Rewind to 2017; the NBA was a completely different landscape. The Golden State Warriors were an active juggernaut of the league; LeBron James wasn't a Los Angeles Laker. In 2017, Dennis Smith Jr and Frank Ntilikina were top-10 picks in the NBA Draft. Fast forward to the present time, and both are on drastically different career paths.
Thankfully for Ntilikina, the Dallas Mavericks granted him a second chance. Furthermore, Dallas seems to be confident in his defensive potential as the front office guaranteed the first season of a two-year deal. As the NBA training camp approaches, Ntilikina's contract signifies the elephant in the room: a move is likely imminent, given that the team currently has 16 guaranteed contracts.
Without predicting who's on their way out of Dallas, as that's an entirely different article, cutting Ntilikina wouldn’t seem logical. Both parties are familiar with each other, as Dallas scouted the French guard and was rumored by many to draft him back in 2017.
It makes sense for the Mavs to sign a player with an invested interest. Considering the extended free agency woes that Dallas keeps experiencing, capturing a 23-year-old defensive-minded specimen at a discount price bodes well for an otherwise capped front office. It is truly a low-risk, potentially high-reward kind of move.
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It's not a stretch to think that Ntilikina could be the defensive irritant Dallas assumed Josh Richardson was. Ntilikina's defensive abilities not only give him a chance at immediately standing out on this current Mavericks roster, but his on-court presence could potentially alleviate some of the defensive load that Dorian Finney-Smith had for the last few seasons. Now, Finney-Smith shouldn't have to lock in on elusive guards such as De'Aaron Fox quite as often.
Despite the potential of Ntilikina, his career to this point doesn't reflect that of a defensive savior. Perhaps Ntilikina's reputation as a respectable defender catapults him over some of the other guards on the roster, like say, Trey Burke, in light of Jason Kidd's emphasis on coaching defense. Conversely, the former No.8 pick still has to go out there and earn his spot in the rotation in training camp.
Even with his limited offensive arsenal, Ntilikina's defense should be enough to prove himself as being worthy of Dallas' main 15-man roster. Between his 7'1 wingspan, 6'4, 200-pound frame, and overall high-IQ defensive instinct, Ntikilina, at the very least, has all the tools to be successful. Perhaps a chance of scenery will be just what he needed in order to progress further in his young career.
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It also doesn't hurt Ntilikina's chances that he's now teammates with Luka Doncic, who usually gets the absolute most out of his teammates, no matter what their talent level is. Look no further than Tim Hardaway Jr. for a recent case. The former New York Knicks guard (do you see the trend here?) once had a reputation as a reckless shot-chucker. Contrarily, Hadaway Jr. helped the Mavericks push the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games in the playoffs last season, and has already become a Top-10 three-point shooter in Dallas Mavericks franchise history.
Bringing it back to Ntilikina, if he can average 47 percent from deep (albeit, on low volume) without an MVP level-creator, imagine the possibilities he could have with Doncic as the 5-star table-setter, reminiscent of your favorite Dallas steakhouses. Ntilikina has the chance to finish games as a defensive threat who can convert an open shot.
As the old adage says, "you still have to play the games." In the same breath, Ntilikina hasn't done anything to warrant gift-wrapped rotation minutes. Although Burke hasn't provided much significance, aside from his mythical 'Orlando Bubble' performance, he does have more of a stable track record than Ntilikina. That said, when you're talking about end-of-the-roster spots, you'd think the Mavs would rather take a shot on the upside of the 23-year-old guard with a Giannis Antetokounmpo-esque wingspan.
It's imperative to identify myth from reality when discussing what Ntilikina provide for the Mavs, but no matter what you think of the former lottery pick, it's apparent he has the fans talking.
Expectations for Frank Ntilikina
As previously mentioned, Ntikilina's contract indicates he isn't going anywhere. It would come as a shock if he didn't make the final roster. However, the real question is, does he earn playoff minutes, or is he just a feel-good story utilized as content fodder and spot-minutes throughout the regular season only?
I personally believe the young guard is capable of cracking Jason Kidd's rotation early in the season, but I don't expect him to be regularly closing games even if that time comes. Unless your name is Josh Richardson or Delon Wright, playing with Doncic has proven to improve your career. I'd expect Ntilikina to make the final roster and play at least ten minutes per game while providing some notable defensive plays.
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