You only get one chance to make a first impression and Frank Ntilikina made an awfully good one on Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs coach said that at the time the Knicks took Ntilikina with the No. 8 pick in the draft he’d “never heard of him” because San Antonio is usually picking at the end of the first round. However, the Knicks rookie turned in one of his best performances on Dec. 28 when the Knicks lost to the Spurs at the AT&T Center. Ntilikina played a season-high 32 minutes and finished with nine points, 11 assists, three steals and only one turnover.
He didn’t get to see much of Ntilikina in Tuesday’s 100-91 loss as he was limited to 16 minutes of playing time by an illness that coach Jeff Hornacek said made him “look really tired when he was out there.”
“I thought he looked solid. I thought he looked confident,” Popovich said of his first look at Ntilikina last week in San Antonio. “He looked solid. He didn’t look fearful at all. He wasn’t overly impressed with ‘I’m in the NBA now’ or whatever. He played. He seemed like a pretty comfortable guy.”
“I’m thankful for [that],” Ntilikina said when the compliment was relayed to him. “From a coach like that? We all know it’s hard to impress him. So I’m really thankful. It’s motivating for me to keep working on my game, keep working on my abilities to be even more comfortable on the court.”
Ntilikina hasn’t started a game, but he is getting more minutes, though he played just 15:37 Tuesday night because coach Jeff Hornacek said he was sick. He played at least 28 in all three games of the road trip that ended on Saturday.
“He’s made great strides during this year. The last time we played San Antonio he played a great game. Unfortunately tonight he was under the weather so he wasn’t able to play the same way,” Hornacek said. “But he’s getting better and better every day: how he’s reading things, his confidence in his play when he’s in the fourth quarter, his defense.”
“I think I’m making a step moving forward. The coach gives me more trust, more minutes,” Ntilikina said. “I think I’m getting more comfortable on the court. He sees that. I think I can help more than I was doing before. I just have to keep going, keep working on it.”
Popovich had another 19-year-old from France in the 2002-03 season — Tony Parker. And while the comparisons right now stop at age and nationality, Popovich believes players like Parker opened the door for Ntilikina and the current wave of young European players.
“There have been so many people come over and be successful from other countries that it’s just not an oddity. I think a lot of people gain confidence from other people’s success, just knowing that it could happen,” Popovich said. “I’m sure the Knicks did their homework, figured what kind of insides this guy had, what kind of fiber he had. You do all your intel. That obviously came out pretty good or they wouldn’t have taken him, I guess . . . When they come there’s probably another foreign kid someplace on the team. We’ve all got them. And it’s made the NBA even better.”
Ntilikina said that during the past year Parker — whom he met at a game in France — has been in touch with him by text and that “he gave me a lot of advice and he helped me.” They were spotted speaking on the court before the game.
“Tony was one of the first international players coming into the NBA very young,” Ntilikina said. “I mean, he shows an example, shows how to figure it out. He’s like a role model.”