The New York Knicks may have been the only team that got some enjoyment of Team USA's early exit at the hands of France at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Third-year Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina played a key role in helping France end USA Basketball's 58-game win streak with NBA players in international basketball.
Ntilikina could state his case for having been the best guard on the floor in the fourth quarter, ahead of even stars like Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell. The 21-year-old Ntilikina helped swing momentum back toward France in the final frame with his full-court pressure on Team USA's guards, plus a surprising dose of offense, including a buzzer-beating dagger with 2:15 left to play.
Ntilikina's stat line was modest — 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 1 rebound, and 3 assists — but he was a +22 for the game, the second-best mark of any player on either team.
The eighth pick in the 2017 draft, Ntilikina is entering a crucial third season with the Knicks. After an up-and-down rookie season in which he showed flashes, but also looked raw in major areas of the game, Ntilikina struggled badly in Year 2 with the Knicks. He lost playing time to other guards, was played out of position, and struggled with injuries down the stretch. The Knicks reportedly listened to trade offers for him at the deadline and before the draft.
The flashes Ntilikina showed on Wednesday suggest he could turn a corner in Year 3. Ntilikina looks unlikely to ever become a true point guard, but his ball-handling looked improved, his jumper smoother, and his defense — his NBA calling-card — aggressive and consistent.
If Ntilikina can continue to hound opposing guards, shoot at an even league-average clip from distance, and attack close-outs on offense, he'd be a valuable asset in today's NBA.
League sources who spoke to Business Insider last season remained fairly high on Ntilikina, though mostly because of his age. Some were wary of how high Ntilikina's ceiling could be. At this stage of his career, Ntilikina doesn't have to become an overnight superstar — just an above-average role player.
Performances like Wednesday against the U.S. showed that Ntilikina has the tools to be an impact player. If he can put it all together consistently, he could be at the core of the Knicks' rebuild rather than on the outskirts of it.