'That's Pretty Interesting': Tony Parker a perfect match for Kemba Walker, Hornets; Knicks' Frank Ntilikina still enigmatic
Also: Mavs mania, Nerlens Noel's touch and Justise Winslow stretching his game
NEW YORK -- Tony Parker backed up behind the 3-point line on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. He cleared out against New York Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson, crossed over, drove left and hit the center with an up-and-under, finishing with a lefty layup as Robinson went flying the wrong way. On the Charlotte Hornets' bench, Parker's teammates jumped out of their seats. One of them, Devonte' Graham, did a little pirouette. Parker may be 36, but his old tricks still work.
"He's so crafty," Hornets forward Marvin Williams told CBS Sports. "It's kind of fun to watch, and you see younger, more athletic guys guarding him. He still finds a way to get to the basket, man. He's just so smart. He's been doing it for so long, man. That's what makes him great."
On Charlotte's next possession, Parker turned the corner on a pick-and-roll and went right at Robinson, accelerating at just the right time to finger roll the ball past the 20-year-old's long arms. A couple of trips later, Robinson was the victim of Parker's patented floater. After a crossover set up another layup, he had scored eight points in two minutes.
"Obviously, Mr. Parker is not done," Knicks coach David Fizdale said.
Parker is on a new NBA team for the first time since he left Paris for San Antonio 17 years ago. He is fully healthy, unlike last season, when he came back from a 10-11 month quadriceps injury in only seven. He is averaging 10.5 points and 4.3 assists in 19.5 minutes, both backing up Kemba Walker and sharing the court with him.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Parker's usage is higher than it's been since the Spurs won the 2014 championship. He is not the star that he was in his prime, but in stretches like that one at MSG, he can look an awful lot like he used to. It turns out that, when you are the quickest guard in the league at your peak, you can lose some of your burst and still get where you need to go.
"I worked hard this summer to get my leg strong, and I feel healthy again," Parker said. "I feel like I have my 20-years-old legs, and I can get back to the paint and penetrate and create. It feels good. It feels good to have my body back. That's the key."
Walker's All-Star-to-superstar turn is the biggest story in Charlotte, but if this team maintains its playoff position, it will not just be because of its starting point guard. After years of self-destructing whenever Walker sits, Parker has provided stability. In the 282 minutes he has played without Walker, the Hornets have a plus-5.8 net rating.
Fizdale called it an "incredible luxury" for his longtime friend James Borrego to be able to sub Walker out and put in someone with Parker's pedigree. It also helps that the two of them love working together. Ex-Charlotte assistant coach Stephen Silas used to cut up clips of Parker running pick-and-rolls, making floaters and finishing around the rim for Walker to watch. When Walker found out the Hornets could sign the four-time champion and six-time All-Star, he was geeked.
Since then, Walker has told Parker that he used to study him, and Parker has been happy to take some of the pressure off Walker when he gets tired or trapped. Parker even gave Walker the ultimate compliment, saying his lack of ego and commitment to winning reminded him of Tim Duncan.
The respect is clearly mutual: Walker said it has been amazing to have Parker around, as the veteran has "changed our team in many ways" and helped him make yet another leap.
"I'm no genius," Walker said. "I'm no genius at all. I mean, I'm always learning, I'm always trying to get better. I don't know if anyone can ever stop learning. I'm a student of the game forever, regardless of how much older I'm going to get, year by year, I'm always going to learn. T.P. has been doing this for 18 years. He's played tons more games than me, been in tons of situations. I'm always learning from him. Always."
Parker has been everything Charlotte hoped he'd be, and it seems like the Hornets have given him exactly what he needed, too. "I think it's fresh for him," Borrego said: The new home, the new people, the frequent visits to cities in the East. Borrego appreciates that Parker has embraced his role, served as an extension of the coaching staff and helped lead the team, especially because he could have easily walked away.
"I'm really happy for him because, you all know, you guys saw that injury, he could have been done after that injury and he could have just shut it down and all of us standing here would have gone, 'Heck of a career, Hall of Fame career,'" Borrego said. "And he put the time and the effort in to not go out that way. He didn't want to go out that way."
The Ntilikina conversation
For all of Parker's exploits, the real buzz on French Heritage Night was about Frank Ntilikina. The 20-year-old from Strasbourg dropped a career-high 18 points, all in an eight-minute stretch that spanned the second half of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth. This was made more compelling because Fizdale had removed Ntilikina from the rotation for three games at the beginning of the month.
The scoring was encouraging, especially because Ntilikina went 4-for-4 from 3-point range. He took those 3s with no hesitation and looked calm and comfortable doing so -- you would have never known he entered the game shooting 19-for-74 (25.7 percent) from deep on the season.
"He's put hours on top of hours in," Fizdale said. "And obviously I've been really pushing him to shoot more 3s because I really think there's a capable shooter in there. He's put in the time, so confidence comes through that work."
It was perhaps the best and most assured Ntilikina has looked as a professional. "I think that he finally just said screw it, just stopped worrying about if he misses the shot or what people think," Fizdale said. It was not perfect, however, and many possessions were overlooked in the excitement of the moment. In Ntilikina's first stint, he was largely invisible, save for getting crossed up by Parker at the end of the first quarter and fouling Parker when he bit on a pump fake a few minutes into the second. In his second stint, he missed a wild driving layup -- but also forced a Walker turnover in transition! -- before he got on the scoreboard.
In between his first bucket -- a midrange jumper off the dribble -- and his first 3, Ntilikina miscommunicated on a simple pick-and-roll with Robinson, starting his drive before the big man was set and giving the ball back to the Hornets. With about three minutes left in the third quarter, he went the wrong way trying to defend Walker's crossover, leading to two of Walker's 25 points. On the next possession, Ntilikina showed some moxie, worming around a screen and hitting a jumper of his own.
