In the Knicks’ third game of the season, Frank Ntilikina seemed to have earned the faith of coach Tom Thibodeau, scoring 12 points off the bench, hitting all four of his three-point attempts and plying his usual trade of versatile defender in a one-sided win over Milwaukee.
But early in the next game, he felt something wrong in his right knee, and while he was able to play through it, when he cooled down, he realized he’d hurt himself again.
It should be a familiar feeling for Ntilikina, who has been hounded by nagging injuries in his four seasons in New York. This time it was a sprained MCL. He was sidelined after that Dec. 29 game and disappeared for nearly a month before finally being activated Sunday.
Although he was activated, he never got off the bench, and it’s hard to see when he might. In his absence, Elfrid Payton has retained the confidence of Thibodeau as the starting point guard and Immanuel Quickley has established himself as not only the backup but the choice of fans who are waiting not so patiently for Thibodeau to hand him the reins of the team — particularly after a 31-point effort in a loss at Portland on Sunday.
After Monday’s practice, Thibodeau made it clear that Ntilikina will have to wait for an opportunity and that the rotation isn’t about to change right now.
"If I play hard on the court, I can give a lot to my team on both ends, especially the defensive end," Ntilikina said. "He knows I’m pretty versatile. I can guard a lot of positions. He is going to ask me what he asks everybody: ‘Go on that court and give 100% and be hungry and just be ready to take the challenge, grow every day.’ So I’m ready for it."
Ntilikina, who will be a free agent at season’s end, may have to find his opportunity someplace else, but Thibodeau isn’t about to hand the keys to the team to Quickley yet.
"We’re obviously very pleased with Immanuel and the way he’s progressed," Thibodeau said. "And he has great versatility. He has the ability to play both on the ball and off the ball. So we like the group that he’s with right now. And we think that it functions best that way.
"So you want to have everybody play to their strengths and also you want to cover up weaknesses. So right now we feel the best opportunity for us to win is doing the things that we’re doing."
While the decisions may frustrate the surplus of guards on the team, as well as the fans, Thibodeau understands that feeling.
"It’s not easy," he said. "You have to make tough decisions. You evaluate everything. You evaluate how people practice and then you also evaluate how people perform, and then it’s not only their individual performance but the group performance. When they’re on the floor, what’s happening to the team?
"So we’re asking everyone on the roster to sacrifice. Some guys it’s shots. Some guys it’s minutes. Some guys it’s the rotation. But one thing we know throughout the course of the season, you have a number of situations, whether it’s injury, illness, foul trouble, where everyone does get an opportunity. When that opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready to go."
Notes & quotes: Thibodeau had a long relationship with Kobe Bryant, who passed away a year ago on Jan. 26, 2020. "Yeah, it’s really sad,’’ he said. "I had an opportunity to get to know Kobe actually quite well. When I was an assistant coach in Philadelphia, he was a high school player and used to come to our practices all the time. I worked him out quite a bit and we maintained a close relationship over the years. So it’s sad. You feel terrible for his family and the NBA family, all his friends. And just who he was as a person. Forget the basketball player. Great person, great family guy. It’s hard to believe and it’s certainly very unfortunate."