Among the more battle tested prospects in the 1998-born age group that is eligible to declare for the NBA Draft for the first time in 2017, Frank Ntilikina is in the midst of one of the longest seasons of any prospect in Europe. He started the French League season in September, played 14 games in the FIBA Champions League, starred at the FIBA U18 European Championship which was delayed to December, and is still playing in the French League playoff Finals this week.
Averaging 5.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.7 assists over 19 minutes per game on a talented team that features a number creative veteran ball-handlers, including A.J. Slaughter and Paul Lacombe, Ntilikina plays a significant role in his team's rotation, operating on and off the ball, even if he isn't much of a focal point in their offense. After playing mostly at the junior level last season, scouts were able to watch him build a considerable body of work in two of Europe's more competitive leagues and help the French U18 national team go undefeated in Samsun, Turkey as he earned Most Valuable Player honors averaging 15.2 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.2 steals per game despite suffering from the flu.
Ntilikina's intrigue at the next level starts with his physical tools. Standing 6'6 with a wingspan eclipsing 7'0, the Belgium-born point guard has tremendous size for either backcourt position, to go along with fluid athleticism. He isn't overwhelmingly explosive or shifty, but his ability to guard multiple positions gives him some valuable versatility with regards to what types of guards he can be paired with.
Past Ntilikina's physical tools, his development as a jump shooter has also opened up the possibility that he can play comfortably next to a ball-dominant guard, as he has done effectively for most of this season. Regularly brining the ball up the floor before deferring to the players around him within Strasbourg's half-court offense, Ntilikina has made a serviceable 40% of his jump shots in the half court, shooting the ball with a somewhat slow release, but far more textbook, reliable mechanics this season, after connecting on a dismal 18% of his attempts last year. Showing marked improvement as a set shooter in particular, Ntilikina remains streaky, struggling for stretches this season, but also made 43% of his spot up jumpers and a massive 68% of his pull-ups over six games at the U18 European Championship running far more hot than cold over the past year.
Ntilikina's improved shot making is significant, as it helps compensate for his lack of dynamic shot-creating ability. The 18-year-old is by no means an inept floor general, as he has a strong feel for the game, navigates the pick and roll effectively, uses his size well as a passer, and can get to the rim with changes of speed and long strides to take what the defense gives him. The challenge for Ntilikina at this stage is that he isn't particularly explosive with the ball, has a high handle, kills his dribble unnecessarily under duress, makes some occasional careless mistakes, and can't always turn the corner against more physically gifted defenders. Combine those strengths and weaknesses as a lead guard with Ntilkina's defensive versatility and shooting, and he seems like an ideal candidate to play next to a ball-dominant scorer at either the one, two, or three, which can't be said for many young point guard prospects.
Though Ntilikina has some shortcomings as a slasher, shooting an average 52% finishing around the rim in the half court, there is still plenty of room for optimism regarding his offensive abilities. A heady player who won't turn 19 until a month after the draft, Ntilkina does not often try to do too much, and could grow into a more dangerous weapon off the dribble as his pull-up jumper and frame continue to improve. The massive leap he took as a perimeter shooter is a testament to his work ethic and bodes well for his future, as his ability to make incremental improvements offensively could help him develop into a terrific two-way role-player given what he already brings on the defensive end.
Among the top on-ball defenders in this draft, Ntilkina is arguably the most polished point guard in this class on that end of the floor, one of the reasons he was able to play such a significant role at the professional level while still figuring things out offensively. Often picking up more experienced import guards full court, Ntilikina is an intelligent, hard-working defender who gets low, slides his feet, and does a great job cutting off penetration using his anticipation. His length allows him to be a factor in the passing lanes while contesting shots on the perimeter and interior, and even if he needs to get stronger, he figures to be, at the very least, a solid system defender at the next level.
A fairly mature player who been scouted extensively aftera solid showing at the FIBA U16 European Championship all the way back in 2014, it is easy to forget the Ntilikina ranks as the second youngest player projected to get drafted (after Ike Anibogu). His age has shown on occasion in the playoffs, as Ntilikina appears somewhat nervous at times, but the fact that he's playing a key role in games like these as an 18-year old is incredibly noteworthy.
A potential lottery pick in perhaps the most point guard-heavy draft in NBA history, Frank Ntilkina is among the more unique players in that talented group as his best long-term fit could just as easily be on the wing alongside the right teammates. Possessing immense role-player potential and an excellent demeanor off the floor, Ntilikina is a very promising two-way player who could grow into a valuable piece for a contender down the road.