What is Frank’s Ceiling?

Chauncey Billups is obviously best known for his time with the Detroit Pistons and Denver Nuggets.  From his first year in Detroit in 2003, through 2011 when he was a part of the Carmelo Anthony trade to the Knicks, Billups averaged 17.3 points per game, 6.2 assists per game, made 2 All-Defensive teams, 3 All-NBA teams, played in 7 straight conference finals (6 in Detroit and 1 in Denver), and won an NBA championship while being named Finals MVP.  Certainly not the resume expected from a player that was labeled a draft bust by year three of his career. Drafted 3rd overall by the Boston Celtics during the Pitino era, there was a lot of focus given to whether Billups projected as a point guard or shooting guard. Like most rookies Billups put up poor shooting numbers, and experienced his ups and downs playing major minutes for a young, but talented Celtics team that also included Antoine Walker and 6th overall pick that year Ron Mercer.  Pitino however, grew impatient with the growing pains of his top pick. New York playground legend/former All-Star Kenny Anderson became available after refusing to play for Toronto, so Pitino pulled the trigger and shipped off Billups in a 7-player deal to acquire him. By the end of his rookie year between both Boston and Toronto, Billups had averaged 11.2 points per game and 3.9 assists per game on 37.4% shooting. The Raptors eventually traded Billups to Toronto before the 1999-00 season began and by the time he eventually arrived in Detroit, it was his 5th team in 5 years.  Dealing with poor outside shooting and a rash of injuries during his time in Denver and signing with Minnesota to play in a reduced role (and out of position), it wasn’t until the 2002 postseason that Billups gave the first real glimpse of what he’d become down the road. In his first postseason in an expanded role, Billups averaged 22 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and a steal per game. The Timberwolves were swept by the Mavericks, but Billups parlayed his success into a 6 year contract with Detroit. The rest is history.

Which brings us to New York Knicks guard, Frank Ntilikina.  Just by looking at them the comparison between Frank and Billups would never be considered.  Ntilikina, a long and wiry 6 foot 6 with a 7’1” wingspan, to Billups’ 6’3”, 210 lbs and 6’8” wingspan.  Billups, a bulldog, to Ntilikina’s standard poodle. Even the two journeys to the league couldn’t be more different.  While Billups was a typical top prospect of the 90’s – an All-American standout at the University of Colorado – Frank Ntilikina’s first time in the United States was the day the Knicks drafted him.  Growing up in France, Frank played pro ball at an early age for Strasbourg in the French league. He contributed off the bench as a role player where he developed advanced defensive skills, but never experienced an extended opportunity to run an offense and play freely the way young Americans do playing AAU ball and in high school.  When that opportunity did come, Frank dominated for the French National Team in the U18 world championships, winning the title and earning tournament MVP honors. It was at this tournament that NBA scouts (Phil Jackson’s draft guru Clarence Gaines in particular) identified Ntilikina as a legitimate lottery prospect and future NBA point guard.  

Fast-forward to June of 2017; after another difficult season for Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks, fan morale is at a new low.  Porzingis skips out on his exit interview with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks are at a strange standstill thanks to his NTC, and the news of the day floats between the team dysfunction and which point guard prospect was brought in for a workout.  The 2017 draft class is loaded with point guards, drawing comparisons to 2009 (Steph Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and 1997 (Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Steve Nash, oh… and Kobe Bean Bryant). Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, and Donovan Mitchell; all point guards or combo guards, and all projected to be picked at some point in the lottery.  With Fultz, Ball, and Fox off the board, the Knicks go with Ntilikina, the youngest of the group who pundits all consider a fit for the triangle. After similarly passing over the typical college standouts in 2015 selecting Porzingis over Justise Winslow and Willie Cauley-Stein, the Knicks went with the same formula, the unknown.

This all feels like a lifetime ago. Jackson was fired less than a month later for threatening to trade Porzingis and Carmelo was traded on the eve of training camp.  Coach Jeff Hornacek was given another chance despite the new regime of Scott Perry and Steve Mills, but the sense was that he was a lame-duck, destined to be replaced in a year unless a miracle playoff run occurred.  For Frank there was a sense of cautious optimism. An unknown 19 year old, transitioning into the toughest league and media market all while playing the toughest position. Year 1 brought plenty of ups and downs for the French Prince.  He won over the hearts of fans in an early November matchup against the Cavs in which he stood his ground as Lebron James bumped him and tried to intimidate him. He had his teammates rallying around him and fans raving in a stretch of games from October 27th to Christmas Day in which he averaged 6 points, 3 assists, and 1.5 steals in only 21 minutes per game.  Nothing outrageous, but numbers that translated to solid per-36 minute stats for a 19 year old rookie. Not to mention his impact on the defense as a whole and the seemingly great fit in a short sample of minutes with Porzingis (who was going scorched earth on the league up to this point). Then January happened. Frank had a stretch in mid-January in which he was held scoreless four out of six games. Then came the addition of Mudiay and emergence of Trey Burke to cut into his playing time.  By season’s end, we were talking less about Frank as the future point guard of the Knicks and more about if he even was a point guard at all. Sports talk radio in New York has considered him all but a waste of a pick, another miss from the Phil Jackson era. To the fans he had become the most polarizing Knick in recent memory. Half were convinced he was already a bust, an offensive liability who couldn’t dribble, shoot, or run an offense. The other half spent the summer posting his workout videos all over the Knicks subreddit.  

