Another French connection for the Charlotte Hornets? It’s a real possibility.
Point guard Frank Ntilikina of the French League won’t turn 19 until about a month after the June 22 NBA draft. But he’s tall for his position at 6-foot-5 and a strong defender. The Hornets have the No. 11 overall pick and the front office has expressed a desire to upgrade depth at the point.
So considering Ntilikina, a Belgium native, seems a logical move if he lasts to No. 11.
The Hornets already have a key player whose first pro seasons were in France. Shooting guard-small forward Nic Batum came to the Hornets in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers in June 2015. Batum played so well in the 2015-16 season that the Hornets re-signed him to a five-season, $120 million contract last summer.
The Hornets’ experience with French players has been mixed. Alexis Ajinca, the 20th pick in the 2008 draft, was a bust who was traded early in his second NBA season. Boris Diaw played well in Charlotte initially, following a 2008 trade from Phoenix, but later clashed with coach Paul Silas and was waived the spring of 2012.
Ntilikina played for Strasbourg last season. Part of the challenge in evaluating young European players is their usually limited roles, playing behind older veterans. Ntilikina averaged less than 18 minutes per game last season. His statistics fell short of impressive at 5.1 points, 1.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds.
Don’t be misled: Scouts see a point guard with fine court vision, a natural gift for creating open shots for teammates. His height could be a nice complement to a smaller starter at point guard in Kemba Walker.
Ntilikina is long-armed, which can be a big plus as a defender. It’s possible he could play alongside Walker at times, similar to how Hornets coach Steve Clifford used Walker and Jeremy Lin together in late-game situations two seasons ago.
But Ntilikina is a long way from having an NBA-ready body. He’s about 170 pounds, so he’ll need a major strength program to hold up against the pounding he’ll receive driving to the basket.
His outside shooting has continuously improved: He shot 41 percent from the Euro 3-point line last season.
The Hornets’ season – they finished 36-46, out of the playoffs and on a five-game losing streak – demonstrated a need for depth in general and point guard in particular.
Ramon Sessions was signed to a two-season contract in the summer of 2016 to be Walker’s backup. Next season on that deal, worth nearly $6.3 million, is a team option.
Sessions, in his second stint in Charlotte, struggled last season. He averaged a career-low 6.2 points and shot 38 percent from the field. His best NBA skill has been getting to the foul line, yet he took only 118 free throws in 50 game appearances.
A 10-season NBA veteran from Myrtle Beach, Sessions suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in early February. This was his first significant injury, requiring surgery, and he played little the rest of the season.
Considering his salary, age (31) and underwhelming season, it won’t be a surprise if the Hornets don’t exercise his season option.