For some players, the opportunity comes immediately, inserted into the starting lineup from their first day and allowed to fail and star with on-the-job training. For others, it is all about opportunity.
It is not long ago in Knicks lore that Jeremy Lin, on the verge of being demoted to the developmental league, was thrown into the lineup of a one-sided game and with stars sidelined. He stepped in and created a run unlike anything in the history of the team, Linsanity taking over New York.
For Frank Ntilikina, it was a less dramatic path. A lottery pick, he struggled with injuries and when given a chance struggled on the offensive end, contributing little enough that the Knicks shopped him during the summer and could not find a taker.
But early this season, after placing him behind two point guards and even a rookie wing, circumstances gave him a chance — his first chance — for consistent minutes at point guard. And while the numbers are nothing that will get him on the cover of national magazines, his play has been good enough that he has established himself as a starter.
“He’s just getting better and better and better and more confident,” coach David Fizdale said after the Knicks' loss in Philadelphia Wednesday. “We’ve gone through so much noise, he and I together, and I’m just so proud of him with the way he’s handled everything and now how he’s just — he’s not even thinking about it. You can see he’s just out there playing and having fun. All the team, we all have a lot of confidence in him.”
It’s hard to say that Ntilikina and Fizdale went through it together because it was Fizdale who opted to start rookie RJ Barrett at point guard on opening night and again when Elfrid Payton was injured and Dennis Smith Jr. had left the team because of a death in his family. But however it came, Ntilikina has started 10 straight games.
In that span, he is averaging just 7.8 points and 3.7 assists, but still rarely has the ball in his hands with the offense running through Julius Randle and Marcus Morris. What the Knicks want from him is defense, which he has always provided, and score when the opportunity arises, and Wednesday he did that, scoring 17 points, hitting 6 of 8 shots from the field. He has been a plus in each of his last five games, including a plus-22 against Cleveland on Monday.
“I told you guys about the meeting we had about, basically [saying] ‘ ... I’m not going to be worried about that stuff anymore,' " Fizdale said of Ntilikina coming into his office a few weeks back and promising to be more aggressive. “And I think he’s cut back on what he’s reading and looking at, to help him keep a clear head. I just really like the way he’s managing the game and the way he’s going about attacking.”
It has changed enough that when Ntilikina played nearly 33 minutes in Philadelphia, Fizdale was left to explain why he took him out in the third quarter when the Knicks were rolling, his time on the bench coinciding with a 17-point lead disappearing.
“[He had a] huge impact, but I also thought Dennis played a very good basketball game as well,” Fizdale said. “We went on our run. They came back, picked up the pressure against us, and they went on their run. That’s just what the game is, a game of flows.”
"Fiz is doing a good job with that,” Ntilikina said. “We trust everyone on the court, from the court to the bench everyone is coming in to bring everything we can bring to the team. That’s what happened [Wednesday night].”