Frank Ntilikina racked up three straight DNPs, even on this tanking team with no immediate ambitions. The Knicks are a buffalo carcass out in the plains, and trade whispers flitted around like flies. It was uncomfortably easy to envision the Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick, who is still a basketball infant, getting shipped out the door before he’d even had a chance. That might still happen, but at least it’ll look a tiny bit stupider and rasher after Sunday night’s loss to the Hornets. A career-high 18-point spurt finally showcased what the Frenchman can do on offense when he has a dose of self-belief.
Ntilikina has mostly been a lost soul on that side of the floor. He can be sluggish and deferential off the dribble, and not much a threat off it, because his mechanically smooth-looking jumper has yet to do anything but pass the eye test. Even someone clouded by irrational love of Frank could not tell a lie: He’s been butt, and he was making it hard to hold out hope. He’s shot a dire 35.9 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from three thus far in the season, and through the first eight minutes of last night’s game, he remained 0-for-2 with no rebounds or assists, raising early concerns that he was headed for another 15 trillion box score line. But in the second half, Ntilikina looked a changed man, intent on making the next 12 minutes count before he fouled out. “Aggression,” broadly construed, is what head coach David Fizdale appears to prize above all else in his guard rotation, and it’s what he’s emphasized most with this Ntilikina project. That might explain why Frank channeled his inner Tim Hardaway Jr. for those minutes.
Ntilikina can, at times, look embarrassed by the very prospect of hunting for his own look. But every time he touched the ball last night, this man was looking to eat. He used shot fakes to wriggle past closeouts and open up easy mid-rangers. Whenever he caught the ball outside the arc with a foot or two of space he let it fly, sinking all four of his attempts. In his best two-way sequence of the game, he hung his long frame over a slashing Kemba Walker, engulfed the lay-up with perfect footwork, then streaked right back down the court to fill the left corner and splash the transition three. On Madison Square Garden’s “French Heritage Night,” here was a measure of self-reliance and crisp decision-making that was uncommon for the 20-year-old.
All of Ntilikina’s makes came from 14 feet and out, but he tried a few times to sink into the paint, addressing what might be the most glaring deficiency in his on-ball repertoire. If he could get himself to the free-throw line even a little bit, he’d allay a lot of concerns. And though his finishing at the rim remains a little suspect, it was oddly life-affirming just to see him speed downhill off the pick-and-roll, punishing the switch for once. He took it right to a desperately backpedaling Frank Kaminsky and deserved both of these points:
This Frank was robbed due to that Frank’s flop job; that bogus foul call plus a handful of others ended the Frenchman’s night before he could break the 20-point mark or cool back down to room temperature. Frank Heritage Night will just have to be have to be a self-contained little capsule of offensive anomaly, a reel the front office should watch carefully before doing anything impulsive. In all, it was the best possible outcome for management and fan base alike, with all the incentives lining up: rookie Kevin Knox also went off for 26 and 15, Frank replenished his confidence, and the team lost by 12, “improving” to 8-20. Ntilikina was fist-pumping and mean-mugging; Fizdale was raucously slapping his back.
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It’d be mind-boggling to trade or bury a player who is still the 16th youngest player in the league, who in his rookie season defended the pick-and-roll ball handler more stingily than any other player, who paired well with franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis—which should really be the guiding framework behind all decisions—and who’ll be on contract for two more years, just because some of the reclamation projects look fleetingly interesting. Though it would be the most cosmically Knicks move possible, please don’t give up on all that to get fucking John Wall.