The French prospect is the right choice
Let me start by saying we’re splitting hairs. Both prospects have pretty sizable upside, and both have some shortcomings. But I think Ntilikina is more likely to reach his ceiling. He could be a top-three player on a championship team, and he (most importantly) will not be a weakness on defense. With his 6’5” stature and 7’0” wingspan, he can switch all the perimeter positions. His willingness to sit down and guard speaks well of his attitude, and his ability to do so against men speaks well of his ability.
On offense, his jumper is smooth and projects nicely with NBA coaching. And while it doesn’t make a huge difference, it’s worth noting that Ntilikina is nearly a year younger than Smith.
While film on him is fairly limited, here’s what I see when I look at his point guard skills: excellent vision, poor execution. He sees a lot of the right passes and makes plays that he’ll need to make at the NBA level, but he fails to complete those passes or make them on point so the recipient can finish the play. Dump offs to bigs land near their feet or get tipped up by defenders, but he has the right instinct. This is emblematic of the biggest reason I like Ntilikina over Smith: his deficiencies can be fixed by coaching, not miracles.
In addition to sharpening his passes, Ntilikina will need to shoot off the dribble, but he has a smooth shot as is, and it would surprise nobody if he developed a strong pull-up from beyond the arc. He’ll need to tighten his handle, which is a little high right now, but hours of work with NBA skills coaches are designed to perfect exactly that skill. He’ll also need to learn NBA defensive concepts, like all rookies, but the raw measurements say he’ll have the ability.
When I bet on Ntilikina, I bet on the upside being achievable. His ceiling may only be 95 percent of Smith’s, but the chances of getting there sure seem a lot higher.
Smith has the upside
Like John, I think I’d be fine with either Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith, Jr. I prefer Smith, but not to the extent that passing on him for a talent like Frank would cause total despair. Undoubtedly, Ntilikina has certain advantages over Smith, and one need only put the two side-by-side to identify them.
Ntilikina has several inches in height over the shorter, burlier Smith, and the difference in wingspan (around 10 inches) is obviously very significant. That creates a gulf in defensive potential between the two, with "potential" being the key word there.
However, before we condemn Smith to the "short arm sieve" pit inhabited by the Monta Ellises and Isaiah Thomases of the world, it should be noted that there's a player currently in the NBA born about two hours from Smith's hometown of Fayetteville who is even smaller than Smith and also happens to be one of the league's best defenders. While DSJ might not have Chris Paul's generational basketball intelligence, the physical tools are there to make a comparison.
Smith has a strong, powerful build, breathtaking speed, and (if his self-sponsored workouts are to be believed) otherworldly leaping ability. Smith also demonstrated a knack for defensive playmaking, posting a very strong steal rate, better than Fultz, Ball, Fox, Josh Jackson and any of the other consensus top-10 prospects. In fact, the only player projected to go in the first round with a better steal rate is Donovan Mitchell. Smith’s on-ball consistency needs work, and unfortunately Mark Gottfried was not the right coach to hammer in the details there. But I expect Rick Carlisle would be a major improvement on that front.
Meanwhile, on offense, I have a hard time seeing why anyone wouldn't prefer Smith. I've made this case before, but take him off of an NC State team that didn't have great shooters or a good roll man, put him on an NBA team, and see what happens. Smith has the speed and ball control to break down the defense, and his passing may be being undersold at this point in the draft process. He makes all the passes required of a modern NBA point guard and has demonstrated a good understanding of timing and space in pick-and-roll action.
Plus, of course, the one thing I don't think anyone questions is that he'll be able to get his own buckets. He has the look of a first or second option on a contending team. Despite his smallish stature, he can play above the rim, and I think he'll able to live at the free-throw line at the next level with his dribble drive game. I was also encouraged by his development from outside during his freshman season, enough to think he'll be at least an average three-point shooter.