Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Frank Ntilikina spent some time in Dallas over the summer, training for the NBA season and the FIBA World Cup. David Fizdale flew to Texas for a visit with Ntilikina in July. At one point, the coach shared a simple, poignant message with his young guard: "We've got a lot of confidence in you, play free, leave everything behind you."
Ntilikina seemed to do just that with the French National team. He started at guard for the club and his play -- which included a clutch performance against Team USA -- propelled them to a bronze medal in the World Cup.
"It gives you a lot of confidence," Ntilikina said of his World Cup success. "But I say now: it's a new start with a new team with the Knicks. So it's another competition."
That competition started in earnest on Monday night in Washington, D.C.
Ntilikina had nine points, five rebounds and three assists in the Knicks' preseason-opening win over the Wizards.
He missed seven of 10 shots, which isn't ideal. But Fizdale was focused after the game on the fact that Ntilikina kept shooting.
"I was really proud of the way he stayed with it. He missed two jumpers in a row (in the second half), and then Wayne (Ellington) came off of a screen and kicked it to him again and he let that third one go without any hesitation and it went down," FIzdale said. "Those are the plays that last year, he would be hesitant on. Now I think he feels like, 'You know what, I'm going to keep shooting this thing. I've worked on it.'"
A REVAMPED JUMPER
Ntilikina's work began shortly after the regular season. From late April through July, Ntilikina spent time working with NBA trainer Tim Martin, with a focus on shooting. Martin drilled down on Ntilikina's rhythm and footwork -- both in shooting off the dribble and off the catch.
Martin saw Ntilikina, a career 30 percent shooter from beyond the arc, leaning on some of his shots. Sometimes his steps leading into the shot were off balance.
Through repetition, the tendencies that hindered Ntilikina's shot in the past began to break. Ntilikina worked with Martin on shooting with defenders flying at him. He worked on coming off screens in spots where he might find himself in the Knicks' offense.
"We worked on being more aware of how he needs to shoot the ball in certain situations," Martin, who has trained dozens of pro players, including Trae Young, Myles Turner, Devin Harris and PJ Washington, said in a phone interview. "We had positive reinforcement every single day."
The work seemed to pay off, as Ntilikina hit 51 percent of his 2-point attempts and 33 percent of his threes for the French National Team en route to their Bronze medal win in the World Cup.
"I was more comfortable shooting the ball and that was the goal," Ntilikina said. Ntilikina's work with Martin wasn't limited to shooting. The trainer also tried to reinstill a daily confidence in Ntilikina after his injury-marred 2018-19 season.
"We harped on his mental approach every single workout, trying to reprogram him in a sense by putting him in scenarios in those workouts to where he's having consistent success," Martin said.
SOMETHING TO PROVE WITH THE FRENCH TEAM
Ruddy Nelhomme, assistant coach of the French senior national team, noticed that confidence in Ntilikina early on during his training with the French team.
"The feeling was that this guy came during the summer to prove that he can play high level basketball," Nelhomme said in a phone interview. "He was aggressive."
Ntilikina's confidence during training carried over into the games. The coach attributed some of that to Ntilikina being given a longer leash to play through mistakes. Some of it certainly had to do with Ntilikina playing for French national team head coach Vincent Collet, who coached Ntilikina as a teen pro in France.
"He had time to prove day by day that he can play," Nelhomme said. "His teammates and staff had confidence in him."
Of course, it's fair to wonder if that's always been the case in New York.
Ntilikina was selected eighth overall by then-president Phil Jackson in the 2017 NBA Draft. Jackson and the Knicks parted ways days after the draft, but current team president Steve Mills -- the GM when they selected Ntilikina -- said he would have made the same pick.
Despite that support, Ntilikina never seemed to have a long rope to play through mistakes in his first two Knicks seasons. And when he was on the court, he didn't produce enough consistently on offense to command a regular role.
Ntilikina played just 43 games last year due to various injuries, and the Knicks talked to teams about potential Ntilikina trades prior to the 2019 NBA draft.
One team, per SNY sources, said a conversation with the Knicks about Ntilikina included the exchange of a high second-round pick. Obviously, the Knicks didn't find a deal that they liked.
So Ntilikina remained in New York, and is now in the midst of a pivotal stretch of his Knicks tenure.
KNICKS HAVE OPTIONS
New York has to decide by the end of the month if they are picking up the 2020-21 option on Ntilikina's contract. The club also has to make the same decision on contracts for Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr. But given the trade talks prior to the draft involving Ntilikina, the decision on his contract holds a bit more weight.
If the Knicks exercise the option, Ntilikina would be under contract for $6.2M in 2020-21. New York could then make him a restricted free agent the following summer (by extending an $8.3M qualifying offer, and retaining his $18.5M cap hold). If New York picks up Ntilikina's option and trades him, the same scenario applies to the trade partner.
If the Knicks decline the option, Ntilikina would become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. New York would still have his full Bird rights (at a $6.2M cap hold), but they would be barred from re-signing him to a contract with a starting salary greater than the $6.2M he would have received if his option were exercised.
In this scenario, Ntilikina becomes an expiring contract, which could have value on the trade market if a team were looking to add cap space this summer and the Knicks were looking to take on an undesirable contract. The Knicks could potentially receive a future asset like a draft pick for taking on an onerous contract.
'A BAD RAP'
How the Knicks proceed with Ntilikina is one of the most interesting storylines of the season. His career is somewhat of a Rorschach test for the fans I see on social media. There's a vocal group who strongly believe Ntilikina will be an important piece of a winning team and an equally vocal group who feel like the Knicks made a mistake by drafting him.
It seems like Ntilikina will be given a legitimate chance to play in the preseason. Fizdale has expressed nothing but optimism about the guard over the past week.
"I think he's coming in with a whole fresh mindset. Again, his health was really the thing that was demoralizing. He's healthy this year," the coach said.
If Ntilikina can stay healthy, the Knicks feel that he can maintain confidence, which is crucial for a player of any age who is competing against the top players in the world.
Elfrid Payton, one of the players competing with Ntilikina for minutes, believes he has a place in the league.
"Frank is very talented. I think he's been given a bad rap as far as the league goes. He's very talented, extremely long arms, especially on the defensive end," the point guard said. "…. It's crazy how this league can be. I never thought of him as (a subpar player). It's crazy how this league tries to label you."
Fair or not, the label so far on Ntilikina has been injury-prone and underwhelming on offense.
Can he change that? We'll find out in the coming weeks.