It was an out-of-the-blue surprise to see Frank Ntilikina get the call Thursday night after nearly two months without a single appearance in a game — a gap twice as long as the time until the NBA trade deadline, which seemed more likely to signal a return to action for the 22-year-old guard.
But with Elfrid Payton sidelined by a hamstring injury, Ntilikina played for the first time since Dec. 29. He had seven points, three steals, two assists and a plus-17 performance in 23 minutes in the Knicks’ 140-121 win over the Kings.
It earned him compliments from coach Tom Thibodeau and teammates — but no assurances that he’ll be back on the floor again.
Payton, whose status is day-to-day, might be unlikely to return Saturday against Indiana, which means Ntilikina could find himself with minutes again. Thibodeau said he would not like to expand his rotation beyond the 10-man mix he’s utilized. So if Payton is back, that means someone heads back to the bench.
"I think 10 is ideal," Thibodeau said. "Obviously, it’s hard because we have guys that are deserving. But I think sometimes when you extend that far, you sort of take away from the ability to play well because you do need some time to get a rhythm into the game.
"So anyone outside of the 10, you’re situational, whether it be injury or foul trouble. But those players are all very important to the team. I value practice greatly. I value the spirit of the team when you’re not in the game; just be into the game because you never know, things can change in a minute. That’s the thing about the NBA. It’s constant change. Whenever you’re called upon, you have to be ready.
"Obviously, that was one of the things that I was pleased with with Frank. He wasn’t in the rotation, but he was practicing well and I knew when the opportunity came, he would be ready, and he was."
After playing limited minutes in the first four games of the season, Ntilikina missed time because of a sprained right knee. After he healed up, he was on the bench, followed by a week locked in quarantine in a Miami hotel because of contact tracing for COVID-19.
Ntilikina avoided any sort of "told you so" response to playing well when he finally got an opportunity.
"It is important because at the end of the day, that’s what we work for," he said after Thursday’s game. "I feel like it was a long stretch with the injury for me to get ready. It was a lot of work put in with the help of the coaching staff and the strength and conditioning staff.
"But yeah, it’s the most important, the results. We’re working every day, the whole team is working hard every day to see the results. So when we see something like that, there’s so much happiness, it’s just motivation to do more.
"I feel like it’s a challenge more for myself as a player. As a player, you work every day not to prove to everybody but to prove yourself, get some stuff done. That’s really my mindset. Of course, for my coach, for my teammates, everybody working on this team to get where you want to get to, where your team wants to get to, and not to prove to anybody else."