GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Frank Ntilikina’s troublesome knee will have a few more days to heal before it really gets tested by NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.
It should be some “welcome to the NBA” moment for the Knicks’ 19-year-old rookie point guard.
Ntilikina has played in only one preseason game because of a bruised right knee. His next meaningful competition will occur in Thursday night’s opener, when he likely will chase Westbrook around Chesapeake Energy Arena. Good luck, kid.
“Westbrook is a very talented point guard,” Ntilikina said after practice Monday. “Every point guard in the league is very talented and you have to be ready for every challenge. Defensively, as offensively, you have to be ready to compete, and that’s what I will do.
“Westbrook is the MVP. It’s going to be fun.”
Ntilikina, regarded as a good defender with long arms, is still on the mend after hurting his knee Oct. 4 when he bumped into teammate Enes Kanter during a preseason loss to the Nets. Ntilikina has been limited in practice but is shooting and running on the side, gradually working his way up to becoming a full participant. That could happen Tuesday.
He went through contact parts of practice Monday for the first time in nearly two weeks. He was held out of the scrimmage, though, which he said was part of the plan to make sure he doesn’t overdo it. Both he and coach Jeff Hornacek said he should be ready to play Thursday night. He’s expected to come off the bench.
“I’m happy to be back on the court with the guys,” Ntilikina said. “We’re looking to go step by step to Wednesday. But I’m back and I’m real happy and I feel good to be on the court.”
Ntilikina, who didn’t play in the summer league because of a sore right knee, said he’s not concerned about missing all this time. He played professionally in France and believes that experience prepared him for the NBA.
It’s important for a point guard to know the tendencies of teammates and where they like the ball. But Ntilikina doesn’t believe he’s behind in that area, either.
“I did the maximum to keep my mind in there with the guys,” he said. “Talking to them even if I wasn’t out on the court, building the chemistry. I talk a lot with my teammates on trying to know how they feel on the plays, trying to know what they prefer, how they’re comfortable. So I did the job off the court.”
Hornacek has been impressed with that aspect of Ntilikina’s personality.
“Part of a point guard’s responsibility is to know your teammates, where they like the ball, how they can get it to you,” Hornacek said. “And then that gives confidence in players to understand, ‘Hey, if I roll hard, or I come off a screen hard, the ball is going to be there. I’m not wondering if it’s going to.’ That’s a great thing that he’s doing.”
Hornacek said Ntilikina watches things closely and picks them up quickly, including noticing a few out-of-bounds plays the Knicks used in a preseason game. Hornacek is surprised at how advanced he is mentally at this point.
“It’s funny,” Hornacek said. “Usually for a young kid like that, you’ve got to spend a lot of time explaining plays, explaining NBA sets. You’re not able to go to all the little tricks and all those things for a while. With Frank, you can talk about them already. There are a lot of guys in this league now that don’t have a great feel for the game. There are some that do, and Frank’s one of them.”
Hornacek isn’t fully committing to Ntilikina guarding Westbrook on Thursday. “We’ll see what happens in the game,” he said. “But if you can kind of survive against Westbrook, I think you’re pretty good for the rest of the league. Hopefully we can get him some time out there.”