Frank Ntilikina pushing LeBron James inside a raucous and appreciative Madison Square Garden on Monday night wasn’t felt only in the United States. Ntilikina’s friends back in France saw it through social media and had questions.
“Of course they’re going to ask what happened,” Ntilikina said. “That was nothing. I just told them it was nothing. That was funny how it’s LeBron James, superstar, the best player in the league, it makes a lot of noise.”
Ntilikina showed the Knicks, New York and the rest of the NBA something when he stood up to James and pushed him out of the way.
James was blocking Ntilikina’s path to get the ball and inbound it, and the 19-year-old rookie wasn’t having it. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because Ntilikina’s strength is defending his space.
Kristaps Porzingis has earned most of the attention and praise for the Knicks’ unexpected 8-6 start, and rightfully so for carrying the offensive load. But in fourth quarters of close games, the Knicks are getting a big lift defensively from Ntilikina.
It’s not often that a rookie, let alone one from Europe, can spark a team defensively. But Ntilikina’s mind and body — he has a 7-foot wingspan — have enabled him to do just that.
Entering Thursday night’s games, the 6-5 Ntilikina was tied for second in the league in steals at 2.0 per game. His 4.5 deflections per 36 minutes ranked second. That defense also is drawing huge cheers from the Garden fans, who long for the days when stopping teams was a Knicks staple.
“We have great confidence in him defensively,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It’s great that a young guy comes into this league with more defensive principles than offensive principles . . . He does a great job for us defensively. We love that part of it. That’s what we’re trying to become, a good defensive team. That’s a good start for us.”
The Knicks, who will play in Toronto on Friday night, were criticized for drafting Ntilikina instead of Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk with the eighth pick. It grew louder when injuries forced Ntilikina to miss most of the preseason and two of the first three regular-season games.
James created a buzz when he said Saturday that Smith “should have been a Knick.” Most took it as a swipe at Ntilikina, but James said it was a shot at former Knicks president Phil Jackson. Either way, no one is questioning Ntilikina as he shows his poise and mettle while handling expectations, criticism and injuries and continuing to shine defensively.
“I’m just trying to bring what I can bring to the team,” he said. “I think defensively I have abilities to help my teammates and to help my team to get some steals, to get some stops, to help them communication-wise. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Ntilikina had six steals in the Knicks’ loss to the Cavaliers and two in a comeback victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night, when he played the entire fourth quarter. Hornacek is giving Ntilikina extended fourth-quarter minutes, and he’s repaying the coach’s trust by making plays.
One of Ntilikina’s steals came in the fourth quarter Wednesday. He also helped create another Jazz turnover late when rookie Donovan Mitchell tried to get a pass around Ntilikina’s long arms and instead threw it out of bounds.
“He already had the physical gifts, being 6-5, with long arms and the foot quickness,” Courtney Lee said. “It’s him just learning the terminology and learning where to be. You knew that was going to take time, but he’s matured fast.”
Ntilikina’s offense needs to catch up to his defense, and he says he’s working on it. He’s shooting only 34.8 percent from the field, but he made back-to-back jump shots in the fourth quarter to help keep the Knicks close before Tim Hardaway Jr. took over.
“I know I can do a lot better offensively,” Ntilikina said. “I’m working to do it. But now I think it’s just getting comfortable. For the most part, it’s in my head. I’ll keep on working on it at practice. I definitely think I can be not only a defensive player in this league.”