By John Schmeelk
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There are many reasons for Knicks fans to finally have confidence that the team’s future is bright. The 5-4 record is the obvious one. Kristaps Porzingis’ emergence as an unstoppable offensive force is another. The promising start to Frank Ntilikina’s career is the third.
The Knicks have been searching for a point guard for what seems like forever. Aside from cameos from veterans Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups, they haven’t had a real starting point guard since Stephon Marbury. His stint in New York did not go well. You have to go back to Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, or Derek Harper, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson before that.
But the search may be over.
The offensive numbers for Ntilikina won’t jump off the page. In 18 minutes a game, he is averaging 4.7 points on 36 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range. His 4.0 assists per game in limited minutes are impressive, as are his 1.9 steals per game. He’s good at two things Knicks point guards have struggled with for years: defense and passing.
Ntilikina might only be 19 years old, but in many ways he is an old-school point guard. He isn’t particularly bouncy or explosive off the dribble. He won’t dart around screens and past defenders for acrobatic layups over big men. That’s how you might describe Dallas rookie Dennis Smith Jr., but it is not how you would describe Ntilikina.
When he has the ball, Ntilikina has a pass-first mentality that coach Jeff Hornacek has spoken about while prodding him to be more aggressive in taking his own shot off of high pick-and-rolls. Instead, he is constantly looking for the big man who sets the screen either rolling to the basket or spotting up for a jump shot. His passes are usually on time, and they hit the receiver in rhythm for a shot.
He also makes the simple pass that might not turn into an assist for him, but might create a basket a couple passes later. Most modern NBA point guards are obsessed with dribbling the ball up the floor themselves. Ntilikina will keep his head up and throw the ball up the court to his wing players to create easy offense before the defense gets set. Hornacek has praised him for his basketball IQ and the way he understands the plays and offense quickly. It shows.
Ntilikina is the traditional pass-first point guard who thinks first and foremost about setting up his teammates. His court vision allows him to see his teammates. His length allows him to get his passes over or around defenders. His unselfish style gives him the desire to get his teammates points rather than fishing for them himself. It’s refreshing.
The Knicks score nearly six more points per 100 possessions when Ntilikina plays because of his unselfishness. What makes that stat even more impressive is that before Sunday’s game, he had rarely been on the court the same time as Porzingis (45 minutes total all season).
As good as his passing has been, Ntilikina’s defense has had an even more positive effect on the team. The Knicks defensive rating improves by nearly four points when he is on the floor instead of the bench. His 3.6 steals per 36 minutes is tops in the entire NBA for players who have played 28 or more minutes. His steal percentage is tops in the league among players who have logged significant minutes.
Ntilikina uses his length to harry ballhandlers and then contest shots. His 7-foot wingspan is what allows him to get his hands on so many balls. His defense off the ball has been just as good. His instincts have allowed him to steal the ball in switch situations or after off-ball rotations.
We already know Ntilikina will be a good passer and a good defender. His offense has a lot of room for improvement as a scorer and penetrator. There’s no reason to think that won’t come, but even if he settles into a player who averages around 14 points and eight assists and plays high-quality defense, he will be extremely valuable.
If that comes to fruition, he would be the best homegrown Knicks point guard since Jackson. Knicks fans love point guards. They love ball movement. They love defense. Ntilikina can do all those things and more. It will be a lot of fun watching how much better he can get.
The “French Prince” would be New York royalty for a long time.
• Small forward Lance Thomas is forcing his way into the lineup more and more with his hard work, hustle, defense and tenacity. He does all the little things you need players on a winning team to do. Hornacek referred to him as the team’s best defender after Sunday’s game. It is going to be hard to keep him off the floor for long.
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