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Knicks yearn to boost confidence of Frank Ntilikina

Steve Mills sees it on defense, but only sometimes in the young guard's offense.

The Knicks' Frank Ntilikina looks on after fouling

The Knicks' Frank Ntilikina looks on after fouling out during the fourth quarter against the Hornets at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 9. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

On Friday, the Knicks issued their update on Kristaps Porzingis’ progress in his rehabilitation, a process that can be measured in medical exams and benchmarks. The tougher progress to measure is in the rest of the team — and in particular the lottery pick who followed Porzingis to the Knicks, Frank Ntilikina.

Porzingis is working his way back from a physical ailment, but in Ntilikina’s case, the Knicks see a problem that is based not on a sore knee or a balky ankle but in the second-year guard’s mindset. Knicks president Steve Mills spoke of a lack of confidence on the offensive side of the ball, a point that coach David Fizdale also has commented on in recent days.

“Frank is a young, young player,” Mills said. “There are a lot of things that he continues to get better at from a defensive standpoint. We’ve got to find a way to work with Frank and allow the confidence on the offensive end of the floor to sort of live within him all the time. It’s there sometimes, it’s not there other times. But that’s what we feel like our job is as a management team. We sit around and say we have to pour confidence into these guys. That’s how we approach everything we do every single day.

“We’ve got to find a way to make Frank feel confidence on the offensive end. He believes in what he can do defensively. That’s on us, to take a 20-year-old kid and give him the freedom and the skills to feel good about what he’s doing.”

Ntilikina has denied that he has any doubts about his ability, but it is hard to ignore how much more confident he appears when he hits a shot or two early and how hesitant he seems when he misses his first few shots. In the last four games entering Friday night, he was 6-for-25 from the floor, which followed a three-game stretch in which he shot 16-for-30.

The odd thing is that Fizdale has inserted Emmanuel Mudiay as the starting point guard when the team has no vested interest in his future. Mudiay will be a free agent at season’s end; Ntilikina will be under the team’s control for at least two more years. Would he have benefited from remaining a starter at point guard and being allowed to know that he can play through his learning curve?

“Something we’re consistent with is we leave the minutes to Fiz,” Mills said. “We just try to get these players in a position where they are successful . . . We got to find a way to give him more confidence so he can hopefully perform better on a consistent basis.”

Fadeaway

None of the Knicks made LeBron’s list of great players he’d like to join forces with, but Kevin Knox has begun to produce in a way that could get him there someday. The Knicks rookie has averaged 20.3 points over the last seven games, scoring at least 15 in every one of the games. After struggling with his shooting early in the season he is connecting on 42.9 percent from three-point range in that stretch.

But there is one curious disclaimer to his scoring output. Knox has scored in double figures in the first quarter of the last three games. But he has then struggled to keep it up as the game wears on. Friday against Atlanta he had 17 points in the first quarter and then scored again just 17 seconds into the second quarter. But he added just five points the rest of the way.

“I’m not very happy with myself, the way I played in the second half,” Knox said. “That’s something I’ve got to really improve. I’m a rookie. I’m going to learn how to be able to fight through those moments, those tough times, and be able to stay hot, stay aggressive in the second half. But it’s all a learning experience for me. Knowing myself, how hard I am on myself, I know I’ll fix it. I’ll watch a lot of film, get back in the gym, so I can be able to execute in the second half just like I do in the first half.”

To the point

While Emmanuel Mudiay has begun to put up big numbers offensively and Ntilikina is the only defensive answer for the Knicks at point guard, Trey Burke has been pushed aside after beginning the season as the starter at the position. After returning from a knee injury Burke struggled through a combined 3-for-16 shooting over two games - and then didn’t get off the bench at all in the last two games.

Fizdale said after Friday’s loss that he should have gone to Burke to try to jump start the offense but was trying to utilize Ntilikina to clamp down on Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young. For his part, Burke said he’s confident his shooting struggles were just from his time off and rushing back.

“I think those first two games were an indicator of where I was, a measuring stick of my rehab,” Burke said. “I just wanted to get back out there as quick as possible. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea. I don’t think it’s any structural damage. I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to keep me playing in the next couple of weeks. I’ll be ready if my number is called.

“When you miss a couple games rhythm-wise you’re kind of out of it. It’s easier said than done getting your rhythm right when you come back. As a competitor I’m just ready to get back out there, ready to help my team win.”

Bring it on

LeBron James provided some controversy by vocalizing his interest in teaming up with Anthony Davis. He clarified that Friday night by listing just about every great player in the game, teasing reporters.

“Ask me if I’d like to play with Jimmy Butler,” James said. “Say it right now. Ask me about Kyrie Irving, Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Ask me about [Joel] Embiid, Ben Simmons. Go ahead, all of them. Luka Doncic. Ask me right now.

“Come on, guys, this is not rocket science. These are great players. Absolutely. I would love to play with a lot of great players. That is just who I am. People get caught up in bunches sometimes when they wish they could control what you say, and they can’t control me, at all.

“And I play by the rules.”

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