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Frank Ntilikina playing fearlessly, meeting challenges head on

Frank Ntilikina of the Knicks controls the ball

Frank Ntilikina of the Knicks controls the ball against the Lakers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Jeff Hornacek tried to keep a straight face when he said he didn’t think rookie Frank Ntilikina had some extra juice when he played against the more hyped Lonzo Ball Tuesday night. But no one was buying it.

One of the things Ntilikina has shown in the early stages of his NBA career is he doesn’t shrink under the spotlight or in the big moment. If he didn’t have that quiet confidence, Ntilikina would never be able to make it as a 19-year-old playing point guard for the Knicks.

Ntilikina has faced scrutiny from the fans and other critics because players the Knicks passed on with the eighth pick in the draft, namely Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr., are playing more and having better statistical seasons.

Hornacek believes Ntilikina is “probably” unfairly judged because of that, but he believes that drives the French guard also.

“That’s OK,” Hornacek said after Wednesday’s practice. “With a guy like Frank, and I’ve seen his mentality, the more people doubt him the better he’s going to end up being. He’s playing with that quiet kind of ‘OK, that’s what you guys think, I’m going to go show you.’ It’s great to see that.”

Ntilikina did that in Tuesday’s 113-109 overtime win against the Lakers, when he scored a career-high 13 points.

He played the final 21 minutes and used his size and length to bother Ball in crunch time. Ntilikina outscored Ball 9-2 in the fourth quarter and overtime. He scored seven straight points during a critical fourth-quarter stretch.

Last month, Ntilikina shoved LeBron James when he was trying to inbound a ball and the Cavaliers’ superstar wouldn’t move out of the way. A couple of days earlier, James said “he should have been a Knick” when he was asked about Smith after a game in Dallas.

“He has the mentality of a basketball player,” Hornacek said of Ntilikina. “That’s why he’s going to be a great player in this league. He doesn’t shy from anything. He likes those challenges.”

The Knicks (14-13) will go for their third straight victory and end a six-game road losing streak when they face the Nets Thursday in Brooklyn. The Knicks are 1-8 on the road.

Ntilikina’s recent play could earn him more playing time. Tuesday was only the third time he’s scored 10 or more, and the second time in three games.

He’s 21st among rookies, averaging 5.8 points per game. But the Knicks aren’t necessarily looking for him to score, just make plays, and play good defense, which he’s done. He’s averaging 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals in 20.1 minutes per game.

One of Ntilikina’s mentors on the Knicks liked the aggressiveness he showed Tuesday, and wants it to continue.

“He’s starting to play more instinctive basketball, stuff that’s coming true to him, and it’s working for him,” veteran point guard Jarrett Jack said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to see any of that other Frank from before, the indecisive Frank. Be aggressive. Be sure.’ I said, ‘If you’re going to second-guess it you might as well not even do it. So come out there, play with no worries, play with no fear of making mistakes, go out there . . . and just be aggressive.’”

Ntilikina said that’s been the biggest change in his play from the start of the season — he’s thinking less and just playing freer.

“Definitely more comfortable on the court,” Ntilikina said. “It’s just a process. It’s about time. My teammates give me a lot of confidence on the court, the coach, too. I’m just getting more comfortable and more freedom to play my game.”

“Offensively, just running the team, be a leader for the team, be a point guard and do what I can do, like passing and scoring. It’s just getting more comfortable, and I have to keep working on it.”

Jack, 35, is the starting point guard, but it’s expected Ntilikina will supplant him at some point. Jack has been impressed with how mature Ntilikina is for his age, and believes that will serve him well as he and his game develops.

“Very poised young kid,” Jack said. “Not getting too high or too low, trying to always stay in the middle, stay even keel. That’s something you preach to a lot of guys who have been in this league for a long time and for him to kind of already have that as kind of his personality, it’s a huge plus for him.”

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