"We like the size of this young man, we like his aptitude for the game, athleticism, actually the ability to incorporate himself in a winning type of a situation," Jackson said shortly after the Knicks took Ntilikina with their first-round pick.
Ntilikina, an 18-year-old 6-foot-5 guard, averaged 5.7 points and 1.6 assists this season for Strasbourg. Jackson said he hoped Ntilikina would be able to contribute right away but acknowledged that it might take the young guard time to get acclimated to the NBA game, which is expected for any 18-year-old not named LeBron James.
"Top-10 picks are all really young guys," Jackson said. "You have to understand that when you go in the draft these particular years. ... We know this is a project-type of atmosphere where we have to build a player that is going to develop. We hope he jumps out and helps our team this year."
The Knicks scouted Ntilikina heavily during his season in France. Some in the organization also liked Kentucky's Malik Monk, who was available at the eighth pick. North Carolina State's Dennis Smith, who had met with the Knicks, was also available. Jackson acknowledged that taking Ntilikina was a difficult decision.
"It was a pick that we had to think about and argue about as a staff and discuss merits," Jackson said.
Jackson did not rule out the possibility of trading for an additional pick in the draft but ended up staying put, selecting Houston wing Damyean Dotson with the 44th pick and 6-4 Serbian guard Ognjen Jaramaz with the 58th pick. On the trade front, New York had discussions with the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics, among other teams, about a potential Kristaps Porzingis trade. Center Joakim Noah was involved in many of those discussions, per sources. Jackson declined to discuss the Porzingis trade talks on Thursday, instead choosing to focus on Ntilikina.
"This isn't the time to talk about that. This is the time to talk about our draft pick," he said.
Ntilikina has a 7-foot wingspan and projects as a strong defender. Scouts say his shot has improved over the season with Strasbourg. Jackson singled out his defensive ability when discussing the reasons behind selecting him.
"A lot, it has a lot to do with it," Jackson said. "He's up court playing full-court defense. He's aggressive. He likes to do that. He thinks that's a big part of who he is."
Ntilikina, who will fly back to France to play in the fifth and deciding game of the French A League championship, is the highest-drafted player from the French League and the highest-drafted French player in league history.
He's the second player from the French League to be drafted by the Knicks, joining Frederic Weis (1999). But he hopes to leave a better legacy than Weis, who never played for the Knicks and ended up on the wrong end of an astounding Vince Carter dunk in the 2000 Olympics.
"I will bring the Knicks actually a lot of hope,'' Ntilikina said.
The Knicks have gone a combined 80-167 over the past three seasons and have drawn negative headlines for issues on and off the court. Jackson appears to be attempting another rebuild.
"The reality is, we have to grow a team together," said Jackson, who would prefer to trade veteran Carmelo Anthony this summer. "One of the things that I thought about was my own experience and the Knicks' experience when they had success in the late '60s and early '70s, where five or six players were all within one, two years experience in the NBA. Different time. College matriculated out into the NBA. I think we have to start growing our own kids."
Jackson also acknowledged he prefers some of the traits of player development in Europe to the United States. That's evident on the Knicks' roster.
"I've think we've downplayed what the quality of the game is out there [in Europe] a little bit. We've overlooked it in the NBA," Jackson said when asked about the European presence on his roster. "And sometimes, it's the ability for players to grow up into a system of play that they adapt to as they grow up as young players. And fitting into that style. I think a lot of times in our college ball, it's about adapting to who the players are. And the games become more of a style of what can you do offensively and giving a lot of room to players just to play one-on-one or whatever ability they have. Whereas, a lot of European players are schooled into the system and how to fit into it."