When the Knicks debuted their remade roster at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, introducing each player — from the seven new free-agent acquisitions to the two-way players waiting for an opportunity — one of the largest ovations from the crowd came when Frank Ntilikina was announced.
There would not be another chance to cheer for Ntilikina in the ensuing 48 minutes, though, as the Knicks stumbled through a one-sided loss to the Boston Celtics.
Ntilikina’s only opportunity to get off the bench came with 18 seconds left in the second quarter, when he was substituted in for a defensive sequence in place of Marcus Morris.
But that didn’t stop the crowd from chanting loudly for Ntilikina throughout the second half, starting in the third quarter and going nearly to the final buzzer.
“I’m thankful for that,” Ntilikina said. “I feel the support from the fans for me, but also for the whole team. So I’m thankful for the support. We are thankful for the support. But right now we are focused on just getting better as a team and improving.”
The support wasn’t for the rest of the team in this instance, but a plea for coach David Fizdale to give more than a token opportunity to the 21-year-old point guard. Fizdale has shuffled starters and rotations throughout three straight losses to kick off the season, but he has given almost no time to the former lottery pick.
After having three point guards compete through training camp for the starting job, Fizdale eschewed all of them in the season opener in San Antonio and started rookie RJ Barrett in the lead guard role with Allonzo Trier inserted next to him. After that failed quickly, Dennis Smith Jr. was inserted and quickly pulled. Elfrid Payton was the third point guard in and played well, so he inherited the starting job for the next two games.
But Ntilikina got less than three minutes on the floor in the opener, didn’t play at all in Brooklyn and then got just that 18-second chance Saturday.
He should get time Monday against the Bulls. Smith, according to a league source, is not expected to be with the team after the death of a close family member.
“Our fans are passionate,” Fizdale said. “They know what they like, they know what they want. It doesn’t do anything to my mindset. I’m going to coach this team and Frank will get his opportunities. We’re talking about three games into the season. It’s not like we’re talking 40 games in. So Frank’s mindset is right. He’s been working his butt off. And when he gets the opportunity, he’ll be ready.”
While Ntilikina hardly looked like a star in his limited chances during his first two seasons or in this preseason, he does have a legitimate NBA skill as a defender. He has shown growth in his offense but still appears tentative at times — perhaps because the quick hook always seems to await him.
But Ntilikina’s offense is not far from what the Knicks have gotten from their other point guards. Smith has struggled badly, shooting 1-for-11 in three games after a 3-for-17 preseason. Trier, inserted into the mix for an offensive boost, was 0-for-3 in the opener. After scoring 22 points in Brooklyn, he was 0-for-4 Saturday against Boston.
Particularly odd was that Ntilikina never got a chance to serve as a defensive counter to Kyrie Irving on Friday or Kemba Walker on Saturday. The fans certainly remember, even if Fizdale didn’t, that Walker, who scored 32 points against the Knicks, was stifled in the FIBA World Cup by Ntilikina when France eliminated the United States.
“I know I can help my teammates,” he said. “But like I said, I trust my teammates also to do the work. It’s all about the team. Next-game mentality.”
“There’s no issue,” Fizdale added. “We have three point guards and we’re three games into it. And I’m just going to keep looking at different rotations until we have the right people out there.”
Notes & quotes: Mitchell Robinson, who sprained his left ankle on Saturday, is probable for Monday’s game.