Learning From Our Mistakes: Dante Exum and Frank Ntilikina

Learning From Our Mistakes: Dante Exum and Frank Ntilikina

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.

Player Pts/40 Ast/40 Reb/40 STL/40 BLK/40 TO/40 A/TO
Exum 24.7 5.1 4.8 2.3 0.2 3.2 1.62
Ntilikina 21.8 6.5 4.1 3.1 1.7 4.8 1.35
2P% 2PA/40 3P% 3PA/40 FT% FTA/40
52.9 10.5 33.3% 7.7 60.9 9.6
42.4 7.9 58.6 6.9 92.3 3.1

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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2016 NBA Draft Team-by-Team Grades

Man, what a crazy draft. I tweeted this out during the night, but the degree to which this year’s draft didn’t follow any sort of consensus suggests a more contrarian big board is appropriate. If NBA team’s can’t figure out who should go where, there’s little point in sticking with Mock Draft groupthink.

Instead of traditional A/B/C…etc grades I will be handing out Love, Like, Meh, Dislike, and Hate. Granulating grades down across A+/A/A- just seems a little too exact for evaluating a team’s whole draft. The usual caveats about how silly it is to grade a team’s draft a day after the draft apply – but I’ve always found that line of thinking a little ridiculous. My grading of the draft is not meant to be a final determiner of each team’s draft, but instead purely how I would grade things with the currently available information, and nothing about that strikes me as invalid. On to the draft. Continue reading

Simmons, Ingram, and Bender: Breaking Down the Top of the Draft

This year’s draft is typically being framed as a two-player draft with a wide open third slot. I see things pretty differently, there is a clear #1 prospect, a very close debate between the #2 and #3 guys, and a wide open #4 ranking. I’m going to briefly give my thoughts on each individual player before comparing them. Continue reading

2016 NBA Draft Preview: 2/3 Wings

I’ve been a bit lazy with my writing this spring, so I’m going to try and crank out big positional breakdowns for 2/3 wings, 3/4 wings, 4/5 bigs, and true centers in the next few days before the draft. Hopefully, I will get through all of those and still have time to post my big board before draft night. As I did with point guardsI’m going to first examine these players in order of their DraftExpress rankings, then, I will rank them in my own order. Continue reading

2016 NBA Draft Preview: Top Point Guards

Instead of dividing up my thoughts on the point guards in this year’s class into segmented posts on different guys I figured I’d just combine into one overly-long piece of writing. Every player should be evaluated independently on what their NBA future could be, but when it comes to decision making on draft day it is all about comparing that projection to the other players around him. Therefore, I will try and give both individual and comparative analysis for all the point guards I see as draft relevant. I’m going to go player by player by DraftExpress’s rankings to do my analysis before re-ordering into my rankings at the end. Continue reading

Developing a Positional Framework for the 2016 NBA Draft

Before I dive into writing more player specific breakdowns for this year’s draft it is important to classify what exactly an NBA team should want out of a player they’re drafting. The positional foundation of the NBA has been shaken these past few years, and the movement to smaller 4’s and 5’s seems to be coming to a head. When evaluating players for the draft it is crucial to understand the current makeup of the NBA, and what value each player brings within that context. Continue reading

Assorted Thoughts From a Great Day of College Hoops

I was snowed in with nothing to do all day and, fortunately, it was one of the best days of college basketball all season. I’m someone who does best focusing on one game at a time, but thankfully the times of the games I most wanted to watch lined up nicely.

Game 1: Oklahoma 82 Baylor 72

This game was close in the first half and then Oklahoma just broke things open in the second half and made it a 20 point game before each team’s backups made the score look closer than it was.

I’ve got an article coming about Buddy Hield tomorrow where I’m somewhat pessimistic about his future, but this was a great game of his. He’s shooting the ball so well right now that defenses are just flying at him and against a zone like Baylor’s that really opens up the floor. If he can be a truly top tier shooter at the next level I need to adjust my evaluation on him.

