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Unfortunate injury a big setback for Frank Ntilikina

The No. 8 overall NBA Draft selection will find himself down in pecking order when he returns and perhaps out at the point guard position.

Frank Ntilikina #11 of the Knicks looks on

Frank Ntilikina #11 of the Knicks looks on from the bench against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks streamed onto the court in packs for their pregame work Sunday. On the opposite end of the tunnel, Frank Ntilikina was on the ground, working with trainers through a stretching routine.

It again was a night in which he would put on a suit and take a seat on the bench, this time watching as the Knicks lost to the Timberwolves, 103-92, although Minnesota was without its two best players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

A 13-54 record is the reality for the Knicks, and they want to portray it as a developmental season. But Ntilikina, one of the lottery picks who was supposed to be a big part of that player development plan, has remained stalled in year two of his NBA career.

The Knicks said Ntilikina, who has been sidelined with a sore groin since Jan. 27, was re-evaluated by team doctors Saturday and is improving. He is expected to participate in controlled contact work for the first time this week.

Since being drafted in one of the last moves of Phil Jackson’s tenure, Ntilikina has been in limbo. While he played 78 games as a rookie, he started only nine late in the season after missing summer league with a knee injury. The slow start for Ntilikina, who was 18 years old when he was drafted, put him behind Ramon Sessions, Jarrett Jack and Emmanuel Mudiay on the list of the team’s starting point guards.

It has been even worse this season. Ntilikina has been limited to 41 games with an assortment of injuries. There even was a three-game stretch in which he was sidelined as a coach’s decision.

“You never want a guy to miss, obviously,” coach David Fizdale said. “You want to have all the time you can with the guy. But that’s not in his control or our control. My biggest thing is hopefully to get him back soon and to full strength.”

With Ntilikina penciled out of action for this three-game trip, he will have missed at least 21 consecutive games with this injury. In that time, the Knicks traded for Dennis Smith Jr., who has taken over the starting point guard job. Ntilikina’s injury came one game after Mudiay was sidelined with a shoulder injury, so rather than having the chance to log major minutes at point guard, he has seen Smith take over and Mudiay return. Now he faces another position change when — if — he gets back into game action.

But beyond the shifting of positions he has endured, Ntilikina has lost out on the chance to develop any part of his game.

His scoring average is exactly the same as last year (5.9), his assists and rebounds are down and his shooting percentage has dropped from .364 to .342. His three-point percentage, a key in today’s NBA for point guards (and shooting guards, which is where he may wind up), is .291.

“Well, anybody missing time],” Fizdale said, “it hurts rhythm. It hurts timing. It hurts a lot of different things. Even veterans when they miss a lot of time, it sets them back. Once we can get him back on the court — he’s been working still, you know he’s still shooting the ball and doing some drills — but once we can get him back to contact, get him back to work, we’ll hit the ground running.”

Notes & quotes: Damyean Dotson had 26 points for the NBA-worst Knicks, who lost their sixth straight game and fell 2 1⁄2 games behind the Suns, who beat the Warriors . . . Mitchell Robinson blocked five shots and has 123 in the first 51 games of his career. Entering the night, his 118 in the first 50 games of his career for a 2.36 average was the highest in team history. The only other player to average at least two blocks per game through his first 50 games was Patrick Ewing (2.06).

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