1. With all due respect to Kristaps Porzingis, it is really Frank Ntilikina that was a unicorn in the truest sense on the Knicks roster. Since the spring there has been a lot of fables and fairy tales about this mystical long-armed kid who loves to pass and play defense. But through the summer, through most of the preseason and even as the regular season began, it was rare to spot him.
But late in the first quarter of a game at The Garden against the Nets that was teetering on the brink, the unicorn appeared. And the fortunes of the Knicks changed. Jeff Hornacek referenced “Frank’s influence” on the game just by the presence of his long arms and defensive intuition and added that Ntilikina “got the crowd into it a little bit with his passes.”
All told, the Knicks rookie managed just 9 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 steal in only 19 minutes of action. But it was tangible in The Garden. We knew what we were looking at.
A point guard. One with a feel for the game we haven’t seen from a Knicks rookie point guard in many years. Do you know how many years?
Well consider this: whenever he does make his first career start — and it seems inevitable — Ntilikina will be the 26th player to start at least one game at point guard for the Knicks since Charlie Ward’s run as the full-time starter ended in 2001. That’s 26 different point guards over the course of 16 years.
Before that, from 1987-2001, you had a total of nine players make at least one start at the point guard spot.
The Knicks made the playoffs in every one of those seasons. Coincidence?
That’s what makes Ntilikina so important to the 19,812 sets of eyes that were fixed on him throughout the game. The eyes were analyzing his defensive positioning and arms, when raised, that look like those construction cranes that hover over new skyscrapers. The eyes quickly glanced at Walt Clyde Frazier, just to see him grin, as Ntilikina saw the open man with quick, yet feathery passes for easy scores. And the eyes looked at each other with delight when his shot finally found a rhythm as he scored his first NBA points.
Was it a coincidence that as we celebrate Clyde’s 50th anniversary of his Knicks debut, we see the first glimpses of a teenager cut from a similar mold of defense, passing and quiet confidence.
And what stood out more than anything, he did it with such expressionless ease, as if there was still another gear he could go to, but it wasn’t yet necessary.
“He’s going to get triple-doubles,” Porzingis said. “I think that’s what type of player he is.”
Time will certainly tell, but just to be safe go ahead and pick him up for your fantasy team now.
What seemed evident against the Nets is Ntilikina has the ability to be a catalyst for his team at either end of the floor. That’s an important trait for a point guard.
There are many more tests to come, but right now what’s undeniable is we saw enough in this game to want to see more.
2. While Ntilikina was the obvious story of the night, the player of the game was Porzingis, who put up his third 30-point performance of the season in four games. It was an impressive performance for KP, who shot 13 for 24 and was unstoppable in one-on-one situations. He was, more notably, a beast throughout the game at both ends of the floor. He recorded nine rebounds and three blocks, including one block in which he used both hands and looked like he was rejecting a spike attempt at the net in a volleyball game.
It was his activity level that set a tone for the game. Porzingis seemed like he was in constant motion and had great energy. He played, quite simply, like a superstar who wanted to make sure his team got into the win column against a crosstown rival that came in with some juice after a big win over the Cavaliers. The Nets embarrassed the Knicks twice in the preseason and Porzingis made sure that wouldn’t be the case when the games counted.
This is all part of his development into becoming a star player. Very impressive.
3. Jarrett Jack was signed just before training camp with the idea that he could, at 34, provide some veteran leadership, experience and guidance to the team. There was some thought that he might not make the final roster and could, instead get into coaching. Four games into the season, he started at point guard and got a wayward Knicks offense set up and executing properly.
Jack played 26 minutes and filled the box score with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal with just one turnover and +11. He did this while the previous starter, Ramon Sessions, was left on the bench for a DNP-CD. Ron Baker was inactive for the game.
Sessions, also an experienced vet, is more of a dribble penetration scorer but the offense had enough issues in Boston for Jeff Hornacek to make a change. Jack did a great job getting the offense set up early and made way for Ntilikina to come in and do the same while also adding defense. It’s the most effective point guard play the Knicks have had so far this season, but, to be fair, they were matched up with a hobbled D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, not Kyrie Irving, Reggie Jackson and Russell Westbrook.
It will be interesting to see what Hornacek does with the lineup for Sunday night’s game in Cleveland. The Cavs, who are still waiting for Isaiah Thomas to get healthy, have recently gone without a traditional point guard on the floor.
4. Enes Kanter was benched in the first half for lackadaisical defense, which opened the door for Willy Hernangomez to get some burn. Hernangomez played with some jam — he got into it with Quincy Acy at one point — and had some decent production. But the player I featured on our boxscore segment in the postgame show was Kyle O’Quinn (4 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block in 18 minutes). His energy off the bench this season has been impressive and, most importantly, consistent.
Another player off the bench who continues to make a case for more playing time is Doug McDermott (12 points, 5 rebounds in 14 minutes). McDermott cuts very well without the ball and seems to get at least one or two easy baskets a game as a result.
5. The Knicks attempted 27 three-pointers in the game. It’s still one shy of the league average per game this season, but at least it’s a huge improvement from the 12 they took in the loss to Boston. I discussed this issue with Al Trautwig in my pregame Knicks Fix segment on MSG Network, as the Knicks entered the game 29th in the NBA in three-point attempts and 30th in the league in three-point percentage.
They’re still struggling to shoot it effectively, as the made just 9 of 27 in the game, but most of the misses came from two players: Porzingis (1-for-6) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (1-for-5). The rest of the team shot a combined 7 for 16 from three (including McDermott’s 2-for-4 and Courtney Lee‘s 3-for-6).
I’ll be watching to see if the Knicks increase their usage of the three-ball as we get deeper into the season. Jeff Hornacek’s teams in Phoenix were among the top 5 in three-point shooting, so we know he sees value in the shot.