This was a pretty classic 2015-16 Taurean Prince game. He showed off his athleticism on a couple impressive closeouts and rebounds, made some outside shots, and got a step on his man whenever he wanted. He also took some very questionable shots, didn’t do a good job manipulating the defense when he got in the lane, and missed a couple key rotations on the defensive end. His combination of size, shooting, and athleticism makes him a great 3-and-D candidate, but I’d really like to see him play some more defense to get an idea of how far he needs to go to learn NBA defensive principals.

Baylor sophomore big man Johnathan Motley also is looking more and more like he deserves to jump into the first round conversation. Whenever he got the ball inside in this game he was able to move Oklahoma’s big men and get a good look with his natural feel for adjusting his body and scoring. On defense, he showed off the mobility that allows him to play on the wing of the 1-3-1, but when he played at the back of the zone didn’t do as good a job protecting the rim as his athleticism should allow him to. Nonetheless, this guy is a skilled and athletic 4/5 deserving of a lot more hype.

Game 2: Duke 88 N.C. State 78

Duke showed their complete inability to attack a zone once again but somehow walked away with a win due to Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen bailing them out. Ingram’s high release means defenders have to press right up on him, and from there he can get a step on basically any defender in college basketball. He missed a couple shots around the rim he should’ve finished like always, but his sheer ability to consistently create those shots is evidence of how unguardable he is.

One interesting thing in this game was that Coach K put Ingram at the top of Duke’s 2-3 zone. I’m not sure if that says more about his ability to contest shots with his length or his complete inability to fight people on the glass.

Allen’s man growing defense has been getting better, but playing at the back of the zone he doesn’t know what to do at all. He does a good job hitting the glass and ended up with 7 rebounds, but frequently lost track of shooters that were his responsibility.

Fortunately for Duke, Allen’s offense more than made up for his defense. He had 28 points on 11-17 shooting and 7 assists but was 1-5 from three on good looks and that means he was a staggering 10-12 from inside the arc. There just aren’t many ways to guard Grayson Allen with college athletes. His outside shot garners a lot of respect from defenses, and his first step is one of the best in all of the college game. Once in the lane, he’s gotten great at finding the big man on dump-offs and obviously has the athleticism to elevate and finish if a big doesn’t rotate over.

Outside of the Kentucky game, Allen has done a great job finishing and has gotten a lot better at decision making. If he finishes and creates well against teams like UNC and Louisville the narrative that he “can’t finish against length” is going to need to be put to rest.

N.C. State guard Anthony “Cat” Barber did a good job penetrating Duke’s zone and knocking down jumpers but is ultimately a short point guard without an advanced feel for creating shots for his teammates. He’s super quick, but not quite enough of a dynamite shooter/scorer to deserve a draft pick.

Game 3: Kentucky 76 Vanderbilt 57

Full disclosure: I was shoveling snow for the first half of this game and only managed to watch the second half. From what I did see, Vandy continued to run stagnant offense and was forced to switch to 2-3 because their guards couldn’t contain Kentucky’s.

Wade Baldwin was the only Vandy guard who could stop Kentucky’s, but he wasn’t able to make things up on the offensive end. He didn’t know what to do against Kentucky’s length inside and ended up 1-9 from the field with 5 turnovers to only 2 assists. Baldwin lacks a degree of feel for the game and decision-making that you expect from an NBA point guard prospect. I’m as big a fan of his versatility on defense and ability to shoot and drive on offense as anyone, but the recent top-10 hype may be somewhat misplaced.

Up front, Damian Jones carried on looking like an Adreian Payne clone. He’s got the athleticism and shooting ability to make him an appealing NBA guy, but just has no feel for how to position himself on defense or what is a good shot on offense. Everything he does just looks mechanical and thought out beforehand, even on a couple of nice post buckets he had to start the second half. The more I watch him the more I’m unsure if he even deserves a top-25 selection. His frontcourt partner Luke Kornet didn’t do much in the second half but threw one sweet pass to Jones that left me with happy feelings.

For Kentucky, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray dominated on the offensive end. The couple times Murray matched up with Baldwin he couldn’t contain his penetration, but most of the game he was able to hide on Vandy’s least threatening wing. Coming off baseline screens on offense Vandy couldn’t do much to stop him. He does such a great job of reading whether to shoot the three or attack and create an advantage.

