For the first three weeks of the season, a skyscraper-sized mural of Frank Ntilikina towered over Madison Square Garden from the side of a building on 42nd Street.
Yet, just as the Knicks’ 19-year-old rookie is starting to emerge as a player, the mural disappeared from the side of the building, apparently whitewashed over in preparation for another Nike advertisement. While Ntilikina did think his advertisement was pretty cool, he is more concerned with his presence on the hardwood than his presence on a brick wall.
“I don’t think about it,” Ntilikina said Tuesday before once again playing the entire fourth quarter in a 118-113 win over the Hornets, another come-from-behind Knicks win. “It was very cool to have that kind of a billboard here. But my main thing is on the court, so that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Knicks fans may have endured three years of chaos under Phil Jackson, but the former Zen Master’s contrarian nature and need to be perceived as an outside-of-the-box thinker is going to benefit them for years to come. The now departed Jackson reached deep into Europe and came up first with Kristaps Porzingis and two years later Ntilikina. Doing so has given the team a solid foundation.
Porzingis, who not even a month into the season is hearing chants of MVP when he goes to the line, is obviously the superstar here. Porzingis made some monster buckets late in Tuesday night’s game, including a three-pointer with 1:48 left to give the Knicks their first lead since the first quarter, and a layup with 11 seconds left to make the score 116-113.
But Ntilikina’s performance was also worth noting as it marked the second win in a row in which the Knicks have kept the young point guard directing the game in crunch time as they successfully mounted a comeback.
The Knicks were down, 91-79, when Ntilkina came in with 2:04 left in the third. He played the final 14:04, finishing with eight assists, three points and three rebounds. Most importantly, the Knicks were a plus-11 when he was on the floor.
“It’s a challenge and Frank likes challenges,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It’s a tough because he goes in in the third quarter there. Maybe we should have thought about taking him out at the eight-minute mark and given him a blow and bring him back. But he’s young, he’ll be OK.
“I think it’s his defense with his length and his arms. That’s helping us. Plus I like the experience he’s getting when these games are on the line and the plays he has to make. He will get tired playing these games back to back, but somehow you have to figure out how to win. And that’s all a part of his growing process.”
Ntilikina said because he had been part of a come-from-behind win against Indiana on Sunday, he felt he had the confidence to help make something happen in the fourth quarter against Charlotte.
“I definitely feel I have grown as a player,” Ntilikina said. “It’s a step that I’m making in the last minutes of the game. It’s good for a young player. It’s good experience. Now, we have to work to make sure we can win the game and have the lead maybe the whole game.”
In a league in which rookies are notoriously bad defensive players, Ntilikina’s play stands out.
“I think it was just part of developing my game in Europe,” Ntilikina said of his defensive mindset. “You know when you’re not as strong as the other player who has a lot of experience in the game. So you just have to be more willing to stop the player. You just have to do more work and fix some of the things. You have to work physically to be ready to stop stronger guys, but you can will it on the court and that’s what I’m doing.”
Worrying about on the court, not off of it.