SACRAMENTO, Calif. — While it took more than a year and a forced circumstance, one of the few bright spots that David Fizdale could point to during his tenure as Knicks coach is the emergence of former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.
While Ntilikina is not a star and his value as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft remains a question mark, he did find himself inserted into a starting role and finally is showing some of the skill sets that then-team president Phil Jackson saw in him. But just days after drafting him, Jackson was fired, and it started a long and shaky path to a role with the Knicks.
Injuries have been more frequent than opportunities, and in his first two seasons, the list of point guards who were rentals who played ahead of him reads like a list of NBA journeymen — Ramon Sessions, Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton. But when Payton was injured early this season and Smith left the team to be with his family after the passing of his stepmother, Ntilikina finally got his chance.
He has looked like a different player. He's still a defensive stalwart but also has shown more and more confidence in his shooting and even has gotten to the rim occasionally.
Fizdale spoke openly about the confidence that Ntilikina gained from his play in the FIBA World Cup over the summer and was pleased when Ntilkina went into his office and told him he wanted to be thought of as a hard-nosed “dog.”
But the Knicks' 6-20 record and the decision to part ways with Fizdale make all that seem like starting over.
“Yeah, definitely. For everyone,” Ntilikina said. “New York is tough. People say not everybody is built for New York, not everybody is just ready for all that noise. However, I do the best job I can do every day to stay focused and stay locked in on basketball. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to play basketball and not listening to everything else. I’m just focused on basketball.”
“It’s tough to be in that situation. It’s tough to lose games. It’s tough to lose a coach. It’s not easy. Everybody wants to win in this league. Everybody wants everything to go right. Now it’s where we are. We have to get better. That’s what we’re working on every day.”
But Fizdale is gone and in his place is interim coach Mike Miller. He has kept Ntilikina in the starting lineup, but he has talked about the need for a point guard to be able to play downhill, creating opportunities with speed runs to the rim.
“Yeah, it’s kind of like different principles, getting to the paint, finding guys open and just playing basketball,” Ntilikina said. “Playing hard. That’s the goal.
“My goal is to stay the same, go out here and play hard for the team, give everything I can bring to this team. So of course, being in that situation is tough. Losing a lot of games, losing a coach, is tough. However, we’ve got to focus on the future. Myself, me, it’s the same goal. I’m going to come out here, whatever my role is, play hard and give everything I can bring to the team.”
That’s not how the force works
The common denominator through all four games of Miller and the Knicks' first road trip with Miller at the helm has been that every night has featured “Star Wars Night.” Asked if he is a Star Wars guy, Miller said, “Sure.”
When asked if he has seen them, Miller, who will endure his fourth Star Wars Night on Sunday in Denver, said, “I may be the only guy you talk to that has never watched a Star Wars movie.”
Carmelo Anthony, who spent 7 1/2 seasons starring for the Knicks, spoke this past week about how he would like to be remembered when his playing days are done — by having his jersey placed in the rafters alongside Knicks legends.
“Do I think about it?” Anthony said after talking of Damian Lillard’s loyalty to his current team, the Portland Trail Blazers. “Of course. I think anybody would want that, if you have the opportunity to get that. We’ll see what happens when that time comes. Hopefully, they hang No. 7 up there somewhere. We’ll see what happens.”
But that proved to be a short-term plan. When Anthony was in Denver on Thursday, where he started his career and went to the playoffs every season before pushing his way out, he was asked about a jersey retirement.
Said Anthony, "This is where it should be retired, to be honest with you.”