Frank Ntilikina has spent his time since being drafted by the Knicks in a perpetual state of uncertainty. And as he enters what could be his final year with the franchise it is no different.
Ntilikina was drafted as the last major move of the Phil Jackson era in New York, selected as a lottery pick just days before Jackson was fired. The longest-tenured player on the Knicks roster, he has seen four coaches in four seasons, nagging injuries, a procession of journeymen point guards propped up in front of him and various roles handed out to him.
Now, under the latest regime led by coach Tom Thibodeau, he seems to have slipped out of the point guard rotation, hoping to find a place as a versatile defender, able to guard point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. Add in that with his contract over at season’s end the Knicks new front office never even engaged him in discussions of a contract extension.
In a coincidence that seems to symbolize much of the way that his tenure in New York has gone, Ntilikina changed agents a little over a year ago — dumping CAA, which was led by Leon Rose. And in March Rose left the agency and took over as the Knicks’ team president.
"It is what it is," Ntilikina said on a Zoom call Wednesday morning as the Knicks prepped for their season-opening game in Indiana. "Right now we’re more focused on the game and on the season. That’s what my main focus is on, just getting better every day and trying to make our goals successful.
"Like I said, the main focus right now is really this season, the game tonight, to be out here. We prepared very well. We had a really good shootaround, trying to get ready for the game tonight."
In the final days before last season was shut down Ntilikina had a career-best 20-point, 10-assist performance. He was the best shooter among the Knicks points and just ahead of free agency the Knicks waived Elfrid Payton, who was the primary starter last season. But they signed Payton back at a discounted price, have tried to resurrect the career of Dennis Smith Jr. and become enamored with rookie Immanuel Quickley, leaving Ntilikina, who again was hampered by injury in the preseason, trying to find his place. At shooting guard the team signed Alec Burks and Austin Rivers, brought back Reggie Bullock and can play RJ Barrett at that spot, too.
"The thing I like about him is he can do both (play point guard and shooting guard," Thibodeau said Tuesday. "Same thing with (Quickley). I think what we’ve seen a lot of now is you have a point guard, you have three wings and you have a big. So it’s not traditional like it has been in the past. And I like the fact that we have point guards that can do that. Quickley did that in college, similar to the way I used my guards in Chicago. And I think it’s a great advantage to have because defensively, point guards are used to guarding guys off the dribble. And how you can put them in catch and shoot, going around screens, that sort of thing. So sometimes you can gain an advantage that way."
Ntilikina said he fully recovered from a sore left Achilles that forced him to sit out the final two preseason games. But being ready and getting into what Thibodeau said will be a 10-man rotation are two different things.
"This is going to be coach’s decision," Ntilikina said. "As players we’re just getting ready to jump on the court when he calls us. And like we talked about before, just the options that we have, we have a lot of guards, a lot of talented guards. That gives a lot of options for coach and we’re going to be a problem for different teams. So right now with that question it’s more coach really to figure out what he’s going to do. My job is to be ready for each and every game."