At the 2017 NBA Draft, the Knicks selected Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick, expecting that the young Frenchman’s passing acumen and defensive prowess would shine in a triangle offense. Now Phil Jackson is gone, the triangle is gone, and last month, it was decreed that Frankie—by then the longest tenured Knick—was also gone. The team renounced their rights to Ntilikina in August, continuing a shameful trend that extends into its third decade. Ever since Charlie Ward inked a five-year deal in 1999, the team has not seen a single first-round pick stick around for a multi-year second contract. This millennium, the Knicks front office has largely chosen to move away from such retrograde notions as “player development.” Was Frank worth anything to another team, though? The market was looking dicey for a minute, as Ntilikina was not even a top target to back up an intestinally ill Nico Mannion overseas on Virtus Bologna, but yesterday the Mavericks picked up the French Prince in free agency. Dallas owner Mark Cuban paid Ntilikina a visit in Italy ahead of that 2017 draft, but they missed him by a slot and wound up using their ninth overall pick on Dennis Smith Jr., who eventually found his own accursed path to the Knicks.
In his brief tenure and meager minutes, Ntilikina somehow addled and radicalized an already unwell fanbase, but did not make much of an impression on his many coaches. Given his non-existent pull-up shooting, janky handle, oatmeal-speed first step, and aversion to contact, it became clear that he was miscast as a primary initiator of offense. And as frustrating as it was to see him buried in the rotation behind the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay and Elfrid Peyton, it became harder and harder to blame the closed minds of one coach or another, as they all basically converged on that dreaded consensus: This guy was not actually very good. As a point guard, his signature move might have been locating a wing standing above the break, passing him the ball, scurrying dutifully into the corner. So he wasn’t a point guard. Was he a 3-and-D guy? Not if you ignore last season’s tiny sample and look at his his 32.8 percent mark from deep over his career. One is left to wonder what might have happened had the novel coronavirus not struck the world, since Ntilikina did put up 20 points and 10 assists in that game on March 10, and the shooting form seemed to be stabili—sorry, I’m sorry.
He will find another chance at redemption in Dallas, one hopes, restoring his value much the way former Knick Tim Hardaway Jr. did. His job gets much easier with. The Ntilikina dead-enders will always have our cherished moments: a gorgeous defensive rotation, an uncharacteristically angry drive at a large European man, a clamped-down iso on offensive royalty, a thoughtful bit of praise from Steph Curry, a cheeky behind-the-back into a pure pull-up. (We’ll glide right past his last meaningful possession as a Knick, of course.) Many happy memories, interestingly, came from the superb defense Ntilikina played on his new teammate, Luka Doncic. Clearly the Mavericks simply wanted to take the world’s best known anti-Doncic device off of the open market. When the Slovenian cruises to MVP after MVP, on the basis of all the savvy counters he was forced to develop while practicing daily against this long-armed savant, we—the true believers—will know who to thank. The Knicks, meanwhile, will decide whether or not to end their unholy streak of non-offers by contemplating Kevin Knox.