SAN ANTONIO — The Knicks spent the preseason trying to figure out who would emerge from the trio of point guards competing for the starting — or closing — role. And 90 minutes before the opening tip on opening night against the San Antonio Spurs, Knicks coach David Fizdale threw a curveball into the mix.
Rather than Dennis Smith Jr., whom the Knicks acquired in the Kristaps Porzingis trade; Frank Ntilikina, the 21-year-old lottery pick, or Elfrid Payton, who was signed as a free agent this summer with the idea that he would be given a chance to start, the Knicks opted for RJ Barrett.
Barrett, the 19-year-old rookie who was drafted with the third overall pick as a shooting guard, got a chance in preseason and in practice and earned, at least for one night, the coach’s trust.
“I just like that combination of RJ and Allonzo Trier to be out there,” Fizdale said. “Again, the competition is still on and I’m still searching for combinations that are going to fit. Coming into this I want to see how that looks.”
It’s hard for any of the point guards to argue that they laid claim to the job. Smith missed the first two preseason games with a lower back strain and then shot a combined 3-for-17 in the next two. Payton had one game in which he was 0-for-9 and Ntilikina shot 28.6 percent overall and 11.1 percent from beyond the arc.
With Mitchell Robinson out with a sprained right ankle, Fizdale was hoping that adding Trier to the starting lineup would provide spacing for the other players. While both Barrett and Trier may be natural shooting guards, Fizdale said that they both can serve as the primary ballhandler.
“Absolutely. They’ve been doing it, every day in practice,” he said. “I put RJ at the point every day. He had no problems initiating offense and getting us into our stuff. He played a significant amount of minutes at point guard in preseason. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.
“I feel like RJ actually forced it. I really liked the way Zo played. By no means is this an indictment on anybody or stuck in stone. I still want these guys to be fighting for that top spot. I'll keep expressing that to them.’’
“With situations like that, my faith is in me,” Smith Jr. said. “My faith is in the work that I put in. And everything that I do. And I know that everything will work out for me. So I’ve just got to stay dedicated to what I do and keep my vision clear. I’ve got a vision for myself and I can’t let anything get in the way of that, or anybody.”
Fizdale pointed out that the lineup could change, even as soon as Friday night against the Nets in Brooklyn.
“Absolutely. I’m going to keep putting it on them to really have to earn it and really force me to play you,” Fizdale said. “None of this is in stone, but at the same time the competition is on.
“I want to have the flexibility to do that. But at the same time, I’m still putting it out there to the team that I want them earning everything they get. That’s the type of team that we have and I want them to keep fighting that way.”
The lineup intrigue was not the only source of controversy on this opening night as the NBA schedule maker put Marcus Morris against the Spurs, the team that he had verbally agreed to sign with this summer as a free agent, only to renege when the Knicks opened up additional cap space and came calling. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called it unprofessional this summer and didn’t back down — against either Morris or the Knicks.
“What happened, happened,” Popovich said. “So you decide what was unprofessional or not.”
Asked if both the Knicks and Morris were unprofessional, he said, “Who signed him? I thought it was the Knicks that signed him.
“It’s the Spurs against the Knicks. One basketball game. That’s how I look at it. I don’t have time to get personal or worry about individuals. It’s about how our team performs.”