The alarm sirens that had been sounding surrounding the benching of Frank Ntilikina seem somewhat muted in the aftermath of the Frenchman’s brilliant performance against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, and though the question of whether it was smart to sideline Ntilikina at all still stands, there’s no denying that the early returns are exactly what head coach David Fizdale was hoping for.
The New York Knicks have played pretty much exactly the way they were expected to coming into this season, which is to say that the team is not good. In fact, they are quite bad, and their current record of 8-20 is fifth worst in the league. That poor record, combined with Fizdale’s recent decision to bench Ntilikina for three consecutive games, caused Knicks fans fits, and led to a whole bunch of speculation that the 20-year-old was about to be traded.
Fizdale, perhaps rightfully, has received some ridicule for his idea that taking away minutes from young players might motivate them to play with more of an edge when they finally see the floor again. Unfortunately for angry fans, but fortunately for the team at large, Fizdale’s philosophy actually seems to have worked a little bit.
Before Frank felt Fizdale’s wrath, there was Damyean Dotson, who through the first nine games of the season was scoring a respectable 13.2 points on 45 percent shooting (including 34 percent from beyond the arc). He hit a lull, however, and over the next six games scored only 5.3 points on 37 percent shooting (25 percent from three). Fizdale responded by tying him to the bench for four games. In the seven games since he was re-inserted into the lineup, Dotson has put up 14.3 points a game and is shooting a blistering 55 percent from the field (51 percent from three). If Dotson can consistently hit those post-benching numbers, he can be a rotation player on a good team for years to come.
Then there’s the case of Trey Burke, who last year both looked and played enough like former Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson that numerous Knicks fans wondered whether he might be The Answer to the point guard woes that have haunted the Knicks for years. Through his first 11 games this season, though, Burke averaged only 9.5 points on 41 percent from the field (35 percent from three) and 3.4 assists. That led to Fizdale benching Burke in three out of four games. Upon the conclusion of his banishment, Burke burst out of the gate, scoring 24, 31, 19 and 29 in his first four games, respectively. Overall, in the eight games he played in once he got back into the action but before hurting his knee, Burke averaged 24 minutes per game, scoring 17.3 points on 45 percent shooting (41 percent from three) and adding 2.8 assists. Not bad for a backup point guard of the future, just saying.
Now we move to Ntilikina. Through the first 12 games of the season, Ntilikina — aside from a few clunkers — was playing pretty well. In 27.8 minutes per game, he was posting 8.1 points on 36 percent from the field (30 percent from three), 3.8 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but the thing with Ntilikina is that he always looks to make the right play, even when you sometimes want him to do something selfish, and whenever you watch him play it just feels like he’s making a positive impact on the team.
However, Frank fell off a cliff. He played in 11 more games before being benched, and as his play steadily dropped, so did his minutes. In those 11 contests, Ntilikina averaged 18.1 minutes per game, scoring 3.5 points on 28 percent shooting (17 percent from three), plus 1.5 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 0.5 steals. Gross.
Fizdale decided to do with Ntilikina what he had done with Dotson and Burke, to the dismay of fans and media across New York. If the Dotson and Burke benchings had a handful of fans up in arms, the Frank exile had a horde of hands clamoring for answers. Frank is only 20-years-old, everyone said. He makes the team around him better, everyone said. He should be allowed to play through his struggles, everyone said.
Everyone may have been right, but there’s no question that Ntilikina has played with more gusto in the two games Fizdale has allowed him to play in since the original benching. Truth be told, it seemed like Fizdale may have wanted to sit Ntilikina for another game or two, but the noise got so loud that he decided to free Frank from his shackles this past Saturday, giving him almost 16 minutes of playing time in the second half against the Brooklyn Nets. In those meager minutes, Ntilikina had 7 points on 3-6 shooting and 3 assists. He broke out Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets, scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting (4-4 from three! Hooray!) and dolling out 1 assist before fouling out.
Perhaps Frank was motivated by it being French Heritage Night at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps it was the fact that he was playing against one of his heroes, a fellow Frenchman named Tony Parker. Perhaps it was simply Frank attempting to show Fizdale that he doesn’t deserve to be benched. Perhaps it was all of the above. Regardless of the specific reason, Ntilikina went off, and Knicks fans are hoping that Fizdale now recognizes that the kid must play.
You can certainly question whether all these benchings are necessary, and if such a motivational tactic really works when it comes to players that have already made it to the NBA, but Fizdale is the coach, not you, so questioning it is literally the only thing you are able to do. For now, Fizdale has gotten the results he so desires, and we can only hope that Frank’s minutes will start to inch upwards.
Maybe someday soon he’ll get to play in the first half, and hopefully he’ll re-earn the starting point guard position by the time Kristaps Porzingis is ready to return to the court. Now that he’s back in the lineup, It’s up to Ntilikina, and Ntilikina alone, to continue playing with the spark that Fizdale may have helped light.