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Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau hoping Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. can pick up their games

Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. talks to

Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. talks to point guard Frank Ntilikina during the fourth quarter against the Heat at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2019. Credit: Brad Penner

Through a procession of coaches in the early stages of their NBA careers, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith have not lived up to their billing as lottery picks. But both point guards are in camp for the Knicks’ voluntary bubble workouts, and with a new coaching staff in place, each hopes his time has come.

Ntilikina, selected No. 8 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft by Phil Jackson just before he was let go as team president, and Smith, who was picked by Dallas with the No. 9 pick, have struggled to find their place in the game. Ntilikina remains a solid defensive guard but has never displayed the offensive skills a starting point guard needs. Smith can be explosive with his athleticism at times, but he remains a shooting guard who hasn’t shot well in a point guard body.

"We’re three days in, so I’m getting to know both guys," coach Tom Thibodeau said Friday after the third day of group practices. "I like what they’ve done so far. They got to continue to work. There’s oftentimes ups and downs for young players. There’s a learning curve they have to go through. Some experiences will be better than others.

"They both have had some good moments in the league. You want to build a consistency. And how do you get there? You have to do it through your work. You have to learn from the experiences. And you have to be disciplined. And so, hopefully we can get that this is a very important offseason for both players."

Ntilikina got his steadiest opportunity to start last season when Smith and Elfrid Payton were out, but he still averaged only 20.8 minutes per game, the least of his career. He averaged 6.3 points and 3.0 assists, shooting just 39.3% overall and 32.1% from three-point range.

Smith has continued to regress since joining the Knicks in the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. He played only 34 games and his numbers were dismal: 5.5 points, 2.9 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game.

The best thing that can be said is that they realize how important this is — Ntilikina returning from playing in France this summer and Smith, after dismaying some in the organization with his effort after being benched, opting in for these voluntary workouts. But the reality is that word has filtered out that if Thunder point guard Chris Paul is made available in a trade, the Knicks will be in the chase.

"Obviously, player development is critical," Thibodeau said. "But also, you can’t lose sight of the team development. So it’s not only the challenge of the player bringing the best out of himself but also how does he bring the best out of the team? And the team has to be very high. It’s got to be at the top of the checklist. Everyone has to sacrifice for the good of the team.

"Winning is the most important thing. That’s why you’re here. And so how does everyone fit together and how do you bring the best out of each other? So that’s an important thing that we’re studying. How hard do people work? Do they play for each other? Those are big factors in winning. Do they know when to shoot? Do they know when to pass? And we see that. We see what wins in the playoffs. When you begin, you have to think about the end and what’s going to be necessary if ultimately you do become a playoff team. And so it starts with your fundamentals, and that’s where we are."

Thibodeau remains hopeful that their time will come.

"Oftentimes people tend to measure guys that have finished their careers and say, well, this guy could be that," he said. "And they forget it took that guy a long time to get to where they were at the end of their career. So I think with every player you look at things they do well and you try to build off of that and try to add things to their game.

"And that’s why I think the offseason is so important, because you could zero in on those things and help build confidence, and I think that’s where your confidence comes from. Your confidence comes from your preparation, your willingness to work on those things and see that you can be successful doing them, but you never want to take a guy away from what his strengths are."

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