DETROIT — Frank Ntilikina was on the court, lightly working through drills as the Knicks completed the morning shootaround at Detroit Country Day School. But he was in street clothes Friday night when the Knicks faced the Pistons, and that won’t change for at least another week as he recovers from a groin injury.
Just the fact that Ntilikina was with the team after the trade deadline passed might have been a surprise. That he soon could be paired in the backcourt with Dennis Smith Jr. might have been even more unlikely.
But with Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay sidelined with injuries, Smith has inherited the starting point guard role, and on a team stumbling to the finish line, he has quickly emerged as the only show in town. He scored a career-high 31 points and had eight assists as the Knicks lost to the Pistons, 120-103, at Little Caesars Arena.
It was the 15th straight loss, 23rd in 24 games and 28th in 30 games for the Knicks (10-44), who battled back from a 21-point deficit to tie the score in the third quarter before falling apart.
Andre Drummond had 29 points and 20 rebounds, Blake Griffin added 26 points and Reggie Jackson had 20 for Detroit.
Smith took the blame after shooting only 11-for-19 from the free-throw line. “We should have won,” he said. “I’ve got to make my free throws to keep us in the game. I mean, that was really big for the momentum, I believe. If I would have made them, it would have kept us in the game. Our turnovers were down. We were getting good looks. We were playing solid defensively. It came down to the free throws.”
Since being selected No. 8 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, Ntilikina has tried to live up to that pick, one spot ahead of Smith, and find a consistent role. The passing of the deadline represents another opportunity for him to make it happen.
“Yesterday [as the deadline passed], I was just working on my groin and my body,” Ntilikina said. “About the trade deadline, I was just really confident. I know I’m good here in New York. I’m happy to be a Knick. I’m doing everything every day to take that confidence back and try to be the best Knick as possible.”
That likely won’t be seen until after the All-Star break, giving him more time to rehabilitate from the injury that has sidelined him since Jan. 27. But as a defensive-minded point guard, he believes that the player he seemed destined to measure himself against — Smith — can work together with him.
Smith has a long way to go to be the defensive player that Ntilikina is. Ntilikina, however, likely will never do the things that Smith can do — such as the 360 dunk he threw down on a breakaway Friday, a preview of his appearance in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend.
“I was excited, man,” Ntilikina said of the trade for Smith. “We bring in another young guy as talented as Dennis, it’s exciting. Right now I’m itching to get back on the court and play with him. There’s a lot of potential with this whole team, especially with Dennis and me. We can play together. He can play with or without the ball. I can do the same. I’m just really excited about being back on the court.
“We know each other. We know when not in the same uniform, you’re always a rival against every one of your opponents. Now we’re in the same uniform and it’s exciting. We ‘re going to try to get better and make this team better.”
David Fizdale recently said he can envision the pair working together. How it would work, who would shift away from the point guard role, still is up for grabs.
“I don’t know,” Fizdale said. “I’ll let them both handle. [Ntilikina] would obviously guard the bigger of the two guys. I’m tired of trying to label [Ntilikina]. I even can get caught up getting frustrated trying to say he’s this or he’s that. Nah, he’s just a player. He can do whatever you ask him to do out there. He can play off the ball, he can play on the ball, he can guard multiple guys. I’m done calling him this or that. I just want him to go out there and be a winning player for us.”
In recent days, the Knicks have moved to clear out players they felt didn’t fit their plans. Kristaps Porzingis was seen as not on board with those plans and was traded. Enes Kanter understandably was frustrated with his diminished role and was waived after efforts to trade him came up empty.
It would be understandable if Ntilikina were upset after watching an assortment of journeymen start ahead of him. But he has not complained about his role, whatever his role is.
“I mean, he’s a great teammate,” Fizdale said. “He’s a pro. The kid works his tail off to be good. At least we finally got him to a place I feel like that he’s not worried about ‘I got drafted ahead of this guy and I got this or I got that. I just want to be a good basketball player for the team I play for and help them win.’ I think that’s where he’s at.”