A QUICK RE-SET ON NTILIKINA & KNOX

Let’s get this out of the way with haste. I am firmly on #TeamFrank and #TeamKnox. I’ve stan’d for Frank since day one and still do. I’ve been more cautious in my outlook on Knox than some. But, I’ve always said he was a perfectly defensible 9th overall selection.

With a bit over two-thirds of a bad–err, miserable–season gone, it’s a good time to re-visit the available data and see what it says. Notice I did NOT say, “make enduring pronouncements or predictions.” I also did NOT say, “abandon all hope for growth and development.” What I am saying is that all data tells you something and you would be wise to figure out what it tells. Nearly 60 games is enough for us to do some figurin’ for diagnostic purposes.

Frank Ntilikina — We know about Frank’s defense, even if at a glance it doesn’t seem quite as good as last season. Consider that he rates as a net positive in 6 of the 10 five-man combinations in which he’s played (-7.7 overall, one of the best on the team, but his on-court/off-court is +1.7). And, all of his net negative lineups feature some combination of Burke, Kanter, and Hardaway. I can’t wait to see his long, switchy, versatile defense with (in theory) a capable rim protector on the the floor at all times. Unfortunately, his injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. That’s just buzzard’s luck. I like that the team has publicly been patient with his groin injury. Those are notorious for fooling you into thinking you’ve recovered only to be easily aggravated and quick to re-occur.

Speaking of unfortunate, there is no getting past Frank’s ghastly shooting numbers. A 41.9 TS% at age 20, following 43.7% as a 19-yr. old rookie, is “hoo boy” bad. It’s a miracle he has a positive on-court/off-court differential. And yet, from a bird’s eye view–if you squint and tilt your head–you can see the outline of a useful offensive player. Ntilikina may never become a consistent league average shooter, but he can still be valuable on offense like Marcus Smart, a reasonable comp as a moderate-usage, defense-oriented combo guard. Smart shot 49% as a 20-yr. old rookie. Terry Rozier shot an unspeakable 39% as a 21-yr. old rookie in 2015-16. A lot of guys have had to shoot their way out of the basement, into the 50s in TS%, so they don’t offset their defense and the non-shooting aspects of their offense. That is Frank’s path.

As it happens, his non-shooting offense is actually pretty decent. On basically identical usage to last season his assist rate is 19.3% (down a tad from 20% in 2017-18), which seems to back up my thinking that he has the best court vision on the team. He also cut his turnovers way down from 19.8% to 15.8%, mostly by cutting some of the lazy post feeds and floaty cross-court passes out of his diet. Frank has to shoot better for any of this to matter, but there are enough examples of guys who have traveled that path–two active in the division–to have some faith he can do it too.

Kevin Knox — I am not worried about Knox. I think he’ll travel a similar path as Brandon Ingram, where he’ll work his way into being an average(ish) shooter as he adds the necessary strength to play his position. That said, he, ummm, may not develop into a perennial all-star.

Knox’s TS% (46.9% as of this writing) is not meaningfully better than Ntilikina’s rookie year shooting. He’s not shooting well, but he is using up possessions like an elite bucket-getter or playmaker. Trust me, I get all the caveats. Knox goes to work against grown-ass men every night with an IOU for a grown man’s body. He is the third youngest member of his draft class, and one of only five 19-yr. olds playing real minutes (Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Jr., Wendell Carter, Jr., and Marvin Bagley III). Of those, only Jackson, Jr. is younger (~1 month). The others are older by 5-6 months. Keep in mind, at that age 5-6 months is huge for physical development. Considering all that context, Kevin Knox is still the worst shooter on a comically bad shooting team. Even in his 19-yr. old cohort he’s the worst shooter by a country mile. So it may be wise to back off the “future scoring title” predictions. If that happens let’s all just revel in the surprise.

Consider that Thaddeus Young*, a perfectly around-the-median player now in his 12th season, had a 19-yr. old rookie season in 2007-08 that was basically twice as good as the season Knox is having.

*Did you think this was Young’s 12th season? Me either. His career could easily slot into the top half of players drafted 9th overall, where Knox was drafted. Except Young was drafted 12th, where his markedly average career is easily one of the ten or so best.

I am not here to dump on the kid. I like him. I am in NO WAY declaring that he can never develop into the perennial all-star that Young never did. He could make the second year leap De’Aaron Fox is making right now. Sign me up for that, but we should all stop pretending–coaching staff included–that there is any good reason for him to have a green light stuck in the “on” position. In the remaining games I’d love to see him work on other aspects of his game and be held accountable for defense, rebounding, and passing.

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