I recently wrote a relatively in-depth film breakdown of Frank Ntilikina’s performance at the u18 over at The Step Back, with the conclusion that Ntilikina is not a top-10 prospect for me. If you’re new to Ntilikina as a prospect, you should read that piece first. That isn’t inherently a very bold take, seeing as DraftExpress has him at #12, but Ntilikina has received a lot of top-5 hype, and is liked by many of my draft nerd peers, so I figured I would further clarify my low-stance on him.
I present to you, a statistical comparison between Frank Ntilikina playing at a little over 18 years old in the FIBA u18 European championship and Dante Exum, having just turned 18, playing in the FIBA u19 world championship. Also, it is worth noting that Ntilikina was battling the flu at the beginning of the tournament, but it doesn’t particularly affect my analysis because he displayed the same flaws later in the tourney.
I am not suggesting that Exum and Ntilikina are all that similar players, but merely that a comparison between the two when Exum was playing in an environment (due to age) that should be more difficult to succeed in could be illustrative. This is with the knowledge that while Exum has shown some positive signs, particularly on the defensive end, he looks like a pretty major disappointment as an NBA player on the whole.
The usual caveats about there being a lot more to draft evaluation than simply looking at numbers apply, but the relative similarity in player types (tall point guards) and similarity in competition allow for some comparison. There are a few things that jump out when looking at their statistics. Ntilikina is clearly the better defensive and shooting prospect. Both of those things matter, and are why I believe Ntilikina will be a better NBA player than what Exum looks to be. However, the difference in a few categories is particularly interesting.
For starters, look at the disparity in their distribution numbers. Ntilikina averaged more assists per game, but the gap isn’t huge, and Exum has the advantage in A/TO ratio. What’s concerning here is that Exum also came into the draft with a reputation as a good floor general, and has failed pretty miserably at creating for others as an NBA point guard. My eye-test scouting of Ntilikina’s passing found it to be good not great, and I worry that if his passing doesn’t look elite against FIBA u18 competition it won’t be very exceptional at the NBA level. The fact that he’s posting an assist rate of 13.37% compared to a 15.94% turnover rate with his club team Strasbourg doesn’t exactly alleviate my concerns.
A big part of Ntilikina’s billing is that he’s a high-IQ floor general and plus passer. He’s 6’5 with a solid handle and clear examples of him passing the ball pretty well, but I definitely don’t think he’s as good a distributor as he’s hyped to be, and there are legitimate concerns his passing could fall off at the NBA level.
One of the big reasons I worry about Ntilikina translating to the NBA is that his functional athleticism on the offensive end is a glaring weakness. Exum has struggled to consistently get in the lane or finish in the lane in the NBA because while he could get by on his size and athleticism in FIBA, he’s not an exceptional athlete by NBA standards and he doesn’t have the creativity to compensate. Looking at two-point attempts, two-point field-goal percentage, and free-throw attempts – the three best indicators of ability to attack and finish – it is obvious that Exum was wayyy better as a prospect than Ntilikina.
That Exum has failed at these things in the NBA and looks way better as a prospect than Ntilikina does at these things is a giant red flag. Ntilikina’s offensive burst and explosion looked merely above-average to me at the FIBA u18 level, which suggests it will be a significant weakness when he gets to the NBA. There is a real possibility that Ntilikina is about as bad as an NBA point guard can possibly be at both penetrating the defense and finishing inside.
It is worth re-affirming that I do see value in Ntilikina as a prospect due to his shooting and defense, but essentially my arguments against Ntilikina boil down to 3 things.
- His defense might be a touch overrated: Ntilikina’s length, agility, and good instincts allow him to generate a lot of positive events on the defensive end and give him unique positional versatility. Still, he is not a super quick-twitchy athlete by NBA standards, or an overly strong and physical one. He also got beat off-the-dribble by more FIBA u18 guards than I would expect from a truly elite NBA defender. I think he will be a very good and versatile defender at the NBA level, but I don’t think he will be quite a Rubio-level one (who he is most physically comparable to).
- Just how bad his point guard skills and athleticism are is not being fully appreciated: This is mostly what I went over in the above sections, but it cannot be overstated how much of a red flag it is that Ntilikina looked so poor at creating inside the arc at the level of competition he was playing at. He could certainly be equally bad or even worse than Dante Exum at doing point-guard things on an NBA floor, and that is a big issue.
- He probably doesn’t have the upside to burn team’s for passing on him: Any good scouting involves embracing uncertainty. Ntilikina certainly could be much better as a creator than I expect, and provide a lot of value as a 3-and-D guy. In such a scenario I imagine him as an even better version of Patrick Beverley – in terms of value. Similarly good defenders on point guards with Ntilikina getting an edge due to switchability and also being a little better on offense as a secondary creator. However, while that is a very good and useful player that I would regret not ranking higher, it is not a player type that a team would kill themselves for passing over.I just don’t really see a scenario in which Ntilikina becomes a mega-valuable NBA player. He’s simply not going to be an elite creator for an NBA point guard, and while 3-and-D point guards can have a lot of value, they don’t have the same value as a 3-and-D wing. Especially since Ntilikina is unlikely to return more than slightly above-average value on the three portion of 3-and-D. The two scenarios in which Ntilikina would really burn me are if he became a dynamic three point threat off-the-catch and the dribble or if as his young and skinny frame developed he gained outlier amounts of athleticism. Both are within the realm of possibility, but pretty giant outliers that I feel comfortable betting against.
I’m still probably going to have Ntilikina somewhere between 12-18 on my final board. He has paths to being a useful player with his versatility to play the 1 or 2 and provide shooting and defense. But he has pretty massive downside in terms of his ability to operate comfortably within an NBA offense, and he doesn’t have the upside or eliteness in his 3-and-D profile to be a top-10 pick.