GREENBURGH, N.Y. — In a way, Frank Ntilikina is the future of the NBA, a 6-6 point guard with a 7-foot wingspan, able to not only serve as a distributor on offense but to defend nearly every type of player on the floor.
But to earn a starting job this season, he finds himself contending with a throwback, a 6-1, 175-pound package of stutter steps and shifty moves in Trey Burke, a player who lives in the lane, creating midrange shots that analytics tell you not to take.
For the 20-year-old Ntilikina, it is a test — one that he relishes and is likely more prepared for this time around.
“We’re working hard with Trey, all the guys on the court,” he said. “As the coach said, competition is really open for a starting job. As everybody knows, this competition is really healthy. We all want what is best for the team. It’s really interesting to work against a guy like Trey. We have two really different bodies. But it’s the type of body I will compete against in the league and in the season, so that’s good to have.”
With coach David Fizdale declaring that all starting jobs are up for grabs, Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in 2017, finds himself competing with Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay, a pair of former lottery picks.
Last season, Ntilikina saw his rookie campaign begin on a hobbled note. He sat out summer league play with a knee problem and then missed all but two preseason games with ankle injuries that put him on the bench for the start of the regular season.
Ntilikina did not start a game until March 6, with Ramon Sessions opening the season as the starter before being quickly displaced by Jarrett Jack and then Mudiay and Burke. But the injuries set him back in more than just his attempt to become a starter, never letting him get up to speed with the NBA game.
“Yeah. I think taking that lap through the NBA, going through the bumps and bruises, getting a summer league under his belt, coming in here in peak condition, in great condition, helped him keep up with the game and also I think it slowed the game down for him,” Fizdale said. “It always helps when you get into great shape.
“He does a little bit of everything right. He doesn’t hurt you. He makes his open shots. He defends every situation the right way. He rarely turns the ball over. He’s a great organizer. He’s always getting guys where they’re supposed to be, whether he has the ball in his hands or he’s off the ball. So I really have been happy with the way he’s attacking.”
Said Ntilikina, “I think what I’ve worked on this summer helped me be more comfortable on the court, allowed myself to feel that the game slowed down a little bit. Last year was kind of fast. I wasn’t used to the pace of the game. Now with my abilities and what I’ve worked on and of course will keep working on, from all my goals, it will slow down even more and I’ll be even more comfortable.”
Fizdale has freed up Ntilikina by pushing him to be more aggressive and allowing him to be himself rather than trying to meld his game to fit with some preconceived notion of what he can be or should be. While Fizdale has stressed a desire to go with a bigger lineup, he also has talked about playing with multiple ballhandlers on the floor at the same time — possibly playing Ntilkina with Burke or Mudiay, although he said Tim Hardaway Jr. also fits the description.
“With me, the way it goes, I’m always going to have two guys who can handle,” Fizdale said. “It’s not going to be that he’s primary or that someone else is primary — the first guy that gets it, let’s go. But I think for any guard, it’s nice to have a second ballhandler. Kyrie [Irving] had it and LeBron [James] would be next to him and those guys would trade off. When you got multiple guys that can handle, it helps your team offensively when it’s spread around.”