French point guard Frank Ntilikina has been a popular mock to the Dallas Mavericks for some time, and with good reason.
The Mavericks are known for their extensive international scouting department, led by Donnie Nelson, and it has been reported that no team has seen or met with Ntilikina more than Dallas. Even owner Mark Cuban was photographed with Ntilikina in Italy during the past few weeks.
Of course, the Mavericks are far from the only team interested in the 18 year old, currently playing for Starsbourg in the French leagues. Notably, the New York Knicks are rumored to be enamored enough with Frank to have a team rep “babysitting” him, whatever that means. The Knicks pick 8th, one spot ahead of Dallas.
While social media and the NBA’s year-round media coverage has made Ntilikina a familiar enough name to draftniks, there are likely many of those who have never actually seen him play, and have little to go on in the way of information about his game.
So, just who is Frank Ntilikina?
Ntilikina has averaged 5.3 points, 1.5 assists, and 2.3 rebounds in a little over 19 minutes of action this season. He is by far the youngest player in the LNB Pro A League, and his team is currently in the championship round.
The promise behind Ntilikina starts and ends with his length. At 6’5, he has the height to play either guard spot. A 7’0+ wingspan would very strong for a small forward; in a point guard it is unheard of. This matters for reasons both obvious and obscure. The extra half-foot or more in reach allows him to recover on defense far better than the average guard, allows him to make passes at angles other guards can’t, and on and on.
Ntilikina gets praised for an advanced feel for the game at his age. I would stop short of saying in any declarative fashion that he is truly special in this regard (he’s played a supporting role mostly for Strasbourg, so again we’re having to project a bit), but from what I’ve seen he does seem to know how to play within himself, make the simple play rather than force the issue, and move the ball unselfishly. This makes him a great fit in a flow offense like the one Dallas runs.
He’s played mostly off-ball for Strasbourg, but when put in positions to make a play he’s shown good tempo in pick and roll action. The appeal here is versatility, as he looks like the type of player who can fit in a variety of different lineup deployments and contribute in several different roles.
While he should be given every chance to make his mark as a point guard, there is a chance he becomes a high quality three-and-D shooting guard.
If there is one thing I’m fairly confident Ntilikina will be able to do at the next level, it’s defend. He clearly likes playing defense, because he goes hard, and his physical tools allow him to take chances and still be in the right spot most of the time.
Rick Carlisle would have the makings of a potentially scary defense down the line with Ntilikina and Noel being able to switch everything. I dare you to try forcing a switch against those two. Go ahead. Try.
The offensive side is still a bit of a work in progress, and while we can talk about his age as a justification for this, try to keep in mind he’s less than two months older than Markelle Fultz.
I think there is definitely upside for Frank as a playmaker, but it’s at least possible that going forward Ntilikina will be best suited to the kind of role he’s had mostly already to this point, as a secondary ballhandler who can do a little bit of everything but won’t be the primary scorer or the primary facilitator.
Ntilikina will definitely need to add strength, like most NBA prospects entering the league, and there will also be an adjustment to the physicality of the American game as compared to Europe. For all the talk of his being a high basketball IQ player, he’s also still a long ways from being at the physical and mental level required to be a rotation player. It’s not unthinkable that if drafted by Dallas he might need some seasoning in the D-League.
Ntilikina showed a lot of improvement as a shooter in the last year or so, enough that I’ve seen some scouting reports calling him a plus shooter, but that may be premature. We are still very much in small sample size territory given his low volume totals, and while he’s been at a solid 39 percent three-point clip this year, his free throw shooting has been lower.
I have a small worry that for a player with such long arms, the shooting motion can get slowed down, giving him less margin for error against closeouts. Call this the “Roddy B” effect.
Fit with the Mavericks
In theory, Ntilikina is the type of player that fits with most any team, since he has such positional flexibility. For Dallas, the appeal is obvious: he defends, is unselfish, can fit in multi-PG lineups like the kind Carlisle loves to run, and he’s young enough that he wouldn’t complicate a plan to pursue a big name free agent point guard to help the Mavs give Dirk one last playoff run.
I must admit I don’t love making comps, but I do think it’s interesting that Dallas is supposedly hot on pursuing Jrue Holiday this off-season, because that’s kind of the player I could see Ntilikina developing into if things break right. Jrue is a big guard who defends well and is capable playing both on and off-ball. Health has stalled his development a bit, but on paper that’s a good player on a contending team, if perhaps not a superstar.
Another comp I’ve seen is Shaun Livingston with a jumpshot, which is certainly intriguing. Another player who probably didn’t quite live up to his potential because of injuries, though Livingston has been a key role player on arguably the best team of all time. If Shaun had stayed healthy, and developed a three-point shot, he probably would have been far better.