Frank Ntilikina switched onto Paul George in the final seconds of the first quarter of a game that had already gotten out of hand. George had put up 13 points and the Thunder had 34. The lethargic Knicks, as David Fizdale would later lament, did their part to “donate the first quarter.”
In a season such as this, where there have been only 10 wins through the first 45 games, you have to train yourself to look beyond the scoreboard and search for a distraction, future hope to blur present reality. Ntilikina checking George on that last possession of the first quarter — using quick feet, balance, hip-movement and, most importantly, his long arms – provided that moment of distraction.
Months ago, when the season was new and wore hope like a cozy sweater, Ntilikina spoke with confidence about his potential to become an elite defender. “I have the ability to do it,” he told me. “I have the mentality to do it.”
Yet more than halfway through his second NBA season, Ntilikina has not done that, nor anything else, consistently enough to put his potential into focus. And, as a result, he may be the most polarizing player among Knicks fans and media. Some believe, with the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaching, he should be traded — maybe paired with a veteran in a salary dump scenario — before his value as a former lottery pick diminishes. Others think he should be starting and allowed to make mistakes and learn just like 19-year-old Kevin Knox is afforded.
Then there is the argument about role. If he’s a point guard, he doesn’t organize an offense well enough and he doesn’t attack enough. If he’s that elite defender, we don’t see enough moments like that eye-opening possession against an all-star like Paul George. For instance: why wasn’t he used against Caris LeVert on that final possession in Brooklyn back in October? And why wasn’t he on the court for the final defensive possession against the Wizards in London?
Fizdale is blamed by some for stunting Ntilikina’s growth by how he’s used him this season, from wing to guard to, at times, benched. But when you listen to Fizdale talk about Ntilikina, you hear a coach who is trying to slow down the urge by others to accelerate the process for a young player who came into the NBA without a lot of high-level basketball experience in Europe.
Before this game, Fizdale said the plan is to “keep him at that backup point guard spot” and added that the goal is to “see if we can keep growing him as a defender.” Other areas Ntilikina need to improve are in organizing the offense — which basically means getting the team into their plays and executing them with pace — and becoming a more consistent scoring threat.
He likes Ntilikina in that second unit role with Allonzo Trier in the backcourt because Trier has a score-first mentality and has a lot of work to do to become a better defender. The two combined for 13 assists, with Trier recording a career-high 8 dimes, but neither shot the ball particularly well. Ntilikina was 4 for 12 from the field and Trier was 3 for 8 (more on him soon). Defensively, Ntilikina had one steal and a couple very good moments in one-on-one coverages, which also included a few stops against Russell Westbrook.
But this is when you start to wonder if you’re spending the entire game looking for reasons to believe, rather than watching with an unbiased eye. A year and a half into his career and it still seems we’re all trying to figure out what Frank Ntilikina is at the NBA level.
For most young players, it’s pretty obvious. Potential shows. Despite Kevin Knox having another off game (8 points), you can see flashes of a scorer. Despite Mitchell Robinson making simple mistakes, you can see how often he impacts the game on defense and his activity around the rim.
But Ntilikina’s game is a lot more subtle and may be almost impossible to project on a team like this, according to Fizdale.
“I think he’s a team player,” Fizdale said. “He’s one of those ‘glue’-type players . . . Ultimately to win, you need guys who can do all the other stuff, too. That’s what he does.”
Fizdale later went on to say once Ntilikina is with “reliable, solid defenders” his talent as a defender will then show. But his talent as a defender shows when he has those opportunities to guard another team’s top player. Ntilikina tends to get screened off the ball many times that he doesn’t get those opportunities.
The next game poses another chance for one of those moments, with James Harden coming in with the Rockets.
– Trier may not have shot the ball well (3 for 8) but he did attack the paint and got to the line (10 for 10). Along with his career-high 8 assists was 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals in 30 minutes, which followed up 13 points against the Wizards in London. The rookie looks like he’s getting his legs back under him after the hamstring injury. “I’m really happy to see that,” Fizdale said. “When he first got back from the injury, he was struggling a little bit and I was struggling to find ways to get him loose.” The coaching staff has been working with Trier on becoming more aware when he drives the ball and not have tunnel vision to the rim. The eight assists was a good sign of a player who wasn’t looking to force shots like earlier in the season. “That says a lot for a guy who really looks to score,” Fizdale said. “He’s really concentrating on getting his teammates the ball.”
– Luke Kornet played just 7 minutes after he suffered an ankle injury that could keep him out for some time. Before the game, Fizdale acknowledged that the plan was to devote the bulk of playing time at the center position to Kornet and Mitchell Robinson, which meant Enes Kanter would be the odd man out. But once Kornet went down, Kanter moved back up the depth chart and played 19 minutes. It’s frustrating for Kanter, who, as a pending unrestricted free agent, wants to play. It’s also frustrating for the Knicks, who have been waiting to develop the tandem of Kornet and Robinson (8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal and 6 fouls in 16 minutes) at the center spot.
– The Knicks have not won at Madison Square Garden since Dec. 1. This made it 9 straight losses at home, which is their longest home losing streak in four years. It was during the 2014-15 season that the Knicks set the franchise mark for most consecutive losses at home: 12. They face the Rockets next and play six of their next eight games at the Garden.