We live in an age where the NBA is filled with International talent, especially when we talk about big guys. We are celebrating the talent of a new generation of big, who can contribute on both ends of the floor and run the game like point-guards. Many of these young guys are international players. Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid is from Cameroon, Kristaps ‘The Unicorn’ Porzingis is from Latvia, Karl-Anthony Towns was born in the United States, but his mom is from the Dominican Republic, and he has already chosen to represent the Dominican Republic national team. Nikola Jokic and his water polo touch (thanks Zach Lowe) is from Serbia. But when we talk about guards, guys with the ball in their hands who score a lot, the real stars of this league, most of them are American.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard. When you talk about stars, you’re talking about these guys. There are very few International guards with that kind of status in the league. Of course, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been critical factors for the Spurs over the years, but now they’re in the final stages of their career. Dennis Schroeder has gained the starter role this year with the Hawks, but it’s too early to say if he’ll become an impact player in this league. Goran Dragic and Ricky Rubio have been in the league for several years now, but despite some solid seasons, they’ve never been considered real stars. Emmanuel Mudiay is in the second year of his NBA career and is struggling a lot, especially with his shot. So is there a possibility that an international guard could become a force in the league? Frank Ntilikina looks like that kind of player, and his potential impact in the NBA could be quite interesting.
Ntilikina was born in Belgium, just like Tony Parker (but the comparison between the two must stop there, we’re talking about two very different players) in 1998 to Rwandan parents. He’s currently playing for SIG Strasbourg in France and his coach, Vincent Collet, is also the head-coach of French national team. (Yep, he also coached Tony Parker but, seriously, stop thinking about a young Tony Parker because Frank is not that). Ntilikina is the top international prospect in 2017 NBA Draft and is currently projected as a top-10 pick. Frank is not exactly a starter with Strasbourg this year, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In Europe, it’s pretty common to see also very talented young guys playing limited minutes because coaches are often inclined to give more playing time to veterans, keeping their job safe. Dragan Bender played very limited minutes last year with Maccabi but was selected with the 4th pick overall last season. Mario Hezonja barely played, especially in the final part of the season, with Barcelona under coach Xavi Pascual but then he was drafted with the fifth pick overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. (Hey Orlando, free Mario). Unless your name is Luka Doncic – a 17-year-old already leading Real Madrid to big wins – if you’re young and talented in Europe, you’re not going to play tons of minutes.
SIG Strasbourg has two American guards with several experiences in Europe like A.J. Slaughter and Erving Walker. It’s not a surprise to see Ntilikina coming off the bench and playing ‘just’ 17 minutes per game in FIBA Basketball Champions League, a European competition arranged by FIBA that started this season. He also played only 13 minutes in French Pro A. With Strasbourg there’s also a player with NBA experience, Erik Murphy, who briefly played for the Chicago Bulls. Romeo Travis, a former high-school teammate of Lebron James, is also a part of the team. Ntilikina grew up with the youth team of Strasbourg and back in 2015 he signed his first pro contract with the team until 2019.
But there are a few things that make Ntilikina’s game translate to the NBA. Standing at 6’5″, with almost a 7-foot wingspan, Ntilikina’s frame is very impressive for a point-guard. His ability to defend on bigger guys is already solid, and he can vastly improve once he gets bigger and stronger.
“I think his defense is worth a mention,” an international scout told Def Pen. “He has the chance to be a lockdown defender. I saw him in a game against Orleans this year, and he had a very impressive defensive game. He was everywhere, switched on almost everybody and helped his team to steal at least 4-5 balls.”
NBA teams are continuously looking for two-way players in every role, not only on the wing but also in the backcourt. Ntilikina is showing flashes of this two-way ability, and that’s what made the NBA scouts so interested in him. But while his defense is looking already very solid (ask Dzanan Musa for references), what separates Ntilikina from a lot of athletic guards we have seen lately is his ability to shoot the ball.
“He can shoot the ball really well; his mechanics are good. He also has great length for a PG, which may allow him to move and play some minutes as SG or SF. He just can contribute in so many ways,” an international scout told Def Pen about the French guard’s abilities.
Frank Ntilikina is shooting almost 42 percent from the three-point line this season in Pro A and almost 46 percent in Basketball Champions League. That would help any NBA coach to use him off the ball, using his catch and shoot ability. In recent FIBA U18 European Championship in Turkey, after a slow start, Ntilikina led France to the final victory, making statement games both in the semi-final and final. In the semi-final against Italy, (Damn, I suffered a lot as Italian fan, you were so savage, Frank), he had 23 points, shooting 4-4 from the three-point line with nine assists, five steals, one block and only one turnover.
In the final against Lithuania, he went into beast mode with 31 points, four rebounds, and three assists. He showed that kind of leadership in the major games that you always want to see from the guys with the ball in their hands. Maybe he’s not a vocal guy, as Vincent Collet said in a recent piece written by Andrew Keh of NY Times, but he has a fire inside that keeps burning and makes him so unique.
“I think that if he’ll be in the right situation and fit in, he can definetely help an NBA team win. He steps up big time in the big games where his team needed him”, an International scout told Def Pen.
The 2017 Draft will be filled with a large talent pool at the point guard position but that doesn’t mean that Frank Ntilkina should fear guys like Lonzo Ball or Dennis Smith.
“Maybe this is the best draft we have seen recently given to how many talented point guards it has. Guys like (Markelle) Fultz, (Lonzo) Ball, (De’Aaron) Fox and (Dennis) Smith are all very good. I think that Frank would be a top-3 pick if he waits another year,” said an International scout. “But this year I have him as a top-10 pick”.
In France, many journalists immediately started the comparison between Parker and Ntilikina but, as mentioned before, we’re talking about two very different players. Parker is a much better one-on-one player, and at a young age, he was much quicker and more aggressive than Ntilikina. Another current weakness it’s his inclination to become passive at times, growing apart from the game, probably linked to his personality that can be considered to be introverted. Of course, we’re also talking about an 18-year-old kid. His body is not yet fully developed, and he needs to become stronger and acquire some more confidence in his game. But with an excellent coaching staff on the right NBA team, these aspects can be fixed without too much problem.
Ultimately, the combination of frame, length, defense, three-point shooting, court vision, unselfishness is what makes Frank Ntilikina look like the next big thing in international basketball, a player that may interrupt the dominance of American guards in the NBA. It’s always tough to find an NBA comparison for a player who hasn’t played a single minute in the league yet but it’s such an ordinary thing, so let’s finish this with a comparison.
“If I have to make a comparison,” an International scout said to Def Pen. ‘I’d say that Ntilikina may be like a taller Dennis Schroeder”.
Brace yourself, NBA, Frank Ntilikina is coming over. Who’s gonna give him a shot?