They are forever linked from the decisions made about them on their draft day when Frank Ntilikina was selected by the Knicks with the No. 8 overall pick — one spot ahead of Dennis Smith Jr.
But when Smith was traded to the Knicks last season in the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis away, there was talk about who would someday be the long-term answer at point guard for the Knicks or if they could even play in the backcourt together. They never got a chance to play together last season with injuries sidelining them in alternating waves.
This season, it took until Thursday night’s win over Dallas for them actually to both play on the same night and play well — Smith perking up the offense with an aggressive, attacking style, and Ntilikina, despite foul trouble, utilizing the aggression on the defensive end. And for a moment, it was worth wondering if they actually could work together.
“I’m considering that, yes. Absolutely,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said of the notion of pairing the two, utilizing their disparate strengths. “The quick guard has been our Achilles heel if you go back through some of the losses. You talk about [Collin] Sexton and [De’Aaron] Fox, [Darius] Garland and all of these guys. Coby [White] – all of these guys are just little lightning bolts that can score.
“We’ve got to really figure out a way to contain that. The idea like playing two smaller guys together, moving RJ [Barrett] more to a small forward position instead of a two-guard position. Those are all things we’ll look at.”
Smith scored 13 points and handed out eight assists Thursday after struggling through a 3-for-17 shooting performance in preseason and then converting just 1-for-14 shots before the Dallas win. His problems exacerbated by a back strain in preseason and then the sudden passing of his stepmother early in the regular season.
With Elfrid Payton injured, Ntilikina took over the starting point guard spot and has provided a defensive presence and also a steady hand getting the team into its offense without seeking out his own shot.
“It’s huge,” Fizdale said. “It’s the most important position on the floor. I think most coaches can attest to that. That point guard spot is a real key spot. Even though we’re in a league now where multiple guys handle the ball, I think when you talk about the overall position and being able to organize and understand how to get other people shots and get people going, it’s a critical piece of success.”
If they pair them in the backcourt at times, that also would allow Fizdale to move Barrett to small forward where he certainly has the strength to contend with opposing players at the position and also could match up quickness-wise.
“I just think he’s a player,” Fizdale said. “I don’t see him as a guy that one place or another he’s gaining any great advantage. I just think when he’s out on the court he’s going to help us win.”
Whatever the combinations Fizdale puts out on the court he understands that the lineups have got to perform — something he hopes he can get the team to understand after a successful night at Madison Square Garden last Thursday.
“They got the positive end of it, and saw what it really can be when you put forth a great effort for 48 minutes,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned really fast with our fan base, whether you win or lose is not necessarily what’s important to them, it’s just how you play. I’m trying to make our guys understand that we’ve got to play really good basketball and give ourselves a chance to win every night.”