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NBA Draft Prospect Preview: Frank Ntilikina

The young guard from France is strong defensively and improving on offense, but may need time to adjust to the NBA.

Frank Ntilikina is an enigma — an unknown gem of seemingly unlimited potential. Our intrigue is largely based on what we know, which at this point isn’t a whole lot. But we love unknowns, because we can fill in the gaps for the type of players we think they are or will become, because they haven’t played enough games to become the disappointing proven commodity we previously refused to acknowledge.

Ntilikina (pronounced Nee-lee-KEE-na) hails from France, and has been playing professionally since the age of 15. For his club team, he’s a role player, playing just 19 minutes a night and averaging 5.2 points and 2.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. These numbers likely stand out for the wrong reasons, but Ntilikina did shine in the FIBA U18 European Championships last December, where he was named MVP after leading France to the gold medal, averaging 15.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists.

Performances only fuel our unrealistic projections though, so its important to remain cautious when discussing him. There’s many reasons to believe Ntilikina will develop into a good NBA player, but there will almost certainly be an adjustment period. As good as he was during the European Championships, it was against players his age, not NBA veterans. To suggest Ntilikina will be able to step in from day one and contribute is unrealistic, but he’s intriguing enough that Charlotte should consider him depending on who is left when it comes time to pick.

More than anything, Ntilikina excels on the defensive end. Part of this is due to his height and length — at 6’5 with a 7’0 wingspan, he has a large frame and uses it well by disrupting passing lanes, closing out well on shooters, and staying tight on his man when defending the ball.

His length means he can defend either guard spot, and his overall feel for the game on this end is his best chance of seeing the floor as a rookie, if he can adjust the size and ability of NBA guards. Offensively, he uses his length and size to finish strong at the rim, though there are concerns he doesn’t do it nearly enough.

Speaking of his offensive game, while he isn’t a dynamic scorer at this point (and may never be), he showed considerable development in the FIBA tournament, shooting 58.6 percent from the 3-point line, and, according to Draft Express, scored 1.727 points per possession (a highly efficient number) during the tournament.

His offensive game is best described as smooth. He doesn’t have a quick first step, but his length grants him the ability to move past defenders. He glides rather than exploding (though the above gif suggests he can explode to the hoop on occasion). In the following gif, he shows a nice ability to break down his defender off the dribble.

But once again, it’s important to keep in mind that Ntilikina is doing this against 18 year olds and under. Chances like these won’t come nearly as easily in the NBA. Realistically, he his offensive role will likely be as more a distributor than shooter, with shots coming on an occasional basis.

Given his above average defensive skills, what will determine his overall upside is how much he develops on offense not just as scorer, but as a distributor. While he sees the floor well, Ntilikina isn’t the most accurate of passers, as he will mistime passes to roll men or others cutting to the hoop. He can also struggle when pressured by defenders, which will certainly cause growing pains at the next level. This lends me to believe that if Charlotte did draft him, he might spend some time in Greensboro.

And look, the unpolished parts of his game are to be expected. He hasn’t turned 19 yet, so to think he’d be ready to play 15-20 minutes on opening night next season is unreasonable. The Hornets would draft Ntilikina because of what he could become, not what he is. That may not be ideal for this upcoming season, but if his upside is high enough, he’s worth consideration.