Frank Ntilikina walked down a hallway at Barclays Center Thursday with a Knicks cap on his head, a resplendent three-piece maroon suit right out of the pages of GQ, a focused look in his eyes, and he exhaled.
“The pressure is starting to come out,’’ he said.
Let Knicks fans rest assured of this: The 18-year-old rising star from France, who the Knicks took with the 8th pick in the NBA Draft, can handle pressure.
Consider the last 48-plus hours:
He landed at Newark Airport Tuesday night; met with Knicks brass Phil Jackson and Steve Mills Wednesday morning; did an NBA media session; was at Carmelo Anthony’s gym at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, got drafted around 8:15 Thursday night, and then he went to work:
Ntilikina never showed any sign of fatigue or annoyance or of being overwhelmed. He kept a steady, veteran pace despite the chaotic scene.
“Crazy, crazy exciting,’’ Ntilikina said. “Like I think that’s what we play for, basketball, to have a lot of emotion. And definitely this week is one of the craziest weeks I’ve been through in my whole life, trying to get the championship tomorrow, so definitely great.’’
Oh yes. After crazy, crazy exciting, Ntilikina was booked on a 2:30 a.m. charter flight back to France to play in Game 5 of the French League finals Friday night with his Strasbourg team against Chalon.
“I want to get in the gym,’’ Ntilikina said.
How do you say ‘nap’ in French?
“I think it’s really exciting to have challenges right at the beginning of your career like it’s really exciting,’’ Ntilikina said. “I mean, I’m ready for whatever will happen.
“Like I said, just to hear my name tonight gave me a lot of motivation, and I think I’m ready for whatever will happen, definitely.’’
Let’s talk about challenges. The Knicks, coming off a disappointing, 31-51, season, have their share.
Ntilikina may not be a savior but at 6-foot-5, 190-pounds with a seven-foot wingspan, a high IQ and a pass-first DNA that make him a teammate favorite, he just might be the piece that helps Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez & Co. take the next step.
ESPN’s player projection model gives Ntilikina the highest chance to be a star of any lottery pick — roughly twice that of the top picks.
“Top-10 picks are all really young guys,’’ said Jackson. “You have to understand that when you go in the draft these particular years that these kids are all coming out after being one year in college so, yes, it’s a concern.
“We know this is a project-type of atmosphere where we have to build a player that is going to develop. We hope he jumps out and helps our team this year.”
Ntilikina might need some time to flourish, but he’s been a fast study. He started playing basketball when he was four in la Citadelle, a neighborhood playground, much like how many of New York point guards got their start.
He played because of his older brothers, Yves, 30, and Brice, 29, played. By the time Ntilikina was 12, he was beating them.
“You’re also looking at a kid who’s still 18 years old, but he’s a mature 18 in terms of his personality,’’ ESPN’s international scouting expert Fran Fraschilla told me. “He’s a great kid, wants to work, wants to get better. His long-term potential as an NBA player is very good.’’
On his first night as an NBA player, Ntilikina looked the part. His suit, paired with a matching shirt and bowtie, navy socks and brown shoes was fashionably cool. Ntilikina said he began working with a tailor in France three months ago.
He was asked if he could imagine the moment he takes The Garden court wearing a Knicks jersey. It was the only time he articulated the raw of the emotion of the night.
“Actually, you can’t realize until it happens,’’ Ntilikina said. “Like I’ve been actually playing my season with my team back in France, and when the last game, the fourth game with my team ended, like I just thought to realize I was getting drafted in two days, you know.
“More and more the emotion started to come into my head and into my body, and when I heard my name, it was just great. It was just a blessing. It was actually a lot of motivation to me to go in the gym and work harder. So I think you can’t even realize how it will be to hear your name.’’
It was the end and beginning of pressure that Ntilikina seems capable of handling.
The Knicks used their two second-round picks to potentially add even more depth in the backcourt. With the 44th pick, they selected Damyean Dotson of Houston, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound shooting guard.
Dotson won MVP honors at the Portsmouth Invitational where he averaged 15.0 points 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists over three games. He has the size and outside shooting to make a run at a roster spot.
The Knicks used the 58th pick on point guard Ognjen Jaramaz of Serbia. At 6-foot-3 and one-half, 194 pounds, Jaramaz has decent size for the position but will likely remain in Europe to improve his overall game.