When Jeff Hornacek fills out his starting lineup for the final nine games of the season — and maybe his career as Knicks coach — the first name that should appear each time is Frank Ntilikina.
The rookie guard’s time is long overdue.
If developing their young players is the Knicks’ main goal as the season draws to an end, Ntilikina should get more playing time than anyone. That should be the priority now.
Hornacek moved in that direction Friday, replacing Emmanuel Mudiay and Courtney Lee with Ntilikina and Trey Burke to start the third quarter. Hornacek said it was performance-based, and he hadn’t decided whether that would be the starting backcourt Sunday against the Wizards.
It probably should be, and definitely Ntilikina
Burke has been the Knicks’ best guard over the last month. Ntilikina is a good young prospect with the most upside of any healthy Knick under the age of 24. He needs to go through all different experiences and play through his mistakes.
“The coach knows that’s his job to do all that stuff,” Ntilikina said. “Us as players, our job is just to be ready when he calls our name.”
The Knicks took Ntilikina with the eighth pick last June. He’s 15th among rookies in minutes (21.1), 23rd in scoring (5.7) and ninth in assists (3.1).
Defense is a definite strength of Ntilikina’s. His size and length allows him to guard multiple positions. When the 19-year-old Ntilikina gets stronger, he could become an elite defender.
His offense needs improvement, but he’s making strides and looking more comfortable playing off the ball.
Ntilikina scored 13 in a career-high 37 minutes in Friday’s loss to Minnesota — his second double-digit scoring performance in four games. He did that just three times in the prior 25 games. But his minutes were also up-and-down.
Six times in that stretch Ntilikina played under 15 minutes, including last weekend when Hornacek was playing for the win against the Sixers and he didn’t like certain matchups.
Ntilikina should be playing 30 minutes a night for the rest of the season, as he continues to try to become a more consistent and reliable contributor.
“As a player and as a young rookie, young player you’re trying to find that consistency and efficiency throughout the season,” Ntilikina said. “I think the work I’m putting in every day is going to help me to find it to give more to the team.”
There is nothing wrong with the Knicks’ thinking of having players earn their minutes. That’s the way it should be to teach them to work harder. But at this point in the season, let the kid play as long as possible.
The rationale for making Mudiay the starting point guard 14 games also made sense. The Knicks had been working with Ntilikina since the draft and Burke since training camp. They had just acquired Mudiay from Denver, and really didn’t know what they had in him.
So Hornacek and the Knicks wanted to see how Mudiay, the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft, performed with the starting lineup, what kind of impact he could make, whether he could be the team’s starting point guard going forward.
They hoped a change of scenery would benefit Mudiay, who lost his starting job in Denver to Jamal Murray. But Mudiay has struggled on both ends of the floor.
Hornacek didn’t like what he saw from Mudiay Friday and only played him the first 4:54 of the game. Mudiay said he was surprised, and that Hornacek didn’t give him any explanation, and he isn’t sure what it means about his role Sunday.
“That’s on him,” Mudiay said. “Whatever he wants to do. That’s out of my control.”
Mudiay is still learning the system and getting comfortable with his teammates. In those 14 starts, Mudiay was a minus-108, and the Knicks lost 11 times.
That doesn’t mean the Knicks should just give up on Mudiay. Bring him off the bench for the rest of the season, see if he can make an impact with the second unit. Work with him in the offseason, let him improve his conditioning and see how he develops.
But Ntilikina’s development has to be the priority. For the rest of the season, the Knicks should let the kid play.
Young and ready
The Knicks have to strongly consider taking Oklahoma point guard Trae Young if they pick in the nine range and he’s available.
Young has been compared to two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry for his long-range shot-making ability and passing. He led the nation in scoring (27.7) and assists (8.7).
The Knicks need an athletic small forward, but honestly they need help at just about every position. They’ve needed a franchise point guard for decades and Young could turn out to be a franchise-changing player. He said it would be “blessing” if he got drafted by the Knicks.
“I feel like what I went through this year with the media, the criticism and the ups and downs, like that prepared me for if I was in a situation like that and how I’d be able to handle it,” Young said. “I’d be ready. I know I’d be ready. If I was blessed enough to play in New York City, I’d be honored and willing to get to work and help that franchise win.”
The good life
As the son of an NBA player, Tim Hardaway Jr. received many perks, including getting to watch his dad’s intense practices with Alonzo Mourning and the Pat Riley-coached Miami Heat, as long as he sat still.
“There was times where Pat Riley would have practice and it’d be closed, but my dad would have me in there and just make sure I was quiet and not say a word,” Hardaway said. “Before the games, (I’d) come out and shoot. Come early, three hours before the game, come on the main court where all the fans are sitting down still shooting until the 20-minute on the clock.
“Those are really good memories.”
High praise for Harden
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni knows offense, and this week he called James Harden “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen.” D’Antoni, who has coached Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony among other great players, said Harden is unstoppable.
Harden should win the MVP award in a landslide after finishing runner-up twice in the past three years. The Rockets own the NBA’s best record, and Harden leads the league in scoring, three-pointers and free throws made, and is third in assists.
“They’re running guys to him and or he just steps a little further back and makes a three,” said D’Antoni, the former Knicks coach. “The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back threes.
“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”