LeBron James said Monday morning that his comments criticizing the Knicks for not selecting Dennis Smith Jr. in last June’s draft were meant to be a shot at former team president Phil Jackson and not rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina.
James told reporters on Saturday night that the Knicks should have selected Smith Jr., a point guard who was chosen ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks. Jackson selected Ntilikina, also a point guard, with the eighth overall pick.
“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” James said after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat Smith and the Mavericks on Saturday night. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick.”
James clarified his comments during the Cavaliers’ shootaround at Madison Square Garden on Monday morning. James and the Cavaliers play the Knicks on Monday night.
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely a shot at him,” James said, referring to Jackson. “That’s for sure.”
In an interview with ESPN last November, Jackson referred to James’ friends and business partners as his “posse.” James fired back at Jackson and said he lost all respect for him.
“I had nothing but respect for him as a coach for what he was able to do at the helm,” James said last November. “But I got none for him.”
Teammates Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter, and head coach Jeff Hornacek came to Ntilikina’s defense on Sunday after James’ comments became public.
“This is my rookie. This is my team. This is my organization. I cannot just let him disrespect him like that,” Kanter said. “I think Frank’s doing an unbelievable job. Every day, he’s working really hard to become a really good one . . . I mean, come on. That’s a rookie. You cannot just say anything like that about him.
James said he wasn’t being critical of Ntilikina and doesn’t even know him.
“It’s not that you’re [knocking] the Knicks guys,” James said. “It’s just that you’re stating what you see. That’s all it is for people who just live in a box and Enes Kanter, who always has something to say.”
Smith Jr. is averaging 14.8 points and 4.9 assists per game in 12 games — all starts — for the Mavericks (2-12). Ntilikina is averaging 4.4 points, 5 assists and 1.6 steals in 10 games off the bench for the Knicks (7-5).
“When I was watching the draft that night, I definitely thought [the Knicks were] going to pick [Smith],” James said. “And I talked about it with people who know the game. I know what Dennis Smith is capable of doing and I knew the Knicks had been looking for a point guard. I ain’t stating things that’s false. This is facts. I thought they would pick [Smith] and they didn’t.”