Too Early to Judge Ntilikina and Smith Jr. After a Month of the NBA Season
Frank Ntilikina is having a solid season so far. He’s currently averaging two points, five assists, and two steals per game. Those numbers may not seem like much but it showcases that he’s a pass first point guard with defense prowess. Not only that but he displays a “feel for the game” and never really bulks under pressure and tries to find his teammates open for shots.
So it’s no surprise that a young, 19 year old rookie would find himself in controversy for all the wrong reasons thanks to the nature of NY media and one legendary NBA superstar in LeBron James.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Dallas Mavericks 111–104, James complimented on the Mavs young rookie Dennis Smith Jr.
“The Knicks passed on a really good one,” James said. “Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick. That’s gonna make some headlines but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely excited that he didn’t go there.”
Smith Jr. is currently averaging 14 points, four assists, and one steal per game. The young rookie displays a level of explosiveness that fits right in the mold of the modern NBA point guard. He’s quite skilled that even LeBron can’t help but complimenting him.
So does this mean that LeBron is right and the Knicks acted in typical Knicks fashion and whiffed on the draft again?
Let’s pump the brakes and realize that LeBron’s comments should not be taken that seriously.
First off, this was another pot shot at Phil Jackson (although it’s kind of weird that LeBron is still thinking of Phil’s negative comments after the fact that he’s long gone from Madison Square Garden and no longer has say on the current Knicks landscape). Last season, Phil called LeBron’s friends a “posse” in an interview with ESPN and felt that James was acting entitled during his time with the Miami Heat.
LeBron took offense to his comments and has since lost respect for Jackson.
“I had nothing but respect for him as a coach for what he was able to do,” James said. “Obviously he was at the helm of [the team featuring] my favorite player of all time [Michael Jordan], and also being there growing up and watching him with the Lakers, but I got nothing for him.”
Second, it’s also premature to determine which rookie has a better future considering that both prospects are only 19 years old and are still developing as young players.
I admit I initially wanted the Knicks to draft Dennis Smith Jr. at the 2017 NBA Draft. The team was in dire need of a point guard for the future to play alongside Kristaps Porzingis. The lead guard would have to be skilled enough to form a frightening pick and roll duo with the 7'3" “Latvian Unicorn.” Since the Knicks had the 8th overall pick, they had a choice between De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina. The top point guards in the draft — Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball — were going to be taken by the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers respectively.
Each player has their strengths and weaknesses but overall were good prospects that could be developed alongside Porzingis and serve as the cornerstone players of the future. Since Fox increased his draft stock after a monstrous performance during the NCAA March Madness in 2017 he fell into the lap of the Sacremento Kings. Knicks would have a choice between Monk, Smith Jr., and Ntilikina.
Despite his playmaking skills and excellent shooting abilities, Monk was a shooting guard by nature and the Knicks could easily find a player of his caliber in free agency (the player became Tim Hardaway Jr.). That left Smith Jr. and Ntilikina.
As mentioned before, Smith Jr. had a level of explosiveness that would fit the modern, prototypical NBA guard. He would push the pace of the game and serve as the focal point of the offense similar to the likes of John Wall, Russell Westbrook, or even Kyrie Irving.
If he played alongside Porzingis, there’s no question that they would get tremendous points over their opponent. Smith Jr.’s game could also be seen similar to point guard Eric Bledsoe, a Jeff Hornaceck favorite during his time as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Hornaceck would’ve been able to run his spread offense and utilize the duo to great effect.
However, the Knicks decided to roll with Ntilikina.
Even though he wasn’t my first choice, I was content with the Knicks choosing Ntilikina. I stated that he’s a young prospect who could develop and possibly grow into a great NBA talent. However, the Knicks really need to commit themselves to his development and not rush the process like they have done in the past.
Most analysts (and cynics) believe that the reason why the Knicks chose Ntilikina is because he has the skill set that fits Phil Jackson’s famed triangle offense and his infatuation with European players over American college athletes. While both those facts are true, they also fail to mention the intangibles he posses compared to Smith Jr.
Since the late 90s and early 2000s the Knicks have not had a defensive point guard to lead the offense since Charlie Ward when he was coached by Jeff Van Gundy. Ever since Van Gundy and Ward’s departure, the Knicks have been searching for a point guard to lead the team ever since. They haven’t had any luck due to constantly trading their draft picks, poor free agency signings, and short-sighted goals that have hurt the club over the years.
Ntilikina is a defensive-minded point guard with an enormous frame. Standing at 6'5" with a 7'0 wingspan, he can get to the teeth of the defense and made crucial plays that force turnovers and lead to extra points. It also helps that he is very intuitive and quick to learn from his mistakes as stated by his coach.
“He’s such a smart kid,” Hornacek said. “We don’t have to repeat things twice for him. We show it him one time and he’s got it. I think that’s going to translate for him. He’s going to gain a lot of knowledge from one game. I think he’s a smart player.”
Alan Hahn of MSG Networks and ESPN NY Radio also stated that Smith Jr. and his trainer refused to allow the Knicks to examine his surgically-repaired knee to determine where he stood health wise. It already had a swelling during the season.
Frank Ntilikina vs. Dennis Smith Jr.
Alan Hahn and Al Trautwig take a look at the early season returns from first round picks Frank Ntilikina and the Mavs…
Smith Jr. is also a defensive liability. While he’s an excellent scorer, he’s a minus 7 per game. He currently stands at a minus 84 in the 12 games he played while Ntilikina is a plus 37 in the ten games he’s played.
He and Porzingis are also one of the best two man duos in the NBA.
While both rookies have showcased excellent promise, they still have long ways to go before they truly set themselves apart from other players. Both are flawed in their own right. Ntilikina gets too passive at times and doesn’t really have a consistent jump shot to help dictate the flow of the offense. Smith Jr. — as mentioned before — is a poor defender and takes too many risks that leads to turnovers. However, they both can improve over time and people will be able to determine who truly is the better point guard when they come into their own as NBA players. It’s easy to get caught in the hype since both rookies are extremely talented and LeBron did not help by his comments which added more fuel to the fire.
Then again, James himself has not had the best history of determining talent.
There are still Knicks fans who believe that Ntilikina will be a bust despite only playing a month worth of NBA basketball. It’s not fair to expect a young 19 year old to automatically become Mike Conely Jr. in a span of 13 games. The same goes for Smith Jr. Give them time. Remember, it’s a process.
*credit goes to Basketball Reference, NY Post, NY Daily News, ESPN, DraftExpress, MSG Networks, SBNation