There was a three-game stretch at the end of October during which Frank Ntilikina started turning heads for a different reason than usual: his offense. In games against Miami, Golden State, and Brooklyn, he averaged 14 points per game and shot 8-of-15 (53.3 percent) from three. More than that, he looked the part: comfortable, aggressive, confident, poised. His performance prompted articles from the NY Post, USA Today, and Newsday, praising Ntilikina for his progress. Frank-believers were ready to take small victory laps.

Since that stretch, Ntilikina has struggled immensely, resulting in his relegation to a reserve role. Frank remains a strong defender and still projects to be elite on that side of the ball. But, there’s no arguing that he’s been a liability on the offensive end, particularly shooting the ball. In his last nine games, he has connected on just 3-of-28 (10.7 percent) from behind the arc. For Frank to reach his offensive potential, he’ll need to develop a consistent jump shot, both off-the-dribble and away from the ball. I dove into the statistics and spoke to a shot form expert to answer the question: Should Knicks fans be worried about Frank’s shot?

The Numbers

On the surface, Frank’s numbers from last season tell you he was a poor three-point shooter. In total, he hit 31.8 percent on two attempts per game. But, there’s a reason that data likely doesn’t jibe with your eye test. Anybody who watched the games probably felt in their gut like Frank was a more reliable shooter than that. Ben Falk’s site, Cleaning The Glass, counts only the competitive portions of games, eliminating both garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves. His statistics confirm that intuition. On meaningful attempts, Ntilikina shot a respectable 35.3 percent from three.

In terms of shot composition, 20 percent of Frank’s total shots in 2017-18 were coming from catch-and-shoot threes, on which he was making a solid 36.1 percent, per’s statistics. Meanwhile, 12 percent of his shots were coming from off-the-dribble threes, nailing just 25.4 percent of those. That makes sense. Pull-up threes are more difficult shots, especially for a 19-year-old rookie from overseas, adjusting to a new team, new role, new three-point line, new country, etc. Regardless, Knicks fans have to be encouraged by that catch-and-shoot efficiency. Jeff Hornacek rarely had Ntilikina coming off screens a la JJ Redick or Klay Thompson. Instead, the vast majority of those looks came from spot-up attempts. Frank would be stationed on the perimeter, attempting to stretch the floor for the possession’s primary action:

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Per’s Synergy data, nearly 20 percent of Frank’s used offensive possessions came from spot-ups. On those, he averaged 1.02 points per possession, good for the 58th percentile in the league…as a rookie! Granted, not all measurements were as kind to the French Prince. The BBall Index’s proprietary talent grading system rated Frank as a C in perimeter shooting when compared to the league as a whole. That grade drops to a brutal D- when compared to the 56 guards who played at least 1500 minutes last season. Those grades are likely explained by Frank’s poor off-the-bounce shooting, as well as the types of looks he was getting (mostly open and wide open).

Bottom line, though: last season Frank hit enough spot-up threes to keep defenders honest. Couple that competency with his shut-down defensive ability, and you have someone who projects to be an extremely valuable two-way player. The issue is, so far this season, that shooting capability has eluded him.

Through 16 games in 2018-19, Frank is hitting on 26.3 percent of his 3.6 three-point attempts per game. Not even Cleaning The Glass’s data can save him here. Eliminate garbage time and desperate heaves and he’s still just at 26.8 percent. He’s taking a significantly higher percentage of his shots on catch-and-shoot threes this season: 35 percent up from 20 percent last year. The problem is he’s hitting on a putrid 23.8 percent of those catch-and-shoot attempts. Oddly enough, he’s taking the same percentage of his shots from off-the-dribble threes (12 percent) but is hitting way more: 35.7 percent vs. 25.4 percent last year. In time, I expect both numbers to inch their way closer to last year’s splits.

The Mechanics

To figure out what’s going on with his shot, I spoke with The BBall Index’s in-house shooting expert, Dylan Ward (@HoopInDetail on Twitter). Here’s the first thing he noticed:

“He pauses at a point in his shot-pocket (right at his head) before his arms begin to extend outward to release. He does this because he likes to sync his extension/ release with his lower body sway forward/ leg kick. This whole pause/ timing thing is the reason he doesn’t shoot at the apex of his jump.”

For evidence, Ward sent me several videos illustrating this pause. The most obvious example was this:

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If you’re like me (not a shot doctor), maybe you didn’t notice too much, so I slowed down the video by 50% to see it better:

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The ball does seem to stick to his forehead a little. Ward refers to that as a “cockback,” and describes it as wasted motion. He says, though many players around the league use the cockback, it’s more detrimental for long-armed players “because they take longer to extend forward to release” after bringing it back. Here are two more examples at half speed:

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But, the more obvious (and likely more problematic) mechanical quirk of Frank’s shot is his release, which finishes outward instead of up, says Ward. This kind of release leads to a flat arcing shot as well as tighter contests. Check out his release in the following two videos:

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Ward says Ntilikina’s outward release and long arms lead to defenders “snake biting,” or hitting his arm on the follow through. Knicks fans should be plenty familiar with that phenomenon as it happens to Kristaps Porzingis on an absurd proportion of his shots. It rarely gets called a foul though because the act of shooting is ostensibly over and it’s such minor contact.

The Present and Future

Given Frank’s precipitous drop in three-point efficiency this season, my questions for Ward were simple: what’s changed? And, is that change to blame for the year-over-year decline? To the contrary, Ward actually saw some mechanical improvement:

“You can see more bend in the back this year, compared to last. His whole body is a bit more crouched. This helps conjoin his leg bend/ explosion with his upper body, and makes for less of the disjointed two-part stroke.”

Ward pointed to this video from preseason as an example of this adjusted form:

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After hearing Ward’s analysis, I was ready to chalk Frank’s struggles up to inherent inconsistency in young players. But, first I wanted to check one more thing. How does Frank’s shooting correlate with his playing time? I checked his numbers from this season and what I found was either very obvious or incredibly interesting:

The more minutes he played, the better his three-point percentages. I was ready to “small sample size” away any significance in the numbers, before I checked out his 2017-18 stats:

What you take away from these numbers can go one of two ways:

  1. Obviously, his coach is going to give him more minutes when he’s hitting his shots. Why’d you waste my time with those ugly charts?
  2. Frank is so clearly a player whose performance hinges on his confidence. The more minutes he gets, the more he feels like his coach trusts him. The longer he’s on the court, the more likely he is to get comfortable and find his shooting rhythm.

As an unabashed Frank believer, I’m leaning towards door number two. But, I’m not the only one. I asked Ward to project Frank going forward. “I’m optimistic that he’s going to be a solid shooter in a couple years,” Ward says. “It’s just going take time and natural improvement.”

*Aidan Lising (@aidanlising) created the title graphic for this article*

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