On the night before the NBA cut last season short, halting play because of COVID-19, Frank Ntilikina had the sort of night that the Knicks and much of the fan base had been waiting three seasons to see.
He scored a career-best 20 points, shot 3-for-5 from three-point range and handed out 10 assists in a 122-115 loss in Washington. But by the time Ntilikina faced the Hawks the next night in Atlanta, fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert had tested positive. Any hope Ntilikina had of finishing with an eye-opening stretch was over.
So now, entering the final season of his contract, he finds himself in a familiar place, looking to acclimate to and impress a new head coach, his fourth in four seasons, and trying to tune out the trade rumors that already are rising through the NBA. And that’s tough.
"It is,’’ Ntilikina said in a Zoom interview. "But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the league. The past is the past and we have a new team now and new goals. So we’re focusing on the future, on the present, on how we can get better each and every day. And how we can make our goals be real . . . Work is just going to take care of everything.
"That’s what I’m focusing on. Working, doing the best I can do to help this team get better, to help this team complete their goals. But the rest, the business part, is going to take care of itself. I’m here to get better every day, get this team better. but it is what it is."
It is hard to tell whether his comments reflect a toughness gained from being the longest-tenured Knicks player — even at 22 years old — and absorbing the criticism, or simply an acceptance that another team might be a better spot for him to take the next step.
In terms of the fans, he is one of the most divisive members of the team. Many hope he can maintain his defensive skills and improve his offensive game to the point that he can live up to his status as the last lottery pick of the Phil Jackson era in New York. And maybe just as many others remain convinced that after three seasons of struggles, it just isn’t going to happen.
However, scouts and executives around the league remain interested in Ntilikina, at least at a low cost.
What this season holds for him in New York remains a mystery, too. The Knicks brought back Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr. and grabbed Immanuel Quickley in the first round of the draft, creating a logjam at point guard. It remains to be seen if Ntilikina can win the job over that crew — particularly with some in the organization hoping to increase Smith’s value — or if his best role might be off the bench as a defensive specialist at multiple positions.
His latest head coach, Tom Thibodeau, is renowned for stressing defense, and there is no doubt that Ntilikina is his best defensive guard.
"As a player, as a competitor, you’re trying to work on everything," Ntilikina said. "Me, of course, it was what allowed me at the end of last season to be more comfortable on the court — of course, my defense, but also offensively being a better player, being able to score and give my teammates a lot of options. That’s why I felt really more comfortable at the end of last season, and that’s what I’m trying to work on and keep improving.
"It’s part of the game. We have a lot of guards on this team, a lot of competitors, which is going to bring the best out of the team. On a daily basis, we’re going to compete hard for minutes and the coach is going to decide what he wants to do.
"We have trust in him. He knows what he’s doing. He knows his job. He’s been doing that. So he’s going to put the best players together to put the best team on the court."