GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Has Frank Ntilikina turned a corner?
Knicks fans may have the answer to that this week as their second-year point guard is going to get plenty of floor time on the team’s three-game road trip, which opens Wednesday in Cleveland. With Trey Burke rehabbing a sprained knee and Alonzo Trier recovering from a hamstring injury, the team could be down two guards for the entire trip.
Regardless of injuries, Ntilikina’s recent play demands more floor time. After three straight games of riding the bench and then getting some productive time against the Nets on Saturday, Ntilikina showed the kind of offensive prowess the Knicks have long wanted from him in the team’s loss to Charlotte on Sunday night. Playing the best 20 minutes of his NBA career, Ntilikina scored 18 points and hit 7 of 11 shots, including 4-for-4 from three-point range, before fouling out.
“I felt comfortable,” Ntilikina said after practice Tuesday when asked about his shooting display on Sunday. “I was aggressive and my mind was free. So I took the shot with a lot of confidence and I think that’s why they went in.”
Ntilikina isn’t the first player that coach David Fizdale has given a handful of DNPs in an effort to rekindle their game. Fizdale also did the same thing to Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson earlier in the season. All three seemed to come back with a new perspective.
Ntilikina, however, has been a lightning rod for fan debate given that he is one of the team’s best defensive players but has struggled to find his shot on offense. Sunday’s performance not only was a career-high point total, it showcased the kind of confidence and prowess rarely seen from the player the Knicks took with the No. 8 overall pick in 2017.
Fizdale said it was helpful to let Ntilikina take a break from the game, and he now expects him to get more consistent minutes.
“It was time anyway to start making that shift back to him,” Fizdale said. “Like I told him, I’m always going to come back to you. I’m never going to bury any of these guys . . . I think that’s what helps these guys grow is knowing that No. 1, I will sit you, but No. 2, I will come back to you if I think you’ve earned it. To a man it’s happened with every single guy. They went to the bench for a few games but when they came back they played awesome.
“No one likes sitting down. But at the same time what they did in here when they were sitting, that’s what got them right. They worked at it, they had a good attitude, they never moaned and groaned about it. They just got to work it. They were clear mentally.”
Notes & quotes: The Knicks announced that Trier has a hamstring strain and will not play the next three games. Trier is expected to have his two-way contract converted to full-time given how impressive he's been in his rookie season, but since he will now be away from the team for almost a week, the Knicks can delay that decision. Fizdale expects Trier will get a new contract. “He’s kind of earned his way into this deal,” Fizdale said.