every shot was contested, every rotation was right. He’s an elite defender. Three steals, one block. one assist. five rebounds. I’m just really happy with the way he’s adapted to this role and hopefully, he can keep growing.”
Glowing words, and they were well earned considering the fact that the coach underlined his philosophy with the decision to play Ntilikina as a small forward. That the youngster passed the test, is an indication that he has learned his first lesson under Fizdale, and that is a lesson he must keep learning, to keep improving:
Fizdale wanted position-less basketball; which means all the players must be able to play all positions, and interchange on the floor. He moved Ntilikina from his ‘comfortable’ role as point guard, and plonked him in a position he thought would be better. The player responded; and the journey to greatness may have started.
The other aspect of basketball Fizdale mentioned in his mission statement was defense, and his comment on Ntilikina’s performance showed that he appreciated the effort of the 20-year-old. But the art of defense in the NBA is multi-faceted and ever changing: and Ntilikina must keep at it. He was good against the Hawks, he would need to be excellent against the more sophisticated sides who have superstar wings.
Finally, he must keep growing. The buzz around Madison Square Garden and the league, is that Ntilikina has something, but whatever it is, is not in full bloom yet. That is why he cannot afford to stagnate. While his defence must keep improving, his scoring must also advance. Last season, he scored in double figures in only 13 of the 78 times he played. That has got to change: he shot .364 percent last season, and was even poorer – despite the Fizdale praise, with .286 percent in his first game this season. Ntilikina must make better shot selections, and score more.
His passing must also improve. He barely averaged an assist per game in the three years he played in Europe, despite playing at point. He recorded better averages in the category last season, as he improved to 3.2 assists per game. but he could do much better.
Fizdale was impressed with him, but the key to his thoughts were in the final phrase, “hopefully, he can keep growing”.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, WNBA its clubs or Kwesé Sports.