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Frank Ntilikina, not Kevin Knox, to start season opener for Knicks

Frank Ntilikina #11 of the Knicks controls the

Frank Ntilikina #11 of the Knicks controls the ball in the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — David Fizdale insisted right up until the end of the final preseason game that Kevin Knox would be a starter from opening night, taking the ups and downs as part of the learning curve. But he also insisted that he would reward performance on the court with starting jobs. One of those things was still true as the Knicks readied for the season debut against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night.

Fizdale unveiled his starting lineup Tuesday and left out Knox, opting instead to move last year’s lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, into the lineup alongside Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lance Thomas and Enes Kanter.

It provided a reward for Ntilikina for his play, motivation to Knox, who shot just 32.7 percent from the the floor in presseason and a signal that everything is up for grabs in a season in which wins may be sparse.

“Right now I think the most important thing I was trying to get out of it was, culturally, you’ve got to earn it,” Fizdale said. “I don’t think Kevin got to the point where he earned it more than Frank. But there were some good things for Kevin and I was really happy with him having to go through highs and lows early on. He had the two double-doubles early and then he hit a wall. That’s just a learning opportunity for him. I don’t want to reward that yet. I do think Frank consistently throughout the preseason, no matter where I put him, he got the job done. So for our culture that’s more important.”

The Knicks are facing an admitted developmental season, playing without Kristaps Porzingis for at least a significant portion and possibly the entire season. With the 19-year-old Knox and 20-year-olds Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson, finding out who fits where is a key part of the next step— free agency and a likely lottery pick next summer.

It seemed puzzling that Fizdale was favoring Burke, who is a free agent at season’s end over the development of Ntilikina, but the first-year coach made good on his talk about finding a spot for the versatile second-year guard. But he did it at the expense of Knox, who is the first draft pick of current general manager, Scott Perry.

“I came in early one day and we had a meeting,” Knox said. “[Fizdale] told me but he said it’s nothing that’s permanent. It’s only one game for now. We don’t know the starters for the second game, third game. So it’s one game. He just wants me to be in attack mode with that second lineup. But as far as me, it just motivates me to keep working hard, keep working hard in practice. Stay in the gym, getting up extra shots. So I can get better each and every day.

“That pretty much goes for anybody on this team. Just to see that he’s moving the starting lineups around, people got to keep working hard. It’s going to motivate other guys coming off the bench to play harder so they can get in that starting lineup. But as you can see, he’s moving people around so you can keep playing hard, keep trying to get in that starting lineup.”

Ntilikina has been willing to go along with the plan, shuffling wherever on the floor that Fizdale put him — even if it meant guarding power forwards. The coach has pushed the concept of position-less basketball, switching on defense and pushing the ball quickly on offense with whoever is in position to initiate the attack doing it and everyone else falling in line around him.

“I’m thankful for it,” Ntilikina said. “We’re going to work to make this rotation be better to try to win the game. I think it’s great.”

“He and I are on the same wavelength,” FIzdale said. "He doesn’t want to be put in a box, either. He embraces the fact that he’s so versatile. It’s not a big discussion to have with him. The kid is locked in. He understands what I’m going to ask from him for this year. I’m asking him to wear a lot of hats and I think he can handle it.”


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