Three games into his third season, Frank Ntilikina remains sidelined despite trouble at the point guard position in New York.
There were very few positive talking points from the New York Knicks’ home opener to the Celtics. That left a lot of talking points to be filled in by the fans and media alike, and no talking point had more buzz than the continuous conversation about the Knicks’ point guard competition.
This materialized in the worst way possible in the home opener, with Dennis Smith Jr. firmly in the backup role after head coach David Fizdale declared it a fluid situation. Frank Ntilikina was handed only 18 seconds of playing time going into halftime, even in the blowout loss, on the final possession of the second quarter.
With Smith continuing his early season struggles, the Garden crowd expressed their displeasure with him in the form of boos and gave explicit advice to Knicks coaching staff with chants of “We want Frank” as the fourth quarter neared.
When asked about the reaction after the game, Ntilikina came to the aid of his teammate, saying “It’s never good to hear boos for you or your teammates.” The 21-year-old French guard showed a positive attitude in a situation where he would have had every right to stand up for himself.
Ntilikina, who has not been given the opportunity many fans had hoped for to start his third NBA season, has a very divisive and vocal segment of the fan base. After his impressive FIBA performance this summer, Ntilikina’s supporters vocalized even louder and more hopeful that he could still become the point guard of the future.
David Fizdale on fans chanting for Frank Ntilikina in the third quarter: “Our fans are passionate. They know what they want, they know what they like.” He said those chants don’t change his mindset as a coach but says Ntilikina will get his opportunity.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) October 27, 2019
When Fizdale was asked about the situation, he made it a point of emphasis to defend the fan base—which is probably smart, considering how no small segment of fans feels about him currently. He went on to say that Ntilikina will get his opportunity and be ready for it.
While it remains to be seen if Fizdale will make any adjustments to his rotations, he has remained steady in his commitment to giving opportunities he feels players have earned. After all the complaints regarding his rotations just three games into the season, Fizdale’s words will soon be put to the test.
Fizdale has repeatedly stated he is going to be flexible and his rotations fluid this year, especially at the point guard position. He has shown as much by mixing and matching guards on the roster, including an emphasis on Point Barrett, who Fizdale said he wants to give opportunities as a playmaker. Allonzo Trier and the rookie out of Duke add another layer to the point guard conversation; Fizdale does seem set on giving them both minutes as the primary ball-handler, which are minutes that could be given to Ntilikina.
Meanwhile, Elfrid Payton has established himself as the clear cut number-one option at point guard, averaging nearly 10 points and five assists through three games and showing the ability to control the offense when he is on the court. He is playing 27 minutes a game thus far, which is the fourth-highest on the team.
Compared to Payton, the backup point-guard minutes have not been so concrete. Smith is playing nearly nine minutes a game, but has only shot 1-of-11 from the field and struggled on both sides of the ball. While it’s still early, and it’s clear that Fizdale wants to remain positive about Smith and continue to give him chances, fans have been less patient.
Ntilikina has averaged around six points, three assists, and two rebounds thus far in his young career, in 20 minutes per game. He has developed the reputation as a defensive stalwart, guarding top guards in the NBA as well as internationally.
It appears as if Ntilikina will experience a regression in his role after playing double-digit minutes in his first two seasons; he has seen just four minutes through the first three games. While Fizdale said he will keep Ntilikina “in his pocket,” and implied that he will use him as a defensive specialist, that is still to be determined. In Saturday’s loss to the Celtics where guard Kemba Walker dominated the game and the Knicks appeared to have nobody to stop him, Ntilikina was nowhere to be seen.