There are 26 games left in the regular season, 26 games until Knicks basketball is over for another season.
For the most part, the choice of backcourt pairing for New York has been rookie RJ Barrett at the two, with summer recruit Elfrid Payton running things at the point.
Payton’s late addition to the franchise during free agency was quite an inauspicious one, adding simply more depth at the guard position for a team that already had two top 10 picks from the 2018 NBA Draft in Frank and Dennis Smith Jr. However, with a lack of productivity on the offensive end for the two aforementioned young guns, Payton found his time on the court increase dramatically before ultimately developing into Mike Miller’s go-to man to start the game at the one.
Payton has started 27 games this season, one more than Ntilikina, and far more than Smith Jr’s measly two stars.
Elfrid has averaged more than 6.5 minutes per night than Frank though, but has that decision been vindicated?
One of the reasons Payton has hung on to his spot in the starting five is not only down to his box score being fairly well balanced (9.7 points, 6.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 steals), but his defense has been commended too. Unlike your Reggie Bullock’s, Wayne Ellington’s and Taj Gibson’s, Payton isn’t a past-their-prime veteran cashing in on a pay-day with a team in need of spending money. He’s actually only 26 years old (as of yesterday).
From the same draft class as team-mate Julius Randle, as well as the likes of Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Sixers center Joel Embiid, Bulls shooter Zach Lavine and number one overall pick, now-Warriors star Andrew Wiggins, Payton is still very much in his prime. However, one thing he is not is the tender age of 21, like Ntilikina, and 22 like DSJ.
One thing is for certain, RJ Barrett isn’t being benched from the shooting guard position any time soon. His raw but effective style of play would only be hindered by reduced minutes, with Miller letting only Julius Randle play more minutes than the rookie out of Duke.
Back to the log-jam at point guard, Payton, Ntilikina, and DSJ all have their strengths and weaknesses, almost as if you could combine their talents you might find one very, very good player.
Let’s break it down.
Best handles and ability to attack the basket: Dennis Smith Jr
Best one-on-one defender: Frank Ntilikina
Best passer and assist provider: Elfrid Payton
So, where to go next? In terms of competing for anything of note, the Knicks’ season is over.
The only thing that can be won is personal player development, and allowing some of the younger players to enjoy more NBA minutes, almost like September call-ups in the MLB. Ntilikina and Smith Jr, alongside players like Damyean Dotson, Kevin Knox, Ignas Brazdeikis and Mitchell Robinson should, in theory, earn considerable time on the court from now until mid-April. Whether they will or not is a completely different issue.
In terms of the immediate future, Smith Jr might be the guard with the latest opportunity to ‘keep his jersey’ when the former Dallas Maverick returns to his former home state of Texas to take on the Houston Rockets. Coming off one of his best offensive games of the season with 14 points against Indiana two days ago, Ntilikina has been declared ‘questionable’ according to the Knicks injury report, while Payton is also a doubt to face James Harden and Russell Westbrook in H-town.
Let’s round this off with a stat check, looking at three players’ career stats and how they stack up against each other.
Career Field Goal %
Elfrid Payton: 45.2%
Frank Ntilikina: 36.2%
Dennis Smith Jr: 33.5%
Career 3pt Field Goal %
Dennis Smith Jr: 31.5%
Frank Ntilikina: 30.7%
Elfrid Payton: 29.5%
Career Free Throw %
Frank Ntilikina: 77.8%
Dennis Smith Jr: 64.6%
Elfrid Payton: 62.4%
Career Point Average
Dennis Smith Jr: 12.6 ppg
Elfrid Payton: 11 ppg
Frank Ntilikina: 5.9 ppg
Career Assist Average
Elfrid Payton: 6.6 assists
Dennis Smith Jr: 4.6 assists
Frank Ntilikina: 3 assists
So, does this help make things any clearer? Of course, it doesn’t.
You have two chalk-and-cheese point guards in Ntilikina; the defensive-minded, shot-shy guard who seems at times almost too ‘innocent’ to attack the basket, and Smith Jr, the talented dribbler who can drive to the cup, finish in traffic, jump out of the gym on a dunk, but will often prove a liability in transition defense.
As for Payton, he’s the best of both players, granted a little bit older, wiser and league-ready, but perhaps not as defensively sound like Frank, or as offensively ferocious as Smith Jr. His niche, his best asset is his ability to pick a pass, help space the floor and serve his team-mates. He needs that one ability to rely on, because when/if Frank and Dennis find their groove on their deficiencies in the game, they’ll be ready to take his space in the five.
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