When discussing who the Sixers might take with the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the names in consideration have been limited to a select few. Assuming that Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball are selected with the first two picks, the conversation is centered around Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac and (to a lesser extent) De’Aaron Fox. But there’s been no indication that the Sixers have honed in on any of those players, or are even interested in keeping the selection.
A trade down seems unlikely, but certainly not impossible given how the more natural fitting pieces of that class will most likely be off the board. If the Sixers were to consider moving back towards the bottom of the top 10, French teenager Frank Ntilikina should certainly be an option.
With a quality sophomore season for French club SIG Strasbourg and a dominating run in the FIBA U18 European Championships, Ntilikina has solidified himself as the top international prospect of this year’s class. The Sixers should be very familiar with his body of work. According to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Philadelphia has been one of three teams to keep a particularly close eye on the 18-year-old sensation over the past month, so there’s certainly interest on some level.
What the Sixers scouts have likely found is that Ntilikina possesses a skill set complimentary to the team’s core of young players, but still has a ways to go to unlock the potential in his game.
Playing for Strasbourg has offered Ntilikina the chance to compete against mid-tier professional talent. France’s top division was ranked as the seventh best international league by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. Strasbourg also competed in the Basketball Champions League, the third tier in international basketball behind Euroleague and EuroCup. While the competition isn’t the stiffest, Ntilikina knows the ins and outs of being a professional hooper at a relatively high level at such a. He’s the second youngest high-level prospect in this draft class behind UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu. That experience is certainly more valuable than a year in the SEC or PAC-12.
Classified as a non-shooter by most draftniks coming into this season, Ntilikina has quickly turned one of the biggest weaknesses in his game into a strength. Through all competitions this year both domestic and international, he’s shooting 135-290 (46.5 percent) from the field and 54-124 (43.5 percent) from three-point range. Strasbourg is particularly guard heavy, forcing Ntilikina to play primarily off ball in a role that has actually harmonized with his offensive skill set. He’s become extremely adept as a spot-up shooter, displaying a soft and a relatively clean release.
Ntilikina displays the qualities of a competent off-ball shooter. For someone who has been bred as a point guard, Ntilikina is incredibly active without the ball in his hand and is always looking for holes in the defense to get himself space for a clean look. He gets his momentum going towards the rim, squares his shoulders and sets his feet quickly. Ntilikina’s release is a little elongated, hence why all three of those clips have featured some pretty hard closeouts as he progresses through his shooting motion, but his release point is high enough that he’s relatively unaffected by the defensive pressure.
Ntilikina has an improving pull-up jumper as well, although the long release is much more notable in these situations. He typically utilizes screens to help create the extra space to get his shot off.
With the ball in his hands, Ntilikina has proven to be a solid facilitator. He’s a strong passer out of the pick and roll who patiently observes what the defense is giving him before hitting his big man or cutters on the move. Overall, Ntilikina is really good at fitting passes through tight windows, and puts his teammates in positions to score by leading them to the ball.
Averaging just 18.6 minutes per game, Ntilikina got to show these qualities in small doses for Strasbourg. But as the crown jewel of the French U18 national team and the team’s lead guard, Ntilikina put his talent on full display against his teenage peers.
The three-point shooting from NBA range was the most notable part of his game.
Ntilikina’s best shooting display came at the most important time -- the championship game. Locked into a late game duel with Lithuania, Ntilikina unleashed a fury of three-point daggers, effectively putting the game out of reach.
He knocked down seven of 10 threes that game en route to a 31-point performance, and was subsequently named tournament MVP.
Frankly, Ntilikina’s performance in that game was a bit stunning. It’s not because he’s not talented enough to put on that kind of shooting display, but because he’s never been the type of player to take over the game. His playing style could be categorized as passive, and some have questioned whether or not he has the killer instinct to elevate his game from role player to star. Performances like his against Lithuania would go a long way to dispel that.
As France’s floor general, Ntilikina showed off his passing skills on a larger scale. He continued to pick defenses apart in the pick-and-roll, effectively recognizing the help defense (or a lack there of).
