Frank Ntilikina, a Top N.B.A. Prospect, Is Learning to Play With Fire

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STRASBOURG, France — Frank Ntilikina bent forward, angled his face to the ground and unleashed an extended scream. Then he fell to the floor and did five push-ups.

It was a self-imposed punishment of sorts for missing an open layup during SIG Strasbourg’s practice Monday morning, and after he completed the push-ups, the team’s five-on-five drill resumed quietly. Later, though, his teammates and coaches marveled at the outburst.

“It was our first time seeing that,” Lauriane Dolt, an assistant coach, said, laughing.

Ntilikina, an 18-year-old point guard, is widely considered the best prospect in European basketball and one of the most intriguing players expected to be available in the N.B.A. draft this summer. In one recent mock-up, ESPN projected the 6-foot-5 Ntilikina as the sixth overall pick.

According to his teammates, his coaches, his agent, talent evaluators and pundits, Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-KEE-nah) is mentally mature, with an enviable collection of physical tools. But with six months to go before the draft, everyone sees there is work to do.

For Ntilikina, the goal is to wield those tools with more aggressiveness and consistency. He is quiet by nature. The people around him would love to see him take more risks, to make more mistakes, to show more fire.

“He’ll tell me, ‘I have that inside,’” said Vincent Collet, the coach of Strasbourg and the French national team. “I tell him: ‘Don’t keep that inside. Show it.’”

Positive signs keep emerging. Early last month, Collet said, Ntilikina dominated a practice for the first time. A week later, he joined the junior national team for the European Under-18 Championship, where he led France to the gold medal and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. After notching 23 points, 9 assists and 5 steals against Italy in the semifinals, he scored 31 points in the final against Lithuania.

[Video: Highlights Frank Ntilikina – Finale championnat d’Europe U18 Watch on YouTube.]

Highlights Frank Ntilikina – Finale championnat d’Europe U18

Video by SIG Strasbourg TV

Facing players his own age, and forced to lead, he looked unstoppable, swaggering smoothly around the court, draining difficult shots, making the ball his personal plaything.

“It was not just luck,” Ntilikina said, crediting his performance to his assertiveness. “My teammates gave me confidence, and my coach, too. I had to take care of my responsibility to get the win.”

Ntilikina was born in Belgium to Rwandan parents and has lived in Strasbourg since age 3. He speaks English well, a skill he attributed partly to his longstanding love of American rap music. In a conversation after practice, though, one particular English word kept escaping him. He twirled his hands around, trying to conjure it from the air. Twice already it had tripped him up. He called out to a fellow Frenchman nearby, and the two volleyed words back and forth until it hit him: “disturb.”

Now he could finish the two thoughts he had left dangling. Yes, he said, he was learning to use his prodigious wingspan, measured at around seven feet, to disturb opposing players, eliminating passing angles and making them think twice about shooting. And no, he said, he would not allow his circumstances — preparing for the draft, facing limited minutes on his team — to disturb him.

N.B.A. scouts, sometimes six a day, have traveled to Strasbourg to glimpse that wingspan up close. Like many teenage basketball prodigies from Europe, though, Ntilikina has found playing time hard to secure alongside more seasoned professional teammates. On top of that, Strasbourg, which sits in fifth in the French league, having overcome a slow start, has a group of talented point guards. That has meant Ntilikina has spent a considerable amount of time off the ball — or, worse, off the court.

Ntilikina has averaged 17.5 minutes through nine Champions League games and 13.2 minutes through 13 games in the LNB Pro A, the French league. Collet said he expected Ntilikina’s playing time to rise in the coming weeks, but only if Ntilikina deserved it.

“It’s important that he works for it, that he struggles a little bit to get it,” Collet said. “It’s better if he is at the summit in May than in January. What I tell him every day is, he has to use all these moments to get better so that he arrives at his maximum when the draft is there.”

In the meantime, Ntilikina’s spindly, springy body has been a blank canvas onto which people continue to project their visions of what he might become.

Some in the French sports media have invoked Tony Parker, the French point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, as a model — a facile comparison, in the same way that every good, young soccer midfielder in France is prematurely anointed the next Zinedine Zidane. Still, with Parker, 34, in the autumn of his career, there has been an impulse to find the nation’s next basketball superstar.

Collet, known as a sage tactician and teacher, said the conversation about Ntilikina and Parker frustrated him, given the vast differences between the players, whom he knows well. Nevertheless, he volunteered some points for the sake of comparison: Ntilikina, he said, is a smarter player and better shooter than Parker was at 18. He said Parker back then was faster and more aggressive and was a better one-on-one player.

Ntilikina, who consumes copious amounts of N.B.A. coverage and video, said he had been focusing his viewing of late on Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“He shows me what I can improve: my aggressiveness to the rim, my energy,” Ntilikina said.

On Tuesday at Rhénus Sport, the team’s arena, Strasbourg hosted Tenerife C.B. of Spain in a Champions League game and lost despite controlling play until the final minutes.

Ntilikina played only 13 minutes of the 40-minute game. He took two shots, swishing a jumper from 18 feet and missing badly on a contested 3-point attempt. The play that seemed to best highlight his strengths occurred with less than a minute to go in the first half, when he was switched onto Tim Abromaitis, an American power forward four inches taller and 45 pounds heavier. As Abromaitis dribbled near the baseline, Ntilikina waved his arms above his head like two big palm fronds, smothering Abromaitis and obstructing his sight. Abromaitis was still holding the ball when the shot clock expired, causing the arena to erupt in cheers.

With steady management and strong play, Strasbourg has had its fortunes rise over the past few years. Martial Bellon, the club’s president, said in an interview that its ambition was to join the top tier of European basketball in the next few years, and he suggested that ushering a player to the N.B.A. and having him succeed would reflect positively on the team’s youth development program.

“Frank did not fall from the sky,” said Bellon, who added that the team prided itself on its familial closeness.

Ntilikina joined the club at 15 and has seen the same faces as he has progressed to the first team. Dolt was his first youth coach, and Collet has been around since 2011. Ntilikina’s grooming, then, has felt at times like a clubwide project.

Romeo Travis, a 32-year-old power forward from Akron, Ohio, where he was a high school teammate of LeBron James, has been trying to summon the fire from Ntilikina, too. He raved about Ntilikina’s polish and praised his toughness. He said Ntilikina might be “overly coachable,” echoing the notion that Ntilikina could take more initiative and find moments to toss aside the game plan.

At the team’s practice Monday, after Ntilikina flubbed his layup, Travis walked over, put his hand on his young teammate’s shoulder and suggested — gently, but profanely — that he should be dunking on those plays.

“Frank doesn’t have a ceiling,” Travis said later. “He has everything: He has height, athleticism, ball-handing; he can shoot. So I’m just trying to give him that push, that confidence that he can be anything he wants to be.”

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