LOS ANGELES – As the youthful rotation plays out during this homestretch, it has become clearer that the Knicks view Frank Ntilikina as more of a shooting guard, less of a point guard.
The signs were there when they signed Trey Burke and traded for Emmanuel Mudiay, and the ensuing games have only reinforced that direction. Ntilikina’s minutes were up since the All-Star break while his assists were way down heading into Friday’s match up against the Clippers, a product of him playing off the ball while Burke and Mudiay acted as the primary ballhandlers.
As scouts have noted for months, Ntilikina isn’t quick enough with his dribble to play point guard in the NBA – at least not at this stage of his development. It hinders his playmaking abilities. On defense, Ntilikina’s length allows him to defend shooting guards – leaving Hornacek with the option to play the Frenchman alongside Burke or Mudiay.
Understanding his new track, Ntilikina said he’s been watching film of one of the best shooting guards currently in the NBA, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan. To reach anywhere close to that level, however, Ntilikina will have to work on his finishing. A lot.
“I’m learning every day,” Ntilikina said recently. “I want to bring everything to the team. Either on the point-guard position or the 2 position. If coach wanted me to play the 5, I would have to eat, obviously.”
What does this mean for the long run?
Ntilikina can always get stronger and develop a quicker dribble, but the idea that the Knicks already drafted their point guard is fading. It also means the Knicks need to get a better sense of what Mudiay has to offer before tackling the draft and free agency.
Obviously the Nuggets gave up on Mudiay for a reason, and the Knicks are hoping that they were wrong. Prior to Friday night, Mudiay was coming off his best shooting game as a Knicks – when he dropped 20 points with seven assists on 8-of-15 from the field against the Warriors. It was Mudiay’s highest scoring output since early November.
“I’m starting to get a good little feel. What is it? Five, six practices in. it’s just a small sample size. So think probably this month I should get a lot more comfortable with the whole system,” Mudiay said. “I’m still trying to learn a lot of the plays. I’ve been running the plays I’m most comfortable with. And coach has helped me out.”
Beyond the new playbook, an obstacle facing Mudiay is his conditioning. He didn’t play that often in Denver this season – less than 18 minutes per game with multiple DNPs – and the 22-year-old has been running drills after practice to retrieve his wind.
“My conditioning went down a little,” Mudiay said. “But now it’s getting back.”
In the short term, the player most negatively affected by the new guard alignment is Tim Hardaway Jr. Since Ntilikina is primarily playing shooting guard and was averaging about 28 minutes per game since the All-Star break, Hardaway Jr. has often been pushed to a forward position.
Against the Warriors, for instance, he was guarded by Kevin Durant and predictably struggled while missing 7 of 11 shot attempts. It’s not ideal for Hardaway Jr., and that’s at least part of the reason Ntilikina has remained out of the starting lineup.
Ntilikina, for now, has been pivoted from the point guard of the future to the backup shooting guard.
While stipulating that he’s not in charge of such decisions, Hornacek indicated that Troy Williams will resign with the Knicks after his 10-day contract expires Saturday.
“I will say he’s play well for us. It’s that activity. His athleticism. I think length, he covers ground,” Hornacek said. “So I think he’s probably – I can’t speak for (GM Scott Perry) – but he’s probably done enough to earn another contract.”
The Knicks can re-sign Williams to another 10-day deal or lock him up for the rest of the season with a team option for next year. Williams, 23, went into Friday’s contest at the Clippers averaging seven points and 11 minutes over three games with the Knicks.
He is, without a doubt, the best dunker on the squad.
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