Meet the Knicks’ New Foreign Phenom

Ntilikina is coming up in an age when the NBA is more global than ever.

Source Alain-Marc Oberle / EB via Getty Images

Why you should care

Because this “coach’s dream” is poised to barrel his way onto the court for years to come.

OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals

Last November, OZY brought you this story of a teenage French phenom rocketing up NBA draft boards. Six months later, the New York Knicks made 19-year-old Frank Ntilikina the eighth player drafted, one of two international players in the top eight picks. Since then? New York traded away the longtime face of the franchise, Carmelo Anthony, clearing the way for Ntilikina and third-year star Kristaps Porzingis to dominate the offense. Ntilikina missed all but one preseason game with a minor knee bruise, but he’s said to be ready for the regular season opener. You can catch the Knicks Rising Star on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. ET on TNT. His first opponent? Anthony’s Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Here’s what we had to say about Ntilikina in late 2016:

At age 5, Frank Ntilikina did everything he could to get ahold of NBA highlights. Growing up in Strasbourg, France, that took some work.

Thirteen years later, Ntilikina (the “T” is silent) has established himself as a top international basketball prospect, one who could be just months away from hearing his name called early on draft night. At 6-foot-5, with a nose for defense and passing, as well as a reputation for maturity, Ntilikina is a point guard built for the modern game, according to Henrik Dettmann, who coaches him on Strasbourg IG, one of the top teams in France. Ntilikina’s professional career started early, at 15; he’s already won a U16 European Championship and an invitation to the prestigious Basketball Without Borders Global Camp in February. Jonathan Givony of Draft Express called Ntilikina “a coach’s dream,” and the site predicts he’ll go sixth overall in this year’s draft. 


Chalk part of that success up to good timing. Ntilikina is coming up in an age when the NBA is more global than ever. “He’s the best international prospect, with a combination of offensive and defensive potential,” says NBA draft scout Joshua Riddell. NBA teams are increasingly gambling on international prospects. In 2014, Aussie Dante Exum went fifth overall, to the Utah Jazz. A year later, Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia went fourth, to the New York Knicks; this summer saw the Phoenix Suns draft Dragan Bender, an 18-year-old power forward from Croatia. French players continue to reign, with Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, Nic Batum of the Charlotte Hornets and Rudy Gobert and Boris Diaw of the Jazz.

This recent trend is promising for Ntilikina’s aspirations, but he’s not thinking too far ahead. “It gives me confidence, because it shows everything is possible,” he says. “I don’t think about the draft — I have to focus on what I’m doing now.”

Born in Brussels to a nurse and a taxi driver, Ntilikina moved to Strasbourg at age 3. He grew up proud of his northeastern hometown, with its beautiful, warm summers. The youngest of four, he long towered above his siblings. He was discovered by Strasbourg’s lesser-known team and began playing professionally for the youth team at 15. France’s system of youth teams resembles European soccer academies — once a young player is found, he joins the professional team’s younger group and then gets promoted to the big club. Ntilikina made his debut in 2015, playing with and against men twice his age and weight. “He likes to rebound and push the ball, and he’s already an elite-level passer and A-plus defender,” Riddell says. Ntilikina is also a student and admirer of the game’s best: Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. His first role model, he says, was LeBron James. 

Ntilikina could be a member of the next wave of great point guards — his class of draftees may turn out to be better than 2009’s, which produced Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague and Ricky Rubio. Among the crew are Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, NC State’s Dennis Smith, UCLA’s passing prodigy Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. “It’s one of the best point guard classes in a while,” says Riddell. The Sixers, Knicks, Bucks and Kings figure to be among the teams that will keep the closest tabs on these floor generals. But Ntilikina might not stand out from the pack, as being international has its disadvantages. He is the only one of the group who hasn’t passed through the AAU circuit or college basketball. Without a long history of starting or of playing more than 30 minutes a game, Ntilikina may warm the bench at first.

Though Ntilikina’s maturation, and passing and defensive instincts, is ahead of the curve, he came into the current French season in need of strength, minutes and improving as a scorer. Between 10 preseason games and three regular-season appearances, his scoring sits low, at around seven points per game. 

But he’s practicing, shooting 45 percent from three on 31 attempts. “I’m somebody that wants to work on every part of the game: defense, passing, shooting, IQ,” Ntilikina says. Indeed, he worked all summer on his jumper and it shows. His style of play could translate well to the NBA; France might have the closest style to the association of any international feeder. “It’s athletic, it’s quick,” says Dettmann. 

With his team trailing by six late in the fourth in a mid-October game against Juventus, Ntilikina got an open look for three on the left side of the 3-point line. Here was a golden opportunity to show that his shot has improved and that he can handle big moments. And? Nothing but net. 

This story was originally published on November 2, 2016.

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