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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch — 2/2/20

Despite the fact that the Knicks haven’t been a traditional trade deadline buyer in almost a decade, every trade deadline in recent memory has seen its share of Knicks rumors and activity, including last year’s paradigm-shifting trade with Dallas. This year will be no different. The Knicks added a number of salary-cap friendly veterans who could help other teams make and advance in the playoffs. And they should be open to dealing any/all of them.

But what about inquiries for their younger players? Technically, no one should be off-limits. If the Clippers wanted to deal Kawhi Leonard for RJ Barrett, the Knicks would do it, right? But in reality, offers are made based on a player’s ceiling, contract and production. So what should the Knicks do with their younger players if teams come knocking– namely, Frank Ntilikina? 

Ntilikina’s been a polarizing player since arriving in New York in 2017. He was drafted eighth overall when he was only 18 years old ahead of other players who fans and the media thought would fit better with the team, including Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk. Offensively, Ntilikina was raw and inconsistent. He scored 5.9 points and tallied only 3.2 assists in 21.9 minutes per game in 2017-18. He was clearly uncomfortable operating as a shoot-first guard having attempted only 6.9 shots per game as a rookie.

His second season was more of the same – 5.7 points on 6.6 field-goal attempts and 2.8 assists in 21 minutes per game. And while he was clearly perplexed with his inconsistent role, he was also beginning to get regular questions from members of the media about his lack of development and his unwillingness to shoot the ball. He struggled to understand how to secure consistent minutes, and it showed in his demeanor before and after games in the locker room.

Ntilikina entered his third season with a renewed confidence, at least partially driven by his success in the FIBA World Cup over the summer – where he helped lead France to the Bronze Medal as the team’s starting point guard.

And to the delight of many within the organization, it looked like he’d turned a corner.  Ntilikina logged 30 or more minutes in 9 of the team’s 14 games in November 2019. Across those games, Ntilikina started all 14 and averaged 8.1 points on 7.5 field goal attempts in 31 minutes per game. He shot 35.9% from three-point range, dished out 4.2 assists per game and was similarly impactful on the defensive end. Further, he had some inspiring individual performances, like in a win against Dallas when he tallied 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks, which put his entire repertoire on display.

But it didn’t result in wins. The Knicks were 3-12 in November. Further complicating matters, then-head coach David Fizdale was fired by the team in early December after finally relenting more minutes to the young point guard. And just like that, Ntilikina’s role was back in flux.

With the team floundering and the front office under an increasing amount of scrutiny, it wouldn’t be surprising if interim coach Mike Miller was told to win regardless of the cost. Or maybe he just preferred the veteran, Elfrid Payton. But Coach Miller spoke highly about Ntilikina’s skill set prior to the Jan. 24 home game against Toronto.

“I think he’s growing with his role as he goes and he’s getting good shots,” Miller said, “So you look at the shots he’s taking, I think we talked about this after the (last) game, I love to see him attacking the basket the way he did, going in there, he got an open-court three, he got a couple pull-ups. So he’s getting to his spots and taking the shots that he should be looking for.”

Ntilikina’s shot and his willingness to use it are clearly improving. He’s become especially adept at shooting mid-range jump shots when his defender goes under screens. He’s connecting on 46.3% of his long-range two-point shots, of which he’s taken 54 already this season – up from 29.4% on only 34 attempts in the entire 2018-19 season.

“I’m just trying to play the right way and take good shots,” Ntilikina told Basketball Insiders. “I know they’re going to come. I’m going to get to my spot each and every night. So just working on them and trying to be ready come game time.

“I realize I have to take it because it’s a good shot and the defense gives it to me –and you have to take what the defense gives you,” Ntilikina continued. “It’s also confidence because since I’ve known the defense was going to give to me, I’ve been working on that shot. And I’ve been successful at taking it and making it.”

In addition, Ntilikina’s obviously far more comfortable throwing lobs to teammate Mitchell Robinson than he’s been in the recent past – another valuable part of his game that’s developed since his rookie season. Granted, Robinson makes for an easy target, but games like the Jan. 1 contest against the Portland Trail Blazers is a perfect example of Ntilikina’s progress. Against Portland, Ntilikina tallied 10 assists, putting on a passing clinic along the way.

But he’s still struggled to make the leap with Coach Miller. Ntilikina averaged only 4.5 points and 2.0 assists in 16.2 minutes per game in December and 6.2 points and 3.2 assists in only 17.1 minutes per game in January — a monumental change in playing time from November to December and January.

It’s unclear if speaking to the coach, front office or his agent would help Ntilikina secure a more consistent role in New York. But in typical Ntilikina-fashion, he’s chosen to let his play do the talking for him.

“Right now, I ask for minutes and opportunity by working my ass off and giving everything that I can to my team,” Ntilikina said.

But when will the team show that level of trust in Ntilikina?

Coach Miller continues to rely heavily on Elfrid Payton, playing him 29.5 minutes per game so far in January. Payton is a fine player. But he’s 25 years old and has been in the league since 2016. We know his strengths and weaknesses. But we don’t know what Ntilikina can be.

We won’t know for sure until next Thursday, but it’s unlikely that Ntilikina is traded before the deadline considering his lack of impact this season.

So assuming he’s kept beyond the deadline, the Knicks must let him play. They should take off the training wheels and let him prove that he can bounce back after a bad night, and that he can continue his improved shooting with more volume. The team is currently 13-36 – ostensibly eliminated from playoff contention. With nothing left to play for, there’s nothing left to lose.

And if all else fails, Ntilikina is still a lock-down defender. Ntilikina ranked first overall in the NBA in points allowed per pick-and-roll possession in his rookie season, according to Synergy Sports Technology. And while he may not have maintained that specific achievement last season, he’s still an accomplished and versatile defender who is regularly assigned the opposing team’s best player – be it Trae Young or Luka Doncic.

“With Frank and his value, defensively, he’s been high level,” coach Miller said. “He’s been really good. So he’s not impacted when that ball’s not going in. He’s still doing his job on that (defensive) end.”

That’s noteworthy because lots of guys let misses affect their overall effort when in a shooting slump. It’s unfortunate that the Knicks apparently undervalue Ntilikina’s defense and selflessness. He might become a star and he might. But he has the makings of someone who should be in the league for a long time. And shockingly, he prefers New York – for now.

“This is a good organization,” Ntilikina said. “I’m thankful that they picked up my option (for 2020-21). I really want to be here long term and end my career here. And I want to be successful with the franchise.”

It’s unclear when success and Knicks will be uttered in the same sentence. But Ntilikina wants to stick around to see it through. And he’s even willing to do some of the leg work. They shouldn’t take that for granted.

“Definitely,” Ntilikina replied when asked if he’d like to help recruit free agents to New York.

Hopefully, he’s still around to do so — this offseason and beyond.

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