Just before his third 3, Ntilikina made the mistake of going under a screen against Walker, and the Knicks were lucky not to be punished for it. I liked Ntilikina's aggressiveness when he turned the corner near the end of the third quarter, but I didn't like that he tried to avoid contact and finish with one hand in traffic. Moments before he fouled out (and took Fizdale with him -- the coach got himself ejected for arguing with the officials at the next timeout), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist pressured Ntilikina full-court and forced him to turn the ball over more than 30 feet from the basket.
None of this is to pick on a young guard who had a nice game when he desperately needed one. It is simply to say that he hasn't suddenly figured everything out. He's going to keep making mistakes, and that is normal. What matters is how he responds. Fizdale has said over and over again that he doesn't want any of his young players to overthink or look at him for direction.
The most illuminating story about where Ntilikina is right now is not any of the glowing pieces that followed Sunday's performance; it is this one by The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov, published in early November. In it, Ntilikina talked honestly about getting out of his comfort zone. He grew up associating shooting with selfishness, always wanting to get his teammates involved. The Knicks, back in action on Friday against the Hornets (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), want him to be much more aggressive, and he now understands that looking for his shot and making the right play are not mutually exclusive. Habits, however, tend not to change overnight.
Ntilikina is fascinating precisely because of this. He is a nominal point guard, but did not grow up playing the position the same way his peers do. Phil Jackson, who drafted him, might have seen this as a selling point, as the former New York president did not love pick-and-roll or drive-and-kick basketball. Ntilikina is enormous for a point guard, with long arms and quick feet, and he is a technically proficient defender, not just for someone his age. His upside is obvious, but it is notable that he disappears for long stretches. When you watch how smoothly other point guards operate with the ball in their hands, it's fair to wonder whether Ntilikina will ever be that kind of playmaker.
Could he become a high-level role player off the ball filling in gaps for Kristaps Porzingis and some star the Knicks sign? Could he evolve into a star himself, with an assertive mindset and a few years of development? Neither the brief benching nor the scoring outburst will answer these questions, and whatever he does this season will not define his career. For now, New York should simply hope that the Charlotte game was a confidence builder. His 16 points off the bench in Cleveland on Wednesday suggest it might have been.
Here are five statistical notes about the Dallas Mavericks, who are now 15-11 after starting the year 2-7 and could very well make the playoffs in the wacky West:
- The Mavericks have the best bench in the league, based on aggregate net rating: Their reserves are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions.
- You are probably aware that Harrison Barnes has a less taxing role now that Luka Doncic is around -- his usage and shot attempts are both down. Barnes is shooting 3s more frequently than ever before, though (6.8 attempts per 36 minutes, up from 4.6 last season and 2.9 the season before) and making a career-high 41.7 percent of them.
- Analytics darling Dwight Powell is even more efficient than usual. He has made 77 percent of his 2-point shots and 83 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, and that kind of thing doesn't really happen.
- Dorian Finney-Smith is hitting a team-high 44.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, which is exactly what he needed to do to avoid being seen as a defense-only specialist. (Wesley Matthews and Barnes are right behind him at 43.4 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively.)
- In his first three games as a starter, Jalen Brunson averaged 13 points, 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals in 30 minutes, shooting an unsustainable 58.6 percent and 42.9 percent from 3-point range. His overall numbers aren't anywhere near that good, but he's extremely savvy for a rookie and has been fantastic filling in for Dennis Smith Jr.
The takeaway: The Luka Show is awesome, but the Mavs have more going for them than that.
It's time to give credit to Nerlens Noel, who signed a minimum contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder in hopes of getting his career back on track. Not only has Noel contributed to the Thunder's league-best defense, he has had the most efficient season of his career, shooting 60.6 percent and showing off his touch with both hands around the basket. It's not all putbacks, rolls to the rim and dunks -- he has even made a few jumpers lately:
Noel surely wants to play more than the 14.1 minutes per game he's getting in OKC, but if another team is going to make an investment in him as a starter next summer, he will have to thrive as Steven Adams' backup. So far, so good.
… And Justise for all
That's a stepback 3 in the corner, and even Winslow must respect just how far he flung himself and how fluid the shot was. It's no wonder Dwyane Wade looked proud of him: As Couper Moorhead of heat.com pointed out, it looked like Winslow took it straight from Wade's arsenal.
Given the Miami Heat's disappointing record, I can't blame you if you haven't been watching many of their games. Winslow has been coming into his own, though, running some point guard, making contested 3s and even posting up a little. He averaged 23 points, 5.7 assists and 7.0 rebounds in the three games leading up to Wednesday's stinker against the Jazz. Those numbers represent the best stretch of his career, but they fail to fully capture the way he has stretched his offensive game.
10 more stray thoughts: Kudos to the reporters in Mexico City who kept a straight face when John Paxson said "it's been a positive week" for the Bulls … As someone who can never quit George Hill, I am entirely too optimistic about how he'll fit in with the Bucks … Important: Boban Marjanovic loves soup and can't finish a meal without a good dessert … I'm old-school about almost nothing, but I admit that I didn't like the Lakers running a Wade tribute video … Nice to see Paul George playing perhaps the best basketball of his life … The Pelicans can never get healthy, can they? … Regardless of what kind of career he has, Robert Williams blocking Anthony Davis twice in his first extended NBA minutes is the stuff of legend … Jimmy Butler should host his own podcast … This year has been rough for Chris Paul, but I refuse to believe he's washed … Spencer Dinwiddie deserves more than the four-year, $47.5 million extension the Nets have not offered him.
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