ATLANTA — Leon Rose was seated at center court for the performance Tuesday in Washington, watching Frank Ntilikina play what might have been the best game of his three-year career, and then he stood against a railing, watching below as the 21-year-old point guard conducted his postgame interview, describing the steps he was taking that got him to this night.
Ntilikina scored 20 points and handed out 10 assists, becoming the youngest player in Knicks history to hit those milestones on the same night. And it provided a hint that maybe now, in front of the third team president since he was drafted and on his third head coach with a fourth likely on the way soon, he might be more than just a defensive specialist.
Rose may have just officially taken charge a week earlier, but he is familiar with Ntilikina — having served in his previous job as the co-head of the basketball division at CAA, the agency that represented Ntilikina until last summer. The former agent hasn’t spoken yet since taking the reins of the Knicks, but he has been at every game, watching and learning, deciding what players are worth keeping as another rebuild takes hold at Madison Square Garden.
In an NBA where high-scoring point guards are becoming the norm, including Trae Young, who the Knicks faced Wednesday, Ntilikina is never going to be that kind of player.
But on a night like Tuesday, Ntilikina showed something more than he has in the past. He was defending as he often does, but when he came off the bench four minutes into the game he also hit his first three shots — two from beyond the arc and another just on the line — to help the Knicks turn a quick 14-point deficit around. Maybe it was hitting the shots, but he played with an aggression and confidence that his coaches have tried to prod from him.
"He was a part of the group that came in the first quarter and really kind of got us going again and sparked us, but I thought he played with a lot of command,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said. “That's the word that I've been using to describe him. He just played with a lot of command with his game. He did a good job with play calls, he was aggressive when he needed to be aggressive. He was in a good rhythm shooting the ball and got to the spots, he made shots. You know, I thought defensively he was you know, just like he always is. So I thought he was really, really solid throughout the game."
Even as he has seen his minutes per game cut to a career-low 20.8, Ntilikina has improved his shooting this season while mostly serving as a backup to Elfrid Payton. But Tuesday he also repeatedly took the ball aggressively to the rim. Often he looks to pass in traffic — or occasionally try to dunk on a bigger defender. But on this night he found his way to the rim, drawing contact and slipping through for layups, too.
“Yeah, that’s the goal,” Ntilikina said. “Keep being aggressive and keep making the right play. I feel like working on my game and just keep that aggression. I’m going to open a lot of things up for myself but also for my teammates and improving with that mindset is going to make us better.
“I think one of the emphasis that I was trying to work on was really being aggressive and still looking for the right play and not settling on playing on the perimeter. To do that, I watched a lot of film to see where I can do good plays, get good plays for my teammates, for myself and play the right basketball.”
Ntilikina has another year on his contract after the Knicks opted into the final year of his rookie deal. Payton is on a team option for next season. Ntilikina has already fended off the assortment of point guards the organization has put in his way — Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and even Dennis Smith Jr., who has fallen to third on the depth chart. After being drafted by Phil Jackson and then nearly buried under Steve Mills, it is Rose who will decide what is next. And he was watching closely.