Frank Ntilikina Is a B+ Trade Target For Charlotte

SHENZHEN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 05: #1 Frank Ntilikina of the France National Team looks on before the match against the Dominican Republic National Team during the 1st round of 2019 FIBA World Cup at Shenzhen Bay Sports Center on September 05, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)
SHENZHEN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 05: #1 Frank Ntilikina of the France National Team looks on before the match against the Dominican Republic National Team during the 1st round of 2019 FIBA World Cup at Shenzhen Bay Sports Center on September 05, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images) /

Is Frank Ntilikina a good NBA player?

According to some, he is a future star. Others talk about him like he is a total bust.

Polarization is normal for weak scorers who excel in other areas — it still haunts John Stockton all these years later. In Ntilikina’s case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I recently went back and rewatched the Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns playoff series from this past season. One, it was a really entertaining series. Two, it’s the offseason.

Lost in all of the commotion that was in that series — the “Luka special”, the crazy Game 7, Dinwiddie’s 30-point performance, Ntilikina’s defensive impact has been massively overlooked. I’ll actually go as far as to say that Dallas doesn’t win that series if Ntilikina doesn’t get thrown into the rotation. I know how foolish that sounds, but his defense was just what the Mavericks needed to edge an offensive juggernaut Suns team.

Earlier in the postseason, Ntilikina underwent a tonsillectomy that made him miss the series against Utah in its entirety and Games 1 and 2 against Phoenix.

Even with Dončić also missing time in the first-round, Dallas made quick work of Utah and essentially sent them into a full-on rebuild à la Damian Lillard and the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the second round however, Dallas’ defense or lack thereof was exploited by Phoenix.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker, especially, couldn’t be stopped in Games 1 and 2. Booker scored an efficient 53 points as well as dishing out 12 assists and grabbing 13 rebounds on those two games. Chris Paul was doing his usual point god stuff, tailing a combined box plus-minus of +33.

However, it all changed when Jason Kidd inserted Frank Ntilikina into the rotation, as Dallas went on to win four out of the next five games.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

After Ntilikina took Josh Green’s minutes, Chris Paul averaged just 9.4 points a night, turned the ball over seven times in Game 3, and had a box plus-minus of –57 (no, not a typo). Devin Booker, while on a smaller scale, saw his production drop off as well (mostly in his percentages).

Ntilikina actually held Chris Paul and Devin Booker to 3-40 FG when matched up on them. I’m not saying that Ntilikina is the CP3-stopper or Booker’s kryptonite. The numbers are.

When Ntilikina is on the court, opponents turn the ball over 2.5 more times — the second biggest differential on the Dallas Mavericks roster. In fact, nobody in the NBA generated more steals per possession than Ntilikina did last postseason. He averaged 3.4 steals per 100 possessions and in a win-or-go home Game 6, on the road, against the number 1 seeded team in the whole league, Frank the Tank had four steals, meaning nearly 10% of possessions with him on the court resulted in a Ntilikina steal.

It gets better. His disruptiveness on defense goes far beyond turnovers. The Suns shot 10 percentage points worse on mid-range jumpers when Ntilikina was on the floor, a feat particularly impressive considering only the Chicago Bulls shot more of these shots than the Phoenix Suns did last season. A big reason for that was Ntilikina’s screen navigation skills – crucial when facing a team like Phoenix that loves to spam pick-and-rolls and take advantage of the drop coverage with elbow jumpers.

Bravo, Nico Harrison.

Seriously, every time you sign a player for a little over two-million dollars and they’re giving you significant minutes in the postseason you’re doing something right as a General Manager.

But, if Ntilikina is this defensive savant that I made him out to be, why did he have to settle for that contract in the first place?

Despite Ntilikina’s defensive contributions being a very real thing, the Mavericks’ offense was still 17.5 points per 100 possessions worse whenever Frank was on the field — bottom three in the entire NBA during the playoffs. On/Off stats are notoriously misleading, especially with a small sample size as low as 120 minutes, but it still looks pretty bad. And the eye-test will tell you the same. Ntilikina’s offensive game remains a work in progress as he’s about to entered year number six, there’s no two ways around it. Outside of his second season with the Knicks, every team that he’s been on has been better offensively when he’s off the floor.

Frank is only 24 years old and far from a finished product. His form looks decent, so maybe one day he can develop a consistent jumper as play a similar role to players such as Luguentz Dort or Patrick Beverley — there’s always going to be a place for players like these in contending teams.

Frank Ntilikina can’t score, so what?

The Charlotte Hornets have been historically great on offense during the LaMelo Ball era but have struggled on defense — ranked bottom 10 in defensive rating, defensive field goal percentage, and contested shots in the past two seasons. With Steve Clifford sitting on the bench next season, it’s fair to expect a boost on the defensive end for the Charlotte Hornets, but any team that gives Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr. quality minutes has a clear ceiling on the success they can have on that side of the floor.

Having the right personnel surrounding Ball is fundamental to sustained success, and Ntilikina is someone who could be a great fit. Ntilikina averages just 5.2 points on 5.3 shots attempts per game for his five-year NBA career, a rarity for young players who often feel the need to score if they’re going to be successful — he could guard opposing team’s best players without taking shots away from the young superstar.

Ntilikina’s hustle, accountability, and “dog mentality” can help the Charlotte Hornets in a playoff push but as a 24-year-old he also more than fits Charlotte’s youth timeline and could grow with the team in the coming years.