Frank Ntilikina was picked up by Dallas last season as something of a lottery pick reclamation project after the New York Knicks chose not to retain the fifth-year guard. It was exactly the kind of low-stakes, tire-kicking move capped-out teams should be looking at. Now, in the second year of a two-year contract, Ntilikina needs to demonstrate he has consistently reliable NBA skills. Defense is great, but eventually, in the modern NBA, you need to be able to add some points. (See the divergent career paths of players like Dorian Finney-Smith and Andre Roberson, who both entered the league as defensive specialists. But only one learned how to shoot.)
The path is there for Frank. When asked by DallasBasketball.com about who on the roster could develop to fill the void left by Jalen Brunson, Mark Cuban gave Ntilikina a vote of confidence, saying “People forget we have Frank, who will be better this year.”
If Jason Kidd can help develop Ntilikina into a functional rotation player, it could be a minor coup for a team with so little in terms of young, developing talent. Despite being in the league for five year, Frank is still just 23, so there’s hope yet that he may find his niche.
What position is Frank Ntilikina? Ostensibly, he was drafted out of France as a point guard with an intriguing set of physical assets, sporting a 7-foot wingspan on his 6’4” frame. It’s a set of measurables that no doubt help him excel defensively. However, after three years in New York where Ntilikina failed to fill out as a point guard, Frank was entirely out of the rotation in his fourth year - a move that precipitated the Knicks forgoing to offer him another contract.
In his lone year in Dallas, Ntilikina spent more time as a shooting guard alongside either Doncic or Brunson. The move to the 2 is likely a more natural fit for him, but there’s a issue. Ntilikina isn’t a very good shooter. He’s a career 33% shooter from three. Despite that, he has the look of a confident shooter, and when he gets his feet set and a clean look, he can knock down shots. He shot 40.6% on “wide-open” shots last season.
So there’s a bit of a catch with Frank. Cuban’s comments, perhaps just fluff to a question without a good answer, seem to partially indicate that the Frank Ntilikina, NBA Point Guard experience may not yet be quite over despite his more natural fit as a defender and spot up shooter over that of a playmaker.
Best Case Scenario
Hoping for Frank Ntilikina, a player who is perhaps on the verge of being out of the NBA, to step up as a 20-minute-per-game second-unit ball handler seems a tad audacious… AND YET.
There’s no question Dallas will require second-unit playmaking. The team, apparently, wants to at least see what they have in-house before adding a more established player for the role, going so far as to leave a roster spot open heading into the season. For Frank to step up would not only have a big impact on his chances of sticking around the NBA, it would also have a big impact on Dallas’ roster flexibility. Outside of Luka Doncic, and perhaps Josh Green, Ntilikina is perhaps the only player on the roster with any sense of real passing vision. If absolutely everything clicks, perhaps this is the year Frank goes from project to rotation.
Worst Case Scenario
When looked at in a certain way, we’ve already seen the worst-case scenario with Ntilikina. He’s not a player with the weight of a Luka Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, or even Christian Wood. Any benefit extracted from Frank Ntilikina's minutes was largely an unexpected bonus while trying to get core rotational players some rest on the bench.
If Frank doesn’t work out, the aforementioned empty roster spot will likely get filled fairly quickly, and without much fanfare, we simply won’t see much of Frank anymore.
He needs to hit shots regardless of what position Frank’s filling on offense. If he can become even an NBA average three point shooter - good enough that defenders can’t simply ignore him - he’ll likely see his minutes increase.
Dallas’ offense is built around creating space for Luka Doncic to operate in the paint. If Frank can be another valid shooting threat to receive a hot Doncic pass, or, better yet, be the guy making a hot pass every now and again, he’ll earn himself some fans in Dallas.
What may largely seem like a pessimistic outlook regarding Ntilikina’s upcoming season belies an undercurrent of quiet, if unsubstantiated, hope. No doubt, Mavs’ fans are rooting for Frank. (Honestly, there’s not much other young developing talents to put that hope in.) If Dallas can turn either him or Josh Green into contributing players this season, that has to be considered a win considering Dallas’ decade-long stretch of draft strikeouts.