Frank shocks the world (or USA... or the Knicks)

by Jonathan Macri

You could see the narrative writing itself before the final buzzer had even sounded:

The redemption of Frank Ntilikina, whose team left him for dead, has occurred on the grandest stage.

Because of course it did. For years the Knicks have been blind to something that was just witnessed by the entire world. It’s a sight we might long remember. An ending for the United States may wind up being remembered as a new beginning for the future of French basketball.

 Just don’t call it a comeback. Frankie never left. He only needed a chance.

--scene--

(Been practicing that for a while…did I rush it? Felt like I rushed it…)

For some, yesterday’s performance was indeed a revelation. After all, outplaying Kemba Walker, the best player on Team USA, was something few saw coming.

Except we did see it. Nine months ago. Against Kemba. Only that time it was in Charlotte, not China, and the stakes were about one one-hundredth as high.

Still, nothing about this is completely out of the blue. That December night saw Frank score a career high 18 points versus Walker’s Hornets mere days after being benched for a week. Anyone who insists yesterday’s performance was Frank’s best as a pro should probably pop in a tape of that game. Or the one three nights later against Cleveland. Or earlier in the season vs Brooklyn. Or way back in November of his rookie year, when he drained a cold-blooded, go-ahead three against Indiana, much like the Sam Cassell Big-Baller he hit in the fourth quarter Wednesday morning:

The signs have always been there if you were willing to look for them. Those signs have been just plentiful enough to provide fodder for two-years’ worth of the same debate: is Ntilikina inconsistent because he isn’t being nurtured more by the Knicks, or are the Knicks not nurturing him more because he’s been so damn inconsistent?

I stopped trying to figure out the answer at some point between my fourth and fifth bottle of Black Label last season. By the end of the year, I had reached a comfortable numb and accepted the fact that if Frank found success in the NBA, he’d probably do it elsewhere. Since when have we been able to have nice things.

In my melancholy, I watched the playoffs, which featured the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA championship.

The Raptors won, first and foremost, because they had Kawhi Leonard. He’s really good. But a lot of teams last year had top-end talent. The Raptors had a formula: put as many players on the floor at the same time who a) defended on a string; b) made smart, quick decisions on offense; c) could move with the ball, at least a little; and d) more often than not, hit an open shot if they were presented with one. In a phrase, they had a lot of two-way playmakers who you couldn’t ignore.

This is not revolutionary stuff. Such players have been highly valued throughout NBA history. The Raptors, though, like the Warriors dynasty they dethroned and the 2014 champion Spurs before them – the one that achieved basketball nirvana against Miami – took it to a new level.

Watching Toronto’s victory over Golden State convinced me more than ever that I’d never see Frank Ntilikina play another game as a New York Knick. The NBA, after all, is a copycat league. I figured some smart organization would swindle us, buying low on a young player they could talk themselves into improving his shot enough to be the massive asset people like me have always argued was there, lurking just beneath the surface.

I was so convinced this would happen that on draft night, I spent my train ride into Manhattan writing a postmortem on his short, inglorious career with the Knicks. It’s still saved on my desktop (just in case).

You never read that piece, because as draft night came and went, somehow, Frank remained:

That was 12 weeks ago. Since then, Knick fans have spent most of the summer ruminating about who will be in and out of David Fizdale’s rotation come October 23. Everyone has their guesses, but anyone who mentions Frank’s name seems to do so with the resignation of one who purchases a lottery ticket.

“Hey, you never know…(but really, you kind of do)”

October 23 is also four days after the Knicks will decide whether or not pick up Ntilikina’s fourth-year team option for $6.1 million. In NBA terms, $6.1 million is not a large commitment. It is most especially not a large commitment preceding a summer in which arguably none of the 30 best players in the NBA will be free agents, and in which the Knicks will have many, many millions of dollars to not spend on these not-elite free agents.

After seeing his performance this month, one would think that picking up the option would be a fait accompli. But then again, you’d have said the same thing about Frank getting traded 12 weeks ago. 

After all, Ian Begley - as plugged in as anyone - reported then and confirmed yesterday that the asking price for Frenchie may not have been all that high:

Even after Marc Berman noted post-draft that no trade occurred because “the offers weren’t deemed worthy” of a player with Frank’s potential, the jig was up. Frank remained a Knick not because they badly wanted him, but because no one else wanted him badly enough.

Put it all together, and someone here is the asshole. It’s either:

  • a) Me, and those like me, who not only purchased all available beachfront property on Frank Island, but helped construct the villas and staff the Tiki bar;

  • b) The Knicks, who may have stunted the development of someone with all the tools to play and win in the modern NBA; or

  • c) Other GM’s, asleep at the wheel, failing to take advantage of a bargain staring them in the face.

If I had to guess, I’m going with d) all of the above.

Is Frank as good as some of us have consistently wanted to believe? Probably not. All the intangibles in the world can’t make up for the fact that he could have back to back possessions like this:

Missing iron is one thing. Consistently treating the paint like it’s covered in these is another. Doing both is a death knell.

But then, just when you’re about to count him out, he’ll put together a sequence like this:

The Knicks can and should continue to shoulder blame for the fact that they haven’t been able to consistently get that player to emerge. Maybe the four months of tough love he received would have paid off in the end, but we’ll never know due to the injury that kept him out for all but two of the final 34 games.

Or maybe they did, as many have argued, simply give up on him. But then why is he still here? Why not cut your losses and recoup something – anything – of value for a player you know isn’t going to figure in your future plans? And on the flip side, why did no one treat this as the Knicks Knicksing things up as usual and offer the menial asset it would have taken to get him, a month before his 21st birthday?

Maybe prospective buyers were waiting until the price dropped even further. Conversely, maybe the Knicks were waiting for this exact moment, when they knew Frank would shine, and try to recoup a quarter on their dollar instead of mere nickels and pennies.

Regardless of why he’s still here, training camp is less than three weeks away and whatever equation was in place during the draft should be scrapped. The NBA is the NBA and FIBA is FIBA, but this tournament allowed the world – and more importantly, the Knicks – to see something we haven’t seen before:

Put Frank Ntilikina alongside some decent players, and good things will usually happen (including taking - and making - one of the more highly pressurized shots in his country’s history).

Maybe it’s no coincidence that when He Who Shall Not Be Named was still here, his best heavy-minute partnership by net rating was with Frank.

“He” is gone, but in his place is a revamped roster that features several players who have no problem shouldering the scoring burden that has never been Ntilikina’s jam. One of them – a kid by the name of RJ, perhaps you’ve heard of him – is perhaps Frank’s ideal partner: someone who needs the ball but has no business playing point guard (at least not yet), and would benefit from something of a co-lead guard alongside of him.

Whatever the reason, fate has intervened to not only let Ntilikina have this moment, but have it while New York is still his NBA residence.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Knicks haven’t been much of either for a long time now. Maybe yesterday is the moment when things start to turn around on both fronts.

Frank put on a show. The rest of the world was watching. Let’s hope his own team was as well.


Thanks for reading, talk to you next week!