Ntilikina Brings Defense to Knicks

Phil Jackson looked directly into the camera and took the opportunity to talk directly to fans during his interview with Al Trautwig on Knicks Night Live.

“I think we know what we’re doing,” he said.

Through the awkwardness of the Carmelo Anthony relationship and the madness of the Kristaps Porzingis trade scenarios, there really is some evidence of a plan. Three years into Jackson’s tenure, it still, however, remains lost in the drama.

But after draft night ended with Porzingis still on the roster — exhale — and the player we all expected, French guard Frank Ntilikina, selected at No. 8, a temporary — temporary — calm fell over the franchise.

And that’s when Jackson said something no one can deny:

“I think we have to start growing some of our own kids,” he said.


That needs to be the No. 1 priority. To paraphrase the Broadway hit, “Hamilton”:

“Drafting is easy, young man, developing is harder.”

Ntilikina, who turns 19 next month, arrives as raw as Porzingis did two years ago and with the same amount of unknown. European players always come with that element of mystery because we haven’t spent the winter watching them play like we do American college kids, especially those at the marquee schools — Malik Monk, for one — who make headlines in the NCAA Tournament.

But we certainly learned from the Porzingis draft that it’s better to get to know someone before we judge them. Trautwig and I enjoyed the hesitant, mixed reaction from the crowd of five thousand at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden when Ntilikina was picked. It was as if Knicks fans admitted, “I really don’t know how to feel right now!”

OK let me help you there.

First, if you haven’t heard yet, Ntilikina says his name is pronounced like this: Nee-Lee-Keena.

“The ‘T’ is silent,” he said.

In case you were wondering how to say Frank Ntilikina, Knicks fans!

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OK, now what’s one thing we love the most when it comes to basketball in New York?

That’s right: Defense.

So listen to what Ntilikina immediately referenced when MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow asked him to describe his game:

“First of all, I’m a good defender,” he said. “I’m willing to defend.”

So it’s safe to say with Ntilikina, the ‘D’ isn’t silent.

Even Jackson noted “a defensive presence” as what was alluring about Ntilikina.

Jackson also admitted there were some arguments within the Knicks draft night war room on the pick. Monk, a pure scorer from Kentucky, and Dennis Smith Jr., a Derrick Rose-type scoring guard from NC State, were on the board. And that’s going to hang over this draft like DeMar DeRozan (picked after Jordan Hill in the infamous 2009 draft) and Ron Artest (’99) until we know what the Knicks have in Ntilikina.

But Jackson went with another Euro and added this about Ntilikina, which echoed some critical issues he’s had here in New York:

“He follows directions,” Jackson said.

Remember at the end of the season, Jackson said there was a “rebelliousness” within the team. Players clearly had an issue with the Triangle and Jackson’s insistence in playing it. Ntilikina, he believes, won’t fight the system the way a Monk or Smith — American players who are more accustomed to AAU-style basketball — might because Euros play more of a team-oriented style. Ntilikina has already shown an ability to adapt to systems during a coaching change with his team in France.

Chalon’s US Ibekwe Ekene (left) vies with Strasbourg’s French Frank Ntilikina (right) during the Pro A basketball game 5 of the final match between Chalon (ELC) and Strasbourg (SIG) on June 23, 2016 in Chalon-sur-Saône, eastern France. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

And now let me get back to the defense.

Ntilikina is 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan and is young enough to believe he could have a little more growing to do. That, and his athleticism, tell you he has the potential to be a terrific defensive player who can do something Jeff Hornacek regularly screamed from the sideline and the Knicks have been unable to do in years:


Jackson admitted he’s a project, as every first round pick tends to be these days. This is where the onus remains on Jackson and his staff because the job is only just beginning when it comes to the franchise’s second lottery pick in three years.

“We have to build a player,” Jackson said. “The reality is, we have to grow a team together.”

That plan has to include Porzingis, who emerged as a star a lot faster than anyone anticipated and perhaps some perspective was lost in the meantime. He skipped an exit interview — which means he felt entitled enough to believe he could blow it off — and has not returned calls or texts from Jackson.

Jeff Hornacek and Kristaps Porzingis (Credit: MSG Photos)

The message from Porzingis’ side is that he isn’t happy with the direction of the franchise. He feels there is too much of an emphasis on the Triangle and not enough on winning now. What you have to appreciate is Porzingis taking ownership in the direction of the franchise.

What is concerning is that he feels a public and petulant beef is better than a man-to-man, face-to-face chat with the team president to outline your concerns.

Let’s chalk this up to maturity and, perhaps, some bad advice. For now.

But it is ironic that Jackson expressed his affinity in drafting Europeans because they are “schooled in a system and how to fit into it” and yet Porzingis after two years is already disillusioned.

As the offseason business is officially underway, let’s see how Jackson and his staff power rank the priorities of the franchise. He’s made it clear that building with “our own kids” is at the top of the list.


The Knicks had two second round picks and added more guards to their mix, both of whom earned some pre-draft accolades.

The first, Damyean Dotson from Houston, who was taken 44th overall, bears watching in summer league. He’s the oldest player selected in the draft at 23 years old and at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he has good size. He isn’t the most consistent shooter, but his 44% from three-point range can’t be ignored.

Dotson was once a high-end prospect out of high school and was a Pac-12 All-Freshman selection at Oregon, but was one of three players named in a sexual assault allegation (no charges were filed) that led to his dismissal. He re-emerged at Houston for his final two years of eligibility and was named MVP of the Portsmouth Invitational in the spring.

The Knicks used their 58th overall pick to draft Serbian point guard Ognjen Jaramaz, who I think we’ll henceforth refer to as OJ. The 21-year-old was named MVP of the Adidas Eurocamp earlier this month and is expected to play in the summer league for the Knicks.

[Get to Know Ognjen Jaramaz]

It seems, however, he is expected to return to Europe next season.