While the European Championships accentuated Ntilikina’s strengths, it also exposed his weaknesses as well.
Unlike some of the draft’s top guard prospects, Ntilikina lacks that quick first step off the dribble, making it really difficult for him to get past defenders. Even when less agile bigs are switched onto him in one-on-one situations, Ntilikina doesn’t have the burst to explode past them off the dribble. Without the help of a screen, Ntilikina is typically forced to kick it out to a teammate or settle for a jump shot.
In the last clip he’s able to connect on a three, but that’s not really the point. An NBA team will let him settle for a long three every single time. If you’re going to be successful at the highest level then you’ve got to be able to take advantage of the big on guard switch, and Ntilikina struggles to attack less mobile European teenagers. Having that first step burst is more of a natural talent than a teachable skill, and if he’s struggling at the junior level, it’s hard to envision him having a high success rate attacking the rim at the NBA level.
When he does get in the paint, Ntilikina looks remarkably uncomfortable trying to score, likely due to the lack of consistency to which he gets there. His first, second and third instinct is to pass the ball instead of trying to score himself, and it results in missed opportunities and turnovers.
Ntilikina’s scoring arsenal is really limited around the rim. He rarely displays a floater, doesn’t have great body control and lacks an ability to finish around defenders despite his long frame. Ntilikina also isn’t comfortable scoring with his left in most situations, forcing him to bring the ball back across his body to try and score over defenders that are already locked onto his hip.
Sixers point forward Ben Simmons notably has that same issue in terms of finishing with just his right hand, but Simmons is a freak athlete with a ton of strength and an ability to create fouls on attacks to the basket. While Ntilikina is listed at 6-foot-5 and owns a reported 7-foot wingspan, he weighs a measly 170 pounds, making it tough for him to get any foul calls on drives to the rim. In fact, out of the elite group of guards in this draft class, Ntilikina has taken the least amount of free throw attempts by a large margin despite having played a more significant amount of games.
Getting to the line
The weight part is certainly fixable. Ntilikina’s frame should allow him to put on some extra muscle, subsequently making it easier for him to better deal with contact from defenders. But if Ntilikina continues to struggle to get to the rim in general due to poor burst and a general lack of aggressiveness, that’s a problem in and of itself.
Ntilikina’s lack of strength and agility also causes him problems on the defensive end. He’s a savvy off ball defender who can recognize switches and uses his length to jump passing lanes, but has yet to figure out how to keep quicker ball handlers in front of him on straight line drives to the rim. This was evident about both the professional and international level.
Ntilikina’s on-ball defense should improve over time. Again, he’ll be an NBA draft pick before he even turns 19. Ntilikina has shown glimpses of what it can look like when he puts it all together, displaying great footwork and using his wingspan to frustrate Dzanan Musa, one of the top prospects in the class of 2018.
Provided he bulks up as he’s supposed to, Ntilikina should be capable of defending at least both guard positions. He’s got a strong basketball IQ for someone his age, and should be able to adjust to defending NBA sets rather quickly.
Overall, Ntilikina’s game would make him a seamless fit in the Sixers system. He’s the exact type of player they would want next to Simmons -- a complimentary guard with creation skills of his own and a budding perimeter game to boot. It’s easy to envision Simmons routinely finding Ntilikina on drive and kicks, and using the Frenchman in various dribble handoff sets to get him an open three-point look, or so Ntilikina can find Simmons on the dive.
Any lineup that includes Ntilikina, Robert Covington, Simmons and Joel Embiid is a freak unit that will frustrate opponents with their length and ability to quickly turn defense into offense.
Ntilikina’s a solid prospect, but taking him at three is a bit of a reach. Based on his skill as well as his style of play, he projects to be more of a sidekick on an NBA team than a lead guard. Players like Jackson, Tatum, Isaac and Fox certainly have superstar potential if they overcome the general weaknesses in their game, although their respective fits on this roster are more peculiar given their skill sets.
But if the Sixers decide to move down into the backend of the top 10 to add more assets, then Ntilikina should become one of their primary targets. The upside isn’t as high, but Ntilikina and the Sixers would be a perfect match.