This game did nothing to change my conviction that Ulis should be at least an early second round pick. He flat out controls the game on the offensive end, and when he’s playing well seems like he’s toying with defense. I’m not very confident he can even be a backup at the next level, but he’s such a good player that I’m convinced he has some role as a 3rd point guard at least.

Isaiah Briscoe did a good job guarding Wade Baldwin, but I just can’t see a guard who can’t shoot or get by people ever being useful in the NBA. If you’re drafting Briscoe it’s because you’re convinced he can improve to at least 35% from three. I doubt he will even be top-45 on my board if he declares.

Kentucky’s bigs didn’t do anything particularly interesting in the time I saw. Skal Labissiere followed up his supposed breakout game against Arkansas by only getting 4 minutes to play in what was a 20 point game. No idea why Coach Cal didn’t give him more of a chance.

Game 4: Michigan State 74 Maryland 65

This wasn’t Deyonta Davis’s best showcase. He went 1-4 from the field, missing a couple shots around the rim he usually makes and was limited to only 15 minutes. I thought his defense and rebounding were good in his minutes, but apparently Izzo wanted a little more girth inside and opted to play Kenny Goins and Matt Costello most of the frontcourt minutes.

Denzel Valentine was his typical great self. He put up a 19-14-8 line and threw a couple look away passes that caused me to make noises in my living room. It’s a cliche that announcers always say about him and overuse in general, but the guy just knows how to play the game. His defense was typically solid as he matched up with the quicker Rasheed Sulaimon and bigger Jake Layman well.

Melo Trimble had an impressive 24 point performance and continues to perplex me as a prospect. He’s got some Damian Lillard in his ability to generate off the dribble threes in pick-and-roll but lacks a degree of athleticism you want in a point guard. He also didn’t pass the ball as well as he has done so far this year, and despite his strong scoring performance I left only mildly impressed.

Robert Carter yet again outplayed Jake Layman, and it is fair to wonder which is the better NBA prospect. Layman is a little more versatile on the perimeter and a superior shooter, but Carter is much stronger inside and just has a better feel for scoring the basketball. Layman is a guy that almost never impresses me, and I like Carter almost every time I watch him.

Diamond Stone wasn’t fed the ball much against Michigan State’s solid frontline and wound up with only 3 field goal attempts and 6 points. He did a good job defending in the post against Matt Costello but struggled to guard pick-and-rolls with Denzel Valentine involved. In a game like this Maryland was better off attacking from the perimeter and the uselessness of an interior player who doesn’t succeed in pick-and-roll was evident.

Game 5: California 74 Arizona 73

California snuck away with a much-needed win for their tournament resume, despite playing a pretty horrid last minute and a half. Jordan Matthews was the box score star of the game with 30 points and 6-12 shooting from three. He’s got a quick release from all over the court and does a good job attacking when players closeout, but he’s a bit of a chucker and a below average athlete by NBA standards.

The real star of this game in some ways was Jaylen Brown. He shot a disastrous 4-16 from the field, but shot 11 free throws, had 7 assists, and 2 absolutely huge blocks. His combination of speed and strength allowed him to just relentlessly attack the cup and generate shots, but he has no feel for finishing creatively around the hoop. Cal playing two non-shooting big men definitely doesn’t help his ability to finish, but even with Brown’s 7 assists, he needs to a better job finding guys when the whole defense collapses him. Still, this was an impressive game of Brown’s. His physical ability was on another level from everyone else on the court and he’s going to be a top tier athlete even in the NBA.

Cal’s other star freshman Ivan Rabb didn’t get as many post looks as usual due to Arizona’s large frontline. When he did get the ball he hit a couple nice shots from the midrange areas and did his usual good job of not forcing shots and helping to facilitate the offense. He did get beat up a little on the boards by Arizona’s bigger guys, and he’ll need to show he can board against stronger guys if he wants to be a 5 in the NBA.

With Allonzo Trier sidelined due to injury, Arizona doesn’t really have any interesting NBA prospects. Kadeem Allen and Justin Simon are both guys to keep an eye on, but neither have stood out to me so far.