The 2017 NBA Draft is loaded with talent — specifically at the lead guard position. We’ve heard plenty about Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox — there’s no doubt those dudes are studs. But after those three go presumably within the first five to six selections, where do teams then go for point guard help?
Say hello to Frank Ntilikina — an 18-year-old Frenchman taking European basketball by storm.
The 6’5″ projected lottery selection currently plays for Strasbourg in the French Pro A League, averaging a little over 5 points per game in about 19 minutes per game. Those numbers don’t jump out at you but with such a young, dynamic athlete playing overseas against grown men, you’re drafting based on ceiling — not floor.
So what does Ntilikina bring to the table that Fultz, Ball and the others don’t? Here’s everything you need to know:
1. The New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks are Locked on Ntilikina
Both the Knicks and Mavericks are desperate to improve their point guard position. The Knicks select 8th, the Mavericks 9th.
While New York received adequate play from Derrick Rose last year (18 ppg, 4.4 apg in 64 games), he’s an unrestricted free agent and with the team rebuilding, it doesn’t make much sense to bring him back.
According to the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola, the Knicks have had a scout “babysitting” Ntilikina in France. “He’s their man,” Isola writes.
Ntilikina has also said he would be a good fit in New York’s triangle offense — something team president Phil Jackson is dead set on the team running.
“The game they play – the triangle offense – is close to the game I play in France with my team. A lot of movement. I think to play over there, I would fit with them. It would be great to play for them,” Ntilikina told the New York Post earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Ntilikina’s coach at Strasbourg — Vincent Collet — will coach the Mavericks summer league team in Orlando, according to ESPN’s Chad Ford.
Not to mention, owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson recently traveled to France to see and meet Ntilikina.
Dallas currently has Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea on their point guard depth chart. And while Ferrell — undrafted out of Indiana — was a pleasant surprise last year (10 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 rpg in 46 games), the Mavericks would not pass up on the services of Ntilikina as they go through their own rebuild.
2. Ntilikina’s Athleticism May be His Most Intriguing Asset
According to DraftExpress.com, Ntilikina has a ridiculous 7’0 wingspan — something that will allow to guard multiple positions at the next level and be a more than adequate perimeter defender even as a rookie.
Often picking up more experienced import guards full court, Ntilikina is an intelligent, hard-working defender who gets low, slides his feet, and does a great job cutting off penetration using his anticipation. His length allows him to be a factor in the passing lanes while contesting shots on the perimeter and interior, and even if he needs to get stronger, he figures to be, at the very least, a solid system defender at the next level.
And again, the fact Ntilikina is playing against professional basketball players at his young age, while his fellow prospects spent last year playing against amateurs in the NCAA, cannot be overstated. Take Ntilikina’s own team for example: the average age on the roster is about 24-years-old, with eight players on the squad over the age of 25.
3. Ntilikina’s Jumpshot Continues to Improve
Ntilikina is shooting 40 percent on his jumpshots this season, compared with a dismal 18 percent last season, according to DraftExpress. That’s quite an improvement.
“Ntilikina remains streaky, struggling for stretches this season, but also made 43% of his spot up jumpers and a massive 68% of his pull-ups over six games at the U18 European Championship running far more hot than cold over the past year,” DraftExpress writes.
ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said before the draft combine in May in regards to Ntilikina:
I think people who didn’t know him early on — the obligatory line when you don’t know somebody is, he’s a really good athlete, but he’s not a great shooter, and he’s dispelling that this year in France, shooting over 40 percent from the international 3. He doesn’t have the polish of a Fultz or Ball or the speed and athleticism or raw athleticism of Fox or [Dennis] Smith, but he has the look and feel of an NBA guard when he grows up.
4. Among His Weaknesses: Not a Take-Over Type Player, Yet
Ntilikina isn’t necessarily the most-explosive player in this draft, which explains in part why he may drop into the lower-half of the lottery. In today’s NBA, with guys like Russell Westbrook jumping over people and players like Kyrie Irving getting to the rim seemingly whenever they want, a slow-down, deferring type of point guard isn’t as sexy.
DraftExpress writes of Ntilikina’s weaknesses:
The challenge for Ntilikina at this stage is that he isn’t particularly explosive with the ball, has a high handle, kills his dribble unnecessarily under duress, makes some occasional careless mistakes, and can’t always turn the corner against more physically gifted defenders.
Like most young point guards, Ntilikina will at times struggle with turnovers — 4.8 per 40 minutes at the 2016 FIBA U18 European Championship, per DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony.
With time and more development, one could assume that turnover rate will decrease but the lack of speed and ability to burn his man is concerning. It doesn’t necessarily exclude him from being a very good player in this league for many years, especially being that he projects as a plus defender, but it may explain why he’s not going to be a top-five selection.
5. Ntilikina is Expected to Fly Back to France After the Draft for the French League Finals
While Thursday figures to be the thrill of Ntilikina’s life, he still has some unfinished business back home. Strasbourg currently finds itself in the French Pro A League Finals with Chalon. The best-of-five series is all tied up at 2-2, with the deciding Game 5 on Friday.
Ntilikina, who arrived in Newark on Tuesday, will be inside the Green Room for Thursday’s draft, wait for his name to be called, do the media rounds that evening and then head back to France on a charter flight in time for his team’s winner-take-all game on Friday.
“I’m enjoying the process here, but I will have time to focus on my French team, talk to teammates, see what happens in practice and go back to France to play Game 5,’’ Ntilikina told the New York Post on Tuesday shortly after arriving.