Playing out of position is helping Frank Ntilikina

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - APRIL 26: Frank Ntilikina, #17 of Strasbourg in action during the EuroCup Basketball 2016 Finals Strasbourg Training Session at Abdi Ipekci Arena on April 26, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Rodolfo Molina/EB via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - APRIL 26: Frank Ntilikina, #17 of Strasbourg in action during the EuroCup Basketball 2016 Finals Strasbourg Training Session at Abdi Ipekci Arena on April 26, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Rodolfo Molina/EB via Getty Images) /

We usually think of an NBA player’s development progression as linear. A player who has a certain skill set will slowly refine those skills, either adding small aspects to their game or specializing to become truly great at one aspect. Along this developmental path, the role they’re asked to play will logically change incrementally as new skills are added or specialized skills become a bigger focus. A 3-and-D college player is unlikely to be asked to be a volume scorer right off the bat in the NBA, while a volume scorer who doesn’t shoot threes well in college probably won’t be asked to be a 3-and-D player on Day 1 of their NBA career.

However, through nine games in the French Pro A league and FIBA Champions League with Strasbourg, French point guard Frank Ntilikina has been asked to completely invert his role. Ntilikina is one of the top point guard prospects in the 2017 NBA Draft, a skilled playmaker who’s also one of the better defensive prospects available. You would think that Ntilikina, who’s getting major minutes for the first time with Strasbourg, would be playing a majority of his minutes as a playmaker. However, Ntilikina has been playing out of position as a two next to former Florida guard Erving Walker. With Walker and a pair of other ball-dominant guards on the roster, Ntilikina has looked more like a two-guard this year than a point guard.

Ntilikina’s offensive game this season has been primarily predicated on spot-up opportunities. Playing next to Walker, a veteran point guard, Ntilikina has spent a lot more time off ball than he’d previously gotten in camps and with national teams. You’d think this would be detrimental to Ntilikina’s output, as Ntilikina had previously been a streaky outside shooter, hitting 31 percent on 3s for his career before this season. However, it’s clear that this is an area he put a lot of focus on this summer, as he’s come out of the gates hot, hitting 9-of-18 from outside so far. His mechanics can still be a little inconsistent, which can mean that his misses are bad misses, but he appears much more comfortable shooting off the catch, especially when open.

Ntilikina still struggles with consistent lift on his jumper, which is probably the primary cause of his scatter-shot misses. But his upper body form is very good, and there’s hope that it will continue to improve. He’s hit 75 percent (in limited opportunities) from the line over the past three seasons for Strasbourg, and the hope is that the consistency with his upper body will translate to his lower body mechanics.

Read More: Checking in on Luka Doncic and the Champions League

Ntilikina mainly gets chances to attack the basket in Pro A games, but he’s been absolutely lethal at the rim. Ntilikina is of the Kyrie Irving/Manu Ginobili mold of finishing, relying primarily on his insane length and soft touch around the rim rather than strength to finish through contact. The result is a lot of floaters, scoop shots, and baby hooks, which he’s finally starting to hit consistently after struggling with this in the past. The worry for Ntilikina is that this means he doesn’t get as many opportunities at the line. That’s the next step for him, as learning to draw contact more often will help him from an efficiency standpoint, especially if his jumper is still streaky.

Distribution is an area where Ntilikina has lacked offensively, but predictably that’s more a function of his team than anything Ntilikina is doing. Strasbourg’s multiple ball-dominant wings make Ntilikina their third point guard by default. His assist rate being under 10 percent isn’t a too concerning, especially when you can point to the U18 Euro championships or 2014-15 Espoirs (junior league) performance to see that Ntilikina’s court vision is very good. Ntilikina has good timing in the pick-and-roll (which Strasbourg doesn’t run much), and he is an unselfish playmaker, as he’s quite conservative in picking his spots to attack off the dribble.

There’s still reason to believe Ntilikina can be an NBA point guard on offense, even if those skills are being marginalized this year. Ntilikina is in the rare situation where he’s being asked to play a role that directly opposes what we thought his previous strengths were, and the improvements he’s made in finishing and three-point shooting will bode him well in the future, as they make him a more well-rounded offensive weapon.

When it comes to defense, Ntilikina’s change to an off-ball guard play to his strengths. A lot of Frank Ntilikina’s promising projections center around his physical tools. He’s 6-foot-5, has close to a 7-foot wingspan, has massive hands, and is an impressive leaper. The idea is that he can grow into being a multi-positional defender, a player with the agility to stay with the league’s quickest point guards, the length to bother wings off the ball, and the pure size and strength to swallow up 1-3 and 1-4 pick-and-rolls.

At this juncture, Ntilikina looks like a decent energy defender who isn’t technically sound but can do some damage with his athleticism and motor. Ntilikina’s most impressive skill is his footwork, especially in the pick-and-roll, where he is quick to slip through screens and sometimes even beat opposing big men to the spot before they can get set. He is nimble enough to recover when he gets beat in the open court, and he’s active on the ball, using a consistent stance and his long arms to stay in front of guards in isolation.

Ntilikina is a competitor, and won’t shy away from contact or battling with bigger or stronger opponents. However, he does struggle to contain stronger guards, especially on drives. Much like how he doesn’t like to attack contact on offense, Ntilikina can struggle with containing penetration, as he doesn’t have the strength yet to wall off opponents from the lane. This should come as his body fills out (and he gets on an NBA strength program), but he’s much better at defending side-to-side action than dribble-drive at this point. He’s a poor rebounder for his size, too, likely for the same reason.

Ntilikina is also developing as an off-ball defender, thanks to his role change this year. His quick hands and reaction time have helped him rack up steals, to the tune of a strong 3.53 percent steal rate. He does a good job of rotating on simple swing passes and actions, and he has a great nose for picking off cross-court skip passes. Where he struggles is after multiple actions, when he must rotate to anticipate offensive movements rather than just sit and react to what’s happening. This can leave him getting beat on simple cuts, as he overthinks the offense going on around him. At the end of the day, though, this is something that all young defenders struggle with. The tools and work ethic for Ntilikina have helped him still be effective as he matures, and he’s getting valuable experience this year defending a bigger and more diverse set of players at the two than he would have otherwise.

Related Story: Are players like Monte Morris a dying breed in today's NBA?

Ntilikina is probably the second or third-best point guard in the draft at this point. He may not be asked to perform to the full scale of his abilities this year. But the most important early development this season has been watching him succeed despite this. There are definitely some things that Ntilikina will need to hammer out as he matures — namely strength and shooting consistency — but to this point, he looks like he’s becoming a more well-rounded prospect, which is scary because versatility has always been a draw of drafting him. If he is just a point guard who can spend time off the ball on both ends, he’s a valuable piece to look at in today’s versatility driven NBA. But if this role change continues to take, there’s a chance that Ntilikina can take the leap from valuable to potentially game-changing.