For those keeping track, we already have gone from prospect, to promising point guard, to maybe a shooting guard, to bust.  Sound familiar? In the Twitter and hot take era of NBA basketball these things happen much faster. What took 3 years and 3 teams for Chauncey Billups took a third of the time for Frank. Twenty years ago, Ntilikina likely would have been traded midway through his rookie season quite like Billups.  The Knicks have had several management iterations that resemble Pitino’s Celtics (aka, disasters) and the patience would have worn thin. With the constant comparisons to Mitchell and DSJ, buyer’s remorse would have set in sometime around the new year and he would’ve been shipped off at the deadline for Kemba Walker.   Now, finally in the starting point guard role, it is time for Frank to use Chauncey Billups as the framework for his own game.

Frank’s lack of explosiveness off the dribble and scoring aggressiveness are typically the biggest knocks on his game.  As for the aggression, it will come. However, the first-step explosion and downhill speed will never be a part of his game.  Frank will never be the power running back that bursts through a hole in the defense, blowing by everybody to get to the rim for a thunderous dunk.  The fans who are looking for him to be John Wall or Russell Westbrook are destined to be disappointed. But, looking to Chauncey Billups as an example, there are parts of Frank’s game that can be utilized for him to reach his potential.  Despite never being an efficient scorer, Chauncey Billups’ blossomed as an elite point guard almost entirely thanks to a consistent three point shot. After struggling with the three point shot early in his career (and playing in a league that didn’t value the 3 the way it is valued today) Billups began shooting at a 39% clip in 2002.  There was no looking back from here as he only shot under 38% one more time for the rest of his career. With opponents not being able to give him an inch of space, Billups was able to get by defenders without plus athleticism, using methodical pacing of his dribble moves and good use of a floater to keep big men guessing in the paint.

billups gif

With Derek Fisher playing Billups out 25 feet, Billups is able to lull Fisher to sleep and use a quick change of pace to get around him.  So far this year Frank is shooting 41% from 3 and 50% in his two games starting at the point. With defenders going under screens against him and sagging off at the top of the key he is making them pay.  If this stays consistent, and there is nothing to suggest it can’t based on his pre-NBA shooting numbers and clean form, Frank will be given an opportunity to take advantage of defenders playing too aggressive to prevent the outside shot.  

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Last Monday night against Brooklyn, Frank called for a high screen and roll with Mitchell Robinson on back to back plays. On the first play, Russell goes underneath the screen and Frank unloads. The following play, with Russell having to respect Frank’s jumper due to the previous possession, Frank takes advantage of the step of space and slips an accurate bounce pass right into Robinson’s pocket.  This is in spite of a poor screen from Robinson where he left too early. It’s hard not to envision pick and rolls with Porzingis that resemble Billups and Rasheed or Ben Wallace.

billups 2

Billups takes advantage of an odd step up from Kittles to get ahead of a potential screen from Ben Wallace and uses a hard crossover to get into the lane.  With Rodney Rogers backpedaling on his heels, Billups quickly stops for the floater and draws the foul from Kittles. A move like this one is something Ntilikina can utilize going forward, especially as his floater continues to improve.  Klay Thompson is a much stronger defender than Kittles, but here Frank is able to get him to bite on a pump fake to turn into a floater.

frankie

With the news that Scott Perry has been communicating with former Pistons like Rasheed Wallace, who visited practice this week to work with the big men, and Billups, hopefully Frank takes the time to get to know Chauncey Billups well.  Most importantly beyond the play on offense, Billups was a tenacious defender who had a fuck-you attitude that was unrivaled in his prime. He was the heartbeat of the mid-2000’s Pistons that dominated the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade with physical defense.  This is what’s so special about Frank. Even if these past two games are nothing more than a flash in the pan, he provides so much value with his defense. The swagger he could potentially carry on the court has already been seen in bits and pieces like the aforementioned Lebron moment.  Considering this, it becomes easy to fantasize about Ntilikina as the floor general for Knicks playoff teams for the next decade. Running pick and rolls with a healthy Porzingis, finding Kevin Knox on the wing, and pulling up for clutch threes at the top of the key while the Knicks rock the Garden like the good old days.  Right now, all we have as Knicks fans is hope and fantasy, but trust the progress of these baby-bockers and their fearless leader Fizdale and we may all be rewarded. As for the 20-year-old starting point guard of the New York Knicks, he is gonna play his game and ignore the noise, just like he has done since the boos rained down on draft night.   

frank dance

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