It was just one game, just 22 minutes off the bench.
But for a fanbase starving for hope, it was all they needed from Frank Ntilikina.
In his Garden debut on Friday, Frank Ntilikina received a nice ovation from the crowd when he was subbed out following his first rotation. Another round of applause followed when he was at the scorer’s table for an encore. There were no points from Ntilikina during that initial seven-minute stretch, but there were enough glimpses to give credence to that giant billboard of the Frenchman hovering over Penn Station.
“He’s going to be able to get triple-doubles,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “That’s what type of player he is.”
Ntilikina, just 19 years old with a face that makes him look 15, finished with nine points, five assists, two boards and the Knicks outscored the Nets by 10 when he was on the court. The most encouraging part was the unexpectedness of the performance.
After sitting out all of Summer League and all but two games in preseason and regular season because of injuries, such command of the offense seemed improbable. Moreover, there remains hesitancy about embracing a player whose highest level of competition was as a role player in the French league.
But Ntilikina not only looked like he belonged, he flashed real potential for running the show. There was a slick pass to Kyle O’Quinn for an open dunk, and a jumper Ntilikina buried after creating space off the dribble.
These may seem like ordinary NBA activities, but they’re also two plays of rare occurrence from the Knicks in October. Until Friday, the point-guard play had been abysmal.
“We got the win, so that’s what’s most important,” said Ntilikina, who is still in the phase of regurgitating platitudes during interviews.
The opposing guards Friday night — Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell — aren’t exactly world beaters. But there’s a lot of significance attached to Ntilikina becoming a stabilizing force at the position. In the draft, the Knicks passed up on Dennis Smith Jr. More recently, they declined to make Ntilikina available in a trade for Eric Bledsoe.
“We brought him in to develop him,” Jeff Hornacek said. “When he doesn’t have the injuries, he’s a smart kid. You tell him once, he’s got the plays.”
The Knicks will get a reminder Sunday night against Cleveland of their last two failed attempts to fill the point guard position with Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon both on the opposing roster. In all, five former Knicks play for the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
However, given an ankle injury to Rose, LeBron James has been starting at point guard. Still the backup behind Jarrett Jack, Ntilikina may not see very many one-on-one opportunities against the best player on the planet.
At this stage in his development, that’s probably a good thing. But at least now there’s encouraging evidence of Ntilikina’s potential in the NBA.
“Of course I was sad to be off the court these last games,” he said. “Coming in here I just wanted to bring what I can bring to my team. Like I said I’m going to work more for the next game, for the next couple games, to elevate our level and that’s what we’re all going to do just to improve.”
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