With a timetable for Kristaps Porzingis’ return from a torn left ACL still up in the air, the Knicks don’t have much reason to be optimistic about the end of what will soon be a six-year playoff drought. But while the 7-foot-3 Latvian is still New York’s long-term centerpiece, second-year guard Frank Ntilikina is almost as important to the long-term success of their rebuild.
Ntilikina’s up-and-down rookie season was filled with uncertainty about his place within the organization. He was drafted by Phil Jackson less than a week before the Zen Master’s controversy-filled tenure as team president came to an end. The post-Jackson Knicks then signed Tim Hardaway, Jr., a ball-dominant guard, to a four-year, $71 million contract. Throughout the season, they added Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay, two more former lottery picks, to compete for minutes in the backcourt.
Ntilikina appeared in 78 games but started just nine, all of which came well after Porzingis’ season-ending knee injury dashed any faint hopes they may have had at a postseason run. He averaged a mere 21.9 minutes per game during the year, showing signs of becoming an elite perimeter defender while struggling to find a consistent role on the offensive end.
Ntilikina displayed a defensive acumen uncommon for a 19-year-old rookie. He’s capable of guarding four positions and switching in all kinds of different matchups. Defending the pick-and-roll, he was especially lethal, ranking in the 90th percentile league-wide and allowing just 0.649 points per possession, per Synergy. The Knicks were 6.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court, and he was second on the team in steals despite his low minutes. Even if his offense improves, Ntilikina’s calling card in the NBA will be his defense. The indicators are there that he can become truly elite at that end.