The Knicks are determined to spend the season developing their young players, throwing their lottery pick, Kevin Knox, into the fire with a starting assignment and extensive minutes.
But last year’s lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina came off the bench in the first preseason game and again in Brooklyn Wednesday night. And when he came into the action in the opener, it was as one of three guards on the floor, playing against the opposing small forward. It was a curious approach to a player who, while the last relic of the Phil Jackson era, drafted just before Jackson was fired, has always been a point guard.
What is curious is that the start has gone to Trey Burke, who earned a spot with the team last year after rebuilding his career in the G-League. While Burke played well after being cut loose by the Wizards the previous season, he is basically a rental right now with a contract that expires at season’s end.
If the future is everything in the Knicks' plan, isn’t knowing whether they have a point guard for the future in Ntilikina? Maybe they know it already, although they aren’t saying. But his place on the floor will certainly have an effect on next summer's draft and free-agent chase.
At 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan Ntilikina can guard bigger players, but it remains to be seen if he can play another position offensively. He’s not an aggressive scorer or dangerous shooter from the perimeter. First-year head coach David Fizdale has stressed position-less ball and wants whoever grabs a rebound to turn and push the ball up the floor. But he also isn’t ruling out Ntilikina as a starter.
“Frank still has a chance to start,” Fizdale said. “That was just for that game that was his group and I thought that second half, that group that started the half, they really did a great job of getting us off to a good start. Like I said again, nothing is in stone from that standpoint. I’m just going to keep trying to build the main guys up that I know are going to be in the rotation and then we’re going to figure out that starting lineup at the very end.”
“What matters to me is to play and win,” Ntilikina said. “So I mean, as we say, the coach is going to decide who’s going to start. Our mindset as a player is to bring the level of the team the highest that you can do it. I just want New York to be successful.
“At the end of the day it’s just about playing basketball. I want to be successful here. If I play like this, what coach wants, and we’re successful, I’m going to happy, of course.”
In the preseason opener Ntilikina started the second half and the unit he played with went on a 14-0 run. But in that game, he almost always was paired with at least one other point guard, either Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay. Against the Nets, he was one of the first players off the bench and did come in at point guard. He finished with nine points on 4-for-8 shooting - including an impressive spinning drive and a run to the basket that ended with a dunk. But he had two turnovers and one assist in 20 minutes, with his two blocked shots showing his defense, but not separating himself as a point guard.
“Coach wants us to go out and play position-less basketball,” Ntilikina said. “I know if I want minutes i just have to fit with the team and fit with what he wants. That’s who I am as a person and as a basketball player. Whoever is on the opposite end I’m going to try to guard him, deny him to do what he wants.”