In the last days of his tenure as Knicks president, Phil Jackson oversaw the 2017 NBA Draft, choosing a very young, very raw point guard from overseas, Frank Ntilikina.
And 88 games into his career, on Friday night, Ntilikina got his first chance to start at the position that he was drafted to play.
His rookie season was a lost one for Ntilikina, who was 18 years old when he was drafted. Banged up from the EuroLeague championships, he sat out summer league and missed much of the preseason and the first games of the regular season. By the time he was healthy, he was used sparingly by Jeff Hornacek, a coach needing wins more than working with an eye toward the future.
So Ntilikina started a handful of games late last season while playing beside another point guard, setting the stage for his second season. The new coach, David Fizdale, is interested in Ntilikina’s defensive versatility, so he began the season with the 6-6 point guard with a 7-1 wingspan at small forward.
Finally, in a shuffling of the lineup Friday night, Fizdale gave Ntilikina the ball and started him at point guard. The only drawback? His assignment was to do it against the Golden State Warriors while lined up against Stephen Curry.
“He made a show,” Fizdale said. “He picked his spots. He didn’t pass up much. I really thought he got after it defensively. He competed hard. The guy he is competing against is one of those special talents, once-in-a-lifetime talent. They definitely have two of them, and those other guys aren’t too shabby after them. I thought he really did a solid job against Steph.”
“I think compared to last season, this season I feel more comfortable wherever I’m at,” Ntilikina said. “I think I did a lot of work this summer that allowed me to be more comfortable on the court. So right now, I had a good game. So I know my goal is to be consistent wherever I’m at, to be efficient and to give more options to the team.
“Whatever Coach tells me, where he wants me, let’s do it, let’s go. Yeah, that was my mindset. He just asked me, just changed the lineup with me at the point, so I was like, OK, let’s go. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We all know it’s going to change. We’ve still got to find the best rotation for our group. I’m always going to be ready wherever he wants me.”
Ntilikina matched his career high with 17 points, all of which came in the first three quarters as the Knicks took a three-point lead into the final period. But Ntilikina and many of the other players inserted into the reshuffled starting lineup sat for the start of the fourth quarter. By the time Ntilikina made it into the game with 5:32 to play, the three-point lead had become an eight-point deficit.
Ntilikina took only one more shot on the night — a forced 31-foot three-point attempt as the 24-second clock expired. Curry finished with 29 points.
A hint of the future finally might have been on display for the Knicks. Fizdale talked before the game about this lineup, including some of the players the team will be moving forward with while putting players with expiring contracts such as Enes Kanter, Trey Burke and Lance Thomas (a partial guarantee for next season) on the bench. And he knows that there still are a lot of lessons to be learned.
“I think it’s all of them,” Fizdale said. “I think they all have the same symptom. I think it’s constantly watching it, taking that part of the game from where you have the falloff and just teach possession by possession to guys to tell them how to finish the games. How to take it up another notch in that fourth quarter.
“So this is all just good experiences for us. I knew that this would be tough, but I thought our guys gave us a lot to work with and a lot to look at and learn from with the way they competed.”