The NBA Draft tarot cards are lining up in favor of the Dallas Mavericks taking a point guard with the ninth pick. That outcome seems to have even more weight after Dirk Nowitzki all but dismissed the idea that the team would draft Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen. One point guard that has consistently been suggested as a draft option for the Mavs is Frank Ntilikina (pronounced Nee-lee-KEE-na). Most American fans haven’t had a chance to see Ntilikina play, and although he hasn’t competed in the States, his upside might be the reason we see him shaking Adam Silver’s hand in a Mavericks cap on draft night.
Ntilikina, 18, is a French national currently playing professionally for Strasbourg in France. He’s a reserve, playing a mere 18.7 minutes per game and averaging 5.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. He’s also shooting 49.5 percent on 2-pointers and 41 percent from behind the arc. While his middling box score might not leap out at you, remember he’s not running the show for Strasbourg. So why is he projected to go in the draft's top 10?
For starters, Ntilikina is 6’5” with a wingspan around 7’. That makes him an ideal guard for any system, especially in today’s NBA where taller guards are highly valued. His height allows him to see over defenses, get his shot up more easily, and guard multiple positions. Height is its own Swiss Army knife these days.
Then there’s his performance with France in the 2016 FIBA U18 European Championships back in December. Unlike with Strasbourg, Ntilikina found himself as the focal point of the team’s offense. After a rocky start in which he was said to be battling the flu, Ntilikina broke out. He finished the tournament averaging 22.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.2 steals, 1.7 blocks, and five turnovers. He shot 42.4 percent on 2-pointers and a whopping 58.6 percent from downtown. In the gold medal game against Lithuania, one of Europe’s basketball powerhouses, he poured in 31 points.
Ntilikina proved his offensive value during the European Championships. On the court, he is able to run an offense with the ball in his hand or play off the ball and spot up. His ability to shoot behind the arc allows him to stretch defenses whether he has the ball or not. On the defensive end, his length has proven a valuable tool in what has been sound and consistent play. But there are areas in which Ntilikina has room to improve.
While his outside shooting and court vision are his best weapons on offense, he struggles to attack the rim with any regularity. Although he is 6’5”, he is listed as weighing only 170 pounds. He doesn’t turn 19 until July but he needs to put on some weight. If Ntilikina is having trouble getting to the rim in the top French league, the NBA road will present real challenges in that regard.
Another area of concern is his quickness. Ntilikina won't light up a radar gun. He plays at a more methodical pace on offense and isn’t known to beat his defender one-on-one. His lack of speed also comes into play defensively. He’s better guarding opponents in a halfcourt setting where he can move laterally rather than race with an opposing guard down the floor. Even still, he can be beat by quick players if he gets too close to recover. He’ll have a difficult time guarding the likes of Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Damian Lillard.
There are plenty of risks that come with drafting a player this young. That’s especially true if the team that drafts him is looking to play him right away. It’s uncertain whether the Mavs would want to, but Ntilikina may be one of the best all around guard talents in the draft. He’s proven his worth at a higher competition level than any of the players coming out of the NCAA and still has room to grow. Once in the NBA, spending significant time in the D-League will only help his development. If he’s available when the Mavericks are on the clock, it will be hard for them to pass on Ntilikina.
Send recordings of you pronouncing Frank Ntilikina's name to Doyle Rader on Twitter, where he goes by @TheKobeBeef.