New York Knicks: Frank Ntilikina is stealing more than just passes

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Frank Ntilikina is the man for the New York Knicks at point guard, and there is little reason for him to lose this job after Friday’s game.

Did the New York Knicks just solve their point guard problem? Frank Ntilikina will hope so, after the best game of his career on Friday, Nov. 8, against the Dallas Mavericks. With 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks, it was the performance Knicks fans awaited all career long for this 21-year-old guard.

Ntilikina fell into this starting point guard opportunity. Dennis Smith Jr. departed the Knicks for his stepmother’s passing, and Elfrid Payton suffered a strained hamstring. By the process of elimination, it left coach David Fizdale with the only other player at this position.

The lead-up

Ntilikina only saw significant time in five of the team’s previous eight games, as he barely appeared in the first three that opened the season. Of course, that only happened once Smith Jr. took a leave of absence, but the old sports mantra is “next man up.”

Shortly afterward, Payton went down, so Ntilikina stepped in. His offensive impact was not grand against Chicago, without a point on 0-for-6 shooting. Still, Fizdale found time for the Frenchman, praising his defense after the team’s first win of the season, per Newsday:

"“Fantastic. Frank’s minutes — it didn’t matter,” Fizdale said after the game. “His minutes were fantastic. He guarded. He set the tone defensively. He made some nice plays to set people up. He got us organized. The shots will fall for him. The thing I’m proud of is how he kept himself ready. Like I knew he was. Every day he wasn’t playing, he was in the gym getting a sweat going. ‘Just let me know coach, I’m ready when you need me.’ I was really proud of his effort.”"

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From there, that much-discussed confidence developed for Ntilikina. His next four matchups featured 7.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 block per game on 48.1 percent shooting and 40.0 percent (2.5 attempts) on three-pointers. Not otherworldly numbers, but making shots kept him on the court.

Friday’s game

Then came Friday’s win over Dallas, as Ntilikina went beyond just scoring an occasional basket to maintain on-court value.

In 37 minutes, the Frenchman had the aforementioned scoring line, but with four made three-pointers. For a player maligned for his poor outside shooting these past few years, this was a breakout, eye-opening game. The defensive effort cannot be forgotten, either.

However, everyone knew Ntilikina’s skills at the other end of the court, and that made the offensive numbers stand out.

It could just be a one-night-only performance, but Ntilikina has now shot 46.2 percent over the past five games, making Fizdale’s eventual playing-time decision more difficult than expected. Payton and Smith Jr. are both behind, and while seeing them find some playing time is expected, they are not guaranteed anything beyond a brief look, especially if Ntilikina sustains this play.

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What’s next?

Ntilikina’s next matchups with the New York Knicks come against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls. Fizdale, obviously, still has to announce starting lineups, but the third-year man belongs as the point guard Sunday and should have leeway moving forward.