CLEVELAND — Frank Ntilikina did nothing splashy or spectacular in his first regular-season home game, but his play provided hope for a fan base that needs it, and at a position that has been a weakness for the Knicks for years.
Ntilikina, 19, still has plenty to prove after being taken with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft. But on a night when the Knicks needed to win, and needed a lift, it was the teenager from France who provided it in a 21-point victory over the Nets on Friday.
Ntilikina played a solid floor game and strong defense, and he finished with nine points, five assists and one steal in his first extended minutes as an NBA player.
“I seen him take a deep breath, calm down, just relax and have fun,” Courtney Lee said. “Once he did that, you saw the playmaking ability, he was able to get to the spots, make jump shots. His court vision is crazy. He was able to make plays.”
Ntilikina is one of the players the Knicks say they’re building around, and if he continues to play this way, he could start in the near future. Kristaps Porzingis provided more hope by saying Ntilikina is “going to be able to get triple-doubles. That’s what type of player he is.”
He’ll face a big challenge Sunday when the Knicks square off against the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers.
Coach Jeff Hornacek had been touting Ntilikina’s high basketball IQ, feel for the game and ability to impact games defensively, but until Friday, the 6-5 Ntilikina’s skills were more of an urban legend. Few had seen him play live.
After the Knicks bypassed North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith and Kentucky’s Malik Monk and selected Ntilikina, he didn’t play in the summer league because of knee soreness. A bruised knee kept him out of four of the Knicks’ five preseason games.
Ntilikina played like a rookie in the season opener at Oklahoma City, air-balling his only two shot attempts and recording one assist and one turnover in 7:32. He missed two of the Knicks’ first three games after spraining his left ankle in practice.
In his return against the Nets, Ntilikina came off the bench with the Knicks down seven in the second quarter. When he left eight minutes later, the Knicks were up one. He showed poise as he organized the team and made his presence felt defensively with his long arms.
“That’s how he’s going to play,” Hornacek said. “You think of point guards being these lightning-quick guys that can fly around and create havoc. He does it with his size.
“He can reach over the top of guys to make passes. He sees things that are there. He’s more of a true point guard than most of these guys in this league because he’s looking for his teammates first, and then if his shot is there, he’ll take it.”
His shot does need work. Ntilikina missed his first five shots. Then he made four of his last six and was a plus-10 overall in 22:30.
Ntilikina called his first few shots “terrible” but said he felt more comfortable as the game went on. More importantly, he felt comfortable running the team from the moment he came in the game, which the Knicks need.
“I was sad to be off the court these last games,” Ntilikina said. “I just wanted to bring what I can bring to my team. I’m going to work more for the next game, for the next couple games, to elevate our level, and that’s what we’re all going to do, just to improve.”
RIGHT AT HOME
How Frank Ntilikina fared in his Madison Square Garden debut: