With Frank Ntilikina's departure to Dallas as a free agent the debate over the worth of the former lottery pick is over for the Knicks. Four seasons under four coaches and three team presidents — including Phil Jackson, who drafted him to run a system that was discarded just days after the draft — left him with a legacy of just 55 starts and mostly disappointment.
But in his limited minutes last season for Tom Thibodeau, Ntilikina did fill a role. As the season wore on and into the playoffs, Thibodeau would call on Ntilikina for one defensive stop. And while Thibodeau and some of his players still speak longingly of Elfrid Payton’s defensive prowess, Ntilikina was tasked with the crucial defensive moments.
Now with Payton and Ntilikina gone, and Reggie Bullock also out of the picture having signed with Dallas, the Knicks have lost some of their backcourt defensive talent and size. The starting point guard is expected to be Kemba Walker, who is listed— perhaps generously — at 6-foot tall. So a question for Thibodeau is just who will take over that defensive stopper role in the backcourt this season.
The answer could come in the form of rookie Miles McBride.
"I think if you lit any more fire underneath of Deuce you'd have a forest fire," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told reporters at the NCAA Tournament last season. "Deuce doesn't need lit up. He's a guy who comes in every day and works. He's a guy who spends countless hours on his own working on his game."
Listed at 6-2, McBride is a former high school quarterback who has impressed with his offensive ability, but his calling card at the West Virginia was a hard-nosed style that seems a perfect fit for Thibodeau.
"Well, we’ll find out," Thibodeau said. "That’s what I like about he and Quinton [Grimes], both have a defensive component to them. Obviously, you have to learn the NBA game, you have to learn the players, you have to learn our players and our system. It takes time. But I love how they compete. Their toughness, their competitiveness, their basketball IQ. They’re sponges, they’re in here all the time, they’re picking up things. Our veterans have done a great job with them. We’ll find out, but I’m confident when they do get their opportunity they will play well."
"I feel like my defense is something I can always lean on," McBride said. "Then offensively I can make shots. I think defense is something that’s going to get me on the floor. Just continue to learn from [veterans] and hopefully see my minutes increase."
An opening arrived Sunday when the Knicks announced that they were waiving guard Luca Vildoza, who was in camp on a non-guaranteed contract but was unable to play with an ankle injury. Thibodeau didn’t hesitate to hand a huge role to rookie Immanuel Quickley last season as he produced in his opportunities. With a hole to fill in a unit that ranked third in defensive rating last season, McBride could find his place this season.
"I always have my expectations very high," McBride said. "Obviously this is a higher level so I’m going to take time to learn. It’s different. So I can definitely see myself exceeding expectations, and I think that’s what a coach would want for his players."