Phil Jackson continued to push the European takeover of the Knicks, keeping his star Latvian on Thursday and drafting a Frenchman with the triangle in mind.
After a frenzied couple of days surrounding Kristaps Porzingis trade talks, the team president stood pat and used his eighth pick on point guard Frank Ntilikina, who is considered a project at just 18 years old.
Jackson glowed about Ntilikina’s attributes but also tempered expectations. Ntilikina was in Brooklyn for the draft, but his arrival at the Knicks practice facility is delayed because he has to fly overseas for the French League final Friday with his club team.
“We’ll take whatever his advancement is as a player,” said Jackson, who declined Thursday to elaborate on the nature of trade talks regarding Porzingis. “If he has to grow into that role and come off the bench and become a player who has to learn how to play the game, that’s fine.”
Jackson passed on North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr., considered one of the most athletic players in the draft with a recorded 48-inch vertical. He was taken a spot later by the Mavericks. Malik Monk was also a target who went 11th to the Kings.
But the Knicks scouted Ntilikina extensively overseas, more so than any other NBA team. He was their guy. And with the triangle as the focus of Jackson’s draft workouts, it’s no surprise Jackson took the better team player over the better individual talent.
Ntilikina, with a 7-3 wing span, is a selfless table setter who is committed to defense. But he’s completely unproven after averaging just 5.2 points in 18.3 minutes with Strasbourg last season.
“(Ntilikina) plays the role well. He’s a good role player. I think he’s a good fit for us,” said Jackson, adding later, “The big thing we liked about him is he’s got size. Our game is really about length and about activity. We have to have more of a defensive presence and I thought last year we started to play better defense even though it wasn’t reflected in wins or points scored against. We had players that wanted to get up and be aggressive defensively and play hard and that’s the context we want to carry onto this next year and this is a young man who fits that well.”
The Knicks now have three young core players and all three are European – Porzingis (Latvia), Ntilikina (France) and Willy Hernangomez (Spain). They also have a Lithuanian (Mindaugas Kuzminskas) under contract.
Jackson acknowledged he prefers the European development path over the isolation-heavy AAU and NCAA.
“I’ve think we’ve downplayed what the quality of the game is out there (in Europe) a little bit. We’ve overlooked it in the NBA,” Jackson said. “And sometimes, it’s the ability for players to grow up into a system of play that they adapt to as they grow up as young players. And fitting into that style. I think a lot of times in our college ball, it’s about adapting to who the players are. And the games become more of a style of what can you do offensively and giving a lot of room to players just to play one-on-one or whatever ability they have. Whereas, a lot of European players are schooled into the system and how to fit into it.”
Still, Jackson flirted with dealing his star Euro on draft night, as chatter of Porzingis’ relocation dominated the lead up to New York’s pick.
Porzingis was on the trade table, with a glut of suitors and negotiations occurring separately with the Celtics and Suns. Jackson’s asking price was “through the roof,” according to a source. In a proposal to the Celtics, as the Daily News reported, Jackson asked for the No. 3 overall pick, the Brooklyn pick next year that Boston owns, Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder.
Reportedly, the Suns also turned down Jackson’s attempt to pry Devin Booker and their fourth pick. New York’s goal was to land Kansas forward Josh Jackson, who ended up going fourth to Phoenix.
Since Porzingis remains on the roster – at least for now – there are bridges to rebuild and a new French point guard to integrate. The Knicks have not been in contact with their forward since he blew off his exit meeting in April.
Since then, Jeff Hornacek revealed that a text message to Porzingis went unanswered. The Knicks did not renew the contract of Porzingis’ favorite assistant, Josh Longstaff. A meeting between Jackson and Porzingis’ older brother only reinforced the chasm that exists between both parties.
More recently, Jackson’s friend and media mouthpiece Charley Rosen wrote a scathing assessment of Porzingis while weighing the pros and cons of dealing the 21-year-old. Rosen, who similarly blasted Carmelo Anthony during the fallout with Jackson, described Porzingis as “extremely susceptible to injuries.” He added Porzingis “routinely gets bullied at every turning,” he’s “relatively ineffective when playing the low post” and “his general attitude is the most troubling.”
The Knicks now have a young starting guard to pair with Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Hernangomez. Carmelo Anthony’s career timeline does not fit at all with this collection. They’ll have a maximum of about $20 million in cap space this summer and their own free agents include Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday and Ron Baker.
Despite drafting another point guard, Jackson said they could still re-sign Rose.
“He’s a different category,” Jackson said. “We’re listening.”