GREENBURGH, N.Y. — As the Knicks have struggled through losses and a procession of point guards who never measured up to the elite players in the league, Frank Ntilikina has become a focal point for the Madison Square Garden crowd. His name has been chanted by fans begging for the former lottery pick to get a chance like a backup quarterback on a struggling football team.
When the Knicks take the floor Sunday evening against the Sacramento Kings, though, Ntilikina will not be the object of the fans’ desire for something new. Instead, he will be judged by what he can do against one of the top young point guards in the game.
De’Aaron Fox is averaging 17.7 points and 6.3 assists for the Kings, including a 25-point effort that helped them earn their first win of the season Friday. Ntilikina, taken three spots behind Fox in the 2017 NBA Draft, will get the chance to try to slow down the speedy Fox.
“Absolutely,” coach David Fizdale said. “Frank is really playing good basketball for us. Just really proud of the way that he stayed with it and his confidence is growing every day.”
Ntilikina is getting an opportunity he hasn’t seen often during his three seasons. After playing just over three minutes combined in the Knicks’ first three games, he was pushed into action when Dennis Smith Jr. left the team to be with his family after the death of his stepmother and Elfrid Payton suffered a strained right hamstring.
He played 22 minutes in the Knicks’ only win of the season, then 29 minutes off the bench in Orlando (coming off the bench even though the Knicks didn’t have another true point guard on the active roster). He finally started in Boston on Friday and played 37 minutes, 46 seconds — a total he had topped only once (in the final days of his rookie season) and nearly as many minutes as he’d played in the first five games combined.
“It does help me find my rhythm,” Ntilikina said. “Taking those open shots with no hesitation with confidence, it gives me confidence and motivation to work even harder.”
Ntilikina scored 10 points Friday, but defense is how he has made his way through the NBA. The Knicks used a switching defensive scheme against Boston that took Ntilikina away from Kemba Walker, but Fizdale said it was a matter of trying to counter the Celtics’ style.
“We tried to [keep Ntilikina on Walker], but that team, when you put two [defenders] on the ball against that team, they just have you running around like crazy,’’ Fizdale said. “So you pick your battles. You try to keep him on those primary offensive players as much as you can, but at the same time, the overall team defense has to come first. That’s not a team based just on Kemba. That team’s got a lot of weapons. We had to kind of just say, ‘All right, what’s our poison tonight?’ I thought it gave us a chance to win.”
With Marvin Begley out of action, Fox is the Kings’ primary weapon. “He’s a nightmare,” Fizdale said. “He keeps me up at night. The kid is a big-time player, super-fast. He’s really a pure point guard. We’ve got to do a job on him.”
While Fizdale has not fared as well as Ntilikina in the Garden chants, he is happy to hear the reaction that Ntilikina has gotten.
“I think it’s great,” Fizdale said. “How can you not like Frank Ntilikina? That’s how I look at it. His personality, the kid’s a great kid, he’s a class act and he competes. Hopefully, we can get back in front of our home crowd and he can have a good game.”