The Knicks may not be helping their draft position by suddenly winning games, but developing their first-round draft pick from last season is the most important thing at this point.
Rookie guard Frank Ntilikina has shown improvement during the Knicks’ modest two-game win streak. He has looked more comfortable playing off the ball, and still displayed the ability to run the offense.
For the Knicks, and their fans, that may be the best news for a team that was officially eliminated from playoff contention for the fifth straight year on Monday. Ntilikina’s growth and development could be critical to the Knicks’ success.
Ntilikina, the No. 8 pick in last June’s draft, has been more aggressive and effective offensively. The French guard scored 23 points with eight assists in the two wins that have the Knicks (26-45) sitting with the NBA’s ninth-worst record with 11 games to play.
He scored a season-high 15 points Saturday against Charlotte, and connected on 4 of 8 three-pointers in the two games. Ntilikina hit just three three-pointers over his previous 12 games.
“When I’m aggressive like that it opens up a lot more for me and for my teammates also,” Ntilikina said after reaching double figures in points for only the ninth time in his rookie season. “So I know it’s only a matter of time how I’m going to be and what impact I’m going to give on that court.
“I know I can do a lot of great things here. So that will be my job, every time, to work hard and to make myself become the best player I can become.”
The Knicks, who play in Miami Wednesday, signed guard Trey Burke from the G League in January and traded for guard Emmanuel Mudiay in February. But the 6-5 and still growing Ntilikina is only 19, still learning the NBA, and definitely has the most upside.
He is one of the Knicks’ best defenders, and with his size and length, he can guard multiple positions. But Ntilikina has to improve his ability to create for himself and his teammates.
Ntilikina is averaging 5.6 points and 3.2 assists, and only shooting 35.9 percent. But if he can play with aggressiveness on offense and knock down shots consistently, he could become a very productive and versatile two-way player. He’ll get plenty of open looks in the future, playing with a healthy Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Ntilikina’s minutes have fluctuated. He played just 16 and 13, against Dallas and Philadelphia, respectively, before logging 21 and 24 in the last two games. Jeff Hornacek pinned some of it on matchups.
“It’s just experience,” Hornacek said. “He’s 19 years old. You have some nights where you feel you have great energy, some nights not. That’s something you learn going through the league. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Sometimes guys get it right off the bat. He’s been pretty good with that. He had that one little stretch, but he hasn’t had that in a while.
“We love what Frank does and his abilities, so we’ll continue to try and give him more and more minutes.”