In what was designed from the start to be a rebuilding year, the Knicks' most important objective has been player development. There have been some pleasant surprises on that end - the emergence of undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier, for one - but the team was hoping for a step forward from 2017 lottery pick Frank Ntilikina that has thus far not come.
In his second season, Frankie Smokes' offense, already a liability as a rookie, has taken another hit.
He's shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 25.7 percent from beyond the arc. Once thought to be the Knicks' long-term future point guard, Ntilikina's assist rate is down, too, from 20 percent to 16.2. These struggles have caused David Fizdale to bench him for much of November, with Emmanuel Mudiay taking his spot in the starting lineup.
Ntilikina has also seen his position and role in flux this season. He's shuttled back and forth between guard and forward positions as he's struggled to find a rhythm on offense. Defensively, he has the physical tools to be elite, and showed signs of it his rookie year, but still has a lot of work to do before he fully realizes his potential at that end.
Despite these concerning signs, at just 20 years old, it's far too early to write off Ntilikina's NBA career, or even his tenure with the Knicks. Players don't always develop and improve in a linear fashion in the best of circumstances, and the Knicks' roster situation has been anything but.
For one thing, Ntilikina was at his most effective in his rookie season when sharing the floor with Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks outscored opponents last season by 6.7 points per 100 possessions when they played together, which was their best two-man combination that played meaningful (non-garbage time) minutes.
If Ntilikina is going to be a long-term piece for the Knicks, it will be playing alongside Porzingis whenever he returns from his torn ACL, which may or may not happen this season. Those two continuing to develop chemistry together will be crucial, both for Ntilikina's individual growth and for the team's success. Signs last season pointed to their pairing trending in a positive direction, but that connection is on hold for the foreseeable future, until Porzingis gets healthy.
Beyond that, some players simply take longer to develop than others. A look around the league sees plenty of All-Stars, even a few Hall of Famers, who struggled or put up unimpressive numbers in their age-20 season before blossoming, including the likes of Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Dirk Nowitzki.
On a smaller scale, the Knicks' own roster is full of late bloomers. Big man Noah Vonleh, a former top-10 pick, is on his fourth team in five seasons after unremarkable stints in Charlotte, Portland and Chicago. With the Knicks, he's started all 23 games this season and put up the best numbers of his career in every statistical category.
Same goes for Trey Burke, another former lottery pick who found himself out of the league at the beginning of last season, playing in the G League until he signed with the Knicks in January and rejuvenated his career.
Fizdale would love for Ntilikina to become a reliable scorer, but the Knicks' long-term success doesn't depend on it. Once Porzingis returns, be it later this season or next year, he will once again be the focal point of the offense, unless Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving comes in July.
The organization also remains high on this year's lottery pick, Kevin Knox, who has also had an up-and-down rookie season, and he may still develop into an offensive force. Ntilikina would do well to continue focusing on becoming a lockdown defender above all else, with any offensive development being a bonus.
Whether it's with the Knicks or not, there is still plenty of reason to believe Ntilikina has a successful career ahead of him despite the rocky start to his second season. A rebuilding year like this one is not an ideal time to judge what a player as young and raw as he is will look like as a finished product, and the Knicks are not in a position where they should give up on him already.