BOSTON — David Fizdale had kept Frank Ntilikina on the bench for all but 18 seconds when Kemba Walker poured in 32 points at Madison Square Garden in a one-sided Celtics win over the Knicks last week. And he had stuck to the idea that even with Ntilikina forced into action in a depleted backcourt he would have him coming off the bench as recently as Thursday in practice.
But Friday, as the Knicks went through their morning shootaround with every seat in the stands adorned with a poster of Walker, Fizdale announced he had a change of heart and was inserting Ntilikina into the starting lineup for the first time this season.
“Try to start us off with a good defensive presence from the standpoint of putting one of our better perimeter defenders on the floor,“ Fizdale said. “I went back through the film again, and they have so much firepower, here on the road I want to try to get our best defensive group that I can.”
Ntilikina played just more than three minutes total in the Knicks' first three games. He increased his time to 22 minutes against Chicago when Dennis Smith Jr. departed to be with his family after the death of his stepmother. And with Elfrid Payton suffering a strained hamstring that will keep him out at least through Sunday’s game, Ntilikina played 29 minutes in Orlando Wednesday.
Fizdale still kept him on the second unit that night, even though he was the lone true point guard, starting instead rookie RJ Barrett at that position with Wayne Ellington at shooting guard. The unit started well, but Ellington shot just 1-for-8 and the Magic torched that unit at the start of the second half to pull away and drop the Knicks to 1-4.
Ntilikina opened eyes in helping France defeat the United States National Team this summer in the FIBA World Cup. He helped limit Walker to just 2-of-9 shooting that night and also spurred the French offense in the fourth quarter, scoring seven of his 11 points.
“Either way it goes, Frank is one of our better on-ball defenders, regardless of what happened in the World Cup,” Fizdale said. “But I did watch that game and he did a solid job against him. Hopefully, he can have another one of those.”
“I’m happy about the opportunity,” Ntilikina said. “But we know, like I always say, it doesn’t change anything about the way I prepare for this game. Either it’d be starting or coming off the bench, all players have got to be ready. It’s always the same mindset. I’ll take care of being ready for the game tonight.
“[The challenge is] being patient, keeping on working on my game and being ready. It’s a long season. A lot of things happen in an NBA season so you’ve always got to be ready for your team.”
While Fizdale acknowledged that Ntilikina and Barrett give the Knicks their best defensive pairing in the backcourt, he remains hopeful that the 21-year-old will continue to improve offensively, too.
“[He was] very solid,” Fizdale said of Ntilikina’s minutes against Orlando. “Competed defensively. Ran the team well. Stayed aggressive offensively. Hopefully, he’ll keep building. I’m asking him to just take the shots that are given to him. Stay aggressive to when those opportunities arrive, don’t pass on them.”