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Frank Ntilikina gained confidence playing for France at FIBA World Cup

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina receives a pass during

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina receives a pass during a training camp practice at the MSG Training Center on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It took a summer trip to China with the French national team, but on a huge stage Frank Ntilikina finally showed all of the things that the Knicks had hoped for in his two seasons since he was taken No. 8 overall in the 2017 draft.

He was suffocating defensively, utilizing his lanky 6-6 frame to shut down Kemba Walker, and offensively he played with confidence, scoring seven points in the fourth quarter to help knock Team USA out of the World Cup. 

“I learned a lot,” Ntilikina said. “How good I can be playing basketball, it’s simple on both sides of the courts. A competition like that brought me a lot of confidence.”

“Yeah, I think that’s what he needed,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “He needed to feel that success. He needed to see that ball go through the net a few times and to beat the U.S. team. I know for him and all of his teammates that was a big moment. And the fact that he was the catalyst of that really, really did some good stuff for his confidence.”

And then he returned to the Knicks where, like in his first two seasons, he is a mystery. He is just 21 years old and full of intriguing potential. But after struggling with injuries, there is enough doubt that the Knicks have yet to commit to picking up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract.

Ntilikina has spent his first two seasons plagued by nagging injuries and waiting for his chance as the Knicks have run out a cast of point guards in front of him, mostly journeymen and castoffs who have since disappeared from the roster. Despite appearances, Fizdale said that he still believes and worked this summer to bolster Ntilikina’s confidence.

“Actually the funny thing is the first person I wanted to go see this summer was Frank,” Fizdale said. “This summer I went to see Frank first in L.A. We went to have lunch and just spent a few hours together talking about how do we handle getting that body healthy and really getting his mindset back to being aggressive and confident. That was like two weeks after the season was over.

“Then I went again in, I want to say it was right before he had to go get with his team in France, and spent some time with him in Dallas as well just to reiterate that message to him that we’ve got a lot of confidence in you, play free, leave everything behind you.”

Asked if he believed he was ready for a big step forward in his third season, Ntilikina said, “I mean, yeah. I prepared myself mentally and physically. If the answer was no, I might as well not play. But definitely I’m motivated, excited for this third season. Especially after being injured that long last year. It’s a new start for us. We’re really excited.”

“I’m not even thinking about the contract,” Fizdale said. “I’m leaving that to [general manager] Scott [Perry] and them. What I’m seeing out of him already is what I wanted to see. I see him coming in, competing his butt off, with a healthy body and a clear mind. That’ll work itself out however they’re going to do it, but I’ve been really happy with how he’s attacked camp.”

Smith drops weight by changing diet

Dennis Smith Jr. said that he dropped 15 pounds over the summer by changing his diet. “I had to change some of the things I ate,” he said. “I’m a country boy. We eat different down there. I ain’t no liar. I [didn't] eat Bojangles for most of the summer so it helped. I don’t think it’s anything in particular that I cut out, it’s what I added in. I started getting these fruit smoothies, spinach and kale, I can just use that for breakfast. It’s lighter.”

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