Have you ever noticed that Frank Ntilikina and James Dolan are, in many ways, opposites?
Frank exudes what the youngsters call “drip,” and (with no idea what this means) having seen many pictures of Frank, I wholeheartedly agree. Dolan owns 57 custom made fedoras, including a velvet set of five, in various shades of mauve. Frank’s face is an objective masterpiece of mathematical symmetry and proportion. Dolan resembles a half-inflated balloon with gradually deteriorating standards of facial hair. Frank has a borderline-militant cult following of fans embedded in the fabric of deep-Knicks Twitter. Dolan is berated on a bi-nightly basis by people who pay money to shout at him. Frank is selfless to a fault. Dolan’s ego has 14 moons.
Given this uncanny dualism, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are cosmic counterpoints; playing their respective roles from opposing extremes. Two apparently equivalent organisms running on entirely contrasting operating systems. Hero and Villain. Good and Evil. Defensively-gifted David and musically-challenged Goliath.
This may explain the ever-so-slightly excessive adoration Knick fans feel for Frank, despite wholly misrepresentative career averages of six points, three assists and two rebounds. The explanation, obviously, is that Frank Ntilikina is the spiritual antithesis and organizational counterweight to New York Knicks team owner and omnipotent orchestrator of evil basketball outcomes, Mr. James Dolan.
I consider it no coincidence that Frank — on a Tuesday night in March, against a distinctly below-average Washington Wizards team — produced the best performance of his young NBA career, with a historic statistical line of 20 exquisitely efficient points and 10 deliciously surgical dimes. He is the youngest Knick to flaunt such a line in the storied history of this once-great franchise. It was, admittedly, a meaningless game, which the Knicks lost, against an impressively inept defensive Wizards outfit. But still, history, and timely history, at that.
Just last week, we saw a ridiculous public feud erupt between the Knicks (Read: Dolan) and Knick super-fan Spike Lee. Arena entrances were allegedly improperly used, accusations about the alleged improper use of said entrances made, statements about accusations of the alleged improper use of entrances released. And on and on. I’m sure there are fingers to be pointed and documentaries to be made yet. One day we’ll know the truth. Ultimately though, it was a riveting back and forth about very little in which everybody involved categorically lost.
Spike Lee has been, for the last 20-plus years, an ever present, public, and vocal symbol of the good old days of competitive Knick basketball, and even the hazy memory of championship Knick basketball (we’ll get to that later). And now he’s supposedly “done” with the team (for this season at least). So, it’s timely that, in the wake of this bizarre standoff, the latest in a lengthening line of farcical scenes this season — the ill-fated press conference, David Fizdale generally, Steve Mills generally, and now (at least temporarily) Spike Lee the whistleblower — Frank steps up with the best basketball of his career.
Spike’s momentarily teetering allegiance left a spiritual void which Frank filled beautifully with his unflappable stoicism, resigned and ready in his role, an unlikely folk hero here to counterbalance the blundering fumbles of his villainous opposite. Ntilikina’s career to date is littered with the telltale obstacles of an archetypal hero, obstacles he has quietly navigated, one by one.
Back in 2017, then-Knicks president Phil Jackson controversially drafted Frank eighth overall, partly on the basis of his theoretical fit for a specifically-shaped offensive system which he never got to play in. He was floated as trade flotsam for Eric Bledsoe a handful of games into his rookie year. He had to listen to LeBron James — the most listened-to basketball player in the world — tell the Knicks they should have drafted Dennis Smith Jr. instead of him. He watched Kristaps Porzingis blow out his knee, leaving the roster bereft of high-end talent, and had a front row seat to the Jarrett Jack show for most of his rookie campaign.
His sophomore year, Emmanuel Mudiay took over the placeholder point guard duties from Jack, as Frank somewhat fell victim to his own positional versatility under the tutelage of a positionally-averse Fizdale. He survived the Kristaps Porzingis trade, only to sit out the back end of the season with injuries of his own. Still, he emphatically sent Gregg Popovich and team USA packing whilst representing France at the FIBA World Championships.
Heading into this season, despite unleashing his FIBA Frank alter-ego over the summer, he was still almost traded for a bag of basketballs, as Elfrid Payton was predictably shipped in as this season’s placeholder point guard. Somehow, he stuck around, and has since given Knick fans two of the most memorable performances of a forgettable season. The first against Porzingis, on the road, against a surging Luka Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks. Frank put up a 14-point, six-rebound, four-assist, four-steal and three-block masterpiece in the win, and punctuated it by almost yamming on KP. And then we had Tuesday night against the Wizards. Two significant performances in moments of spiritual significance.
Much is made of the challenge of playing in New York, a challenge that’s daunting for established star players, let alone teenage point guards fresh off the plane from a different continent. Frank will be eligible for a rookie scale extension on the July 1, and if he’s not extended then, will be on track for restricted free agency in 2021.
If he gets an extension, it will be remarkable not only because he’ll break the infamous Charlie Ward curse, as the first Knick rookie to get an extension in more than two decades; but because of his storybook survival in a truly tumultuous four Knick seasons in which even Spike Lee couldn’t make it out unscathed. Frank’s career to date is an elongated act of resistance, and the longer he lasts, the more he resonates with the Knick faithful whose own fandom has that same flavor of resisting the always-impending next Knick failure.
It would also make perfect sense historically. One of the tragic ironies of the Dolan era-Knicks is the franchise’s obsession with chasing stars, which has never been how the best Knick teams were constructed. The great Red Holzman — head coach of the 70s Knicks — led the franchise to its only two championships on the philosophy of selfless team offense and aggressive team defense. Again, two decades later, the Pat Riley-led 90s Knicks came within a whisper of a third title on the back of elbow-dominant elite defense and an offense built around Patrick Ewing in the middle and an array of contributors backing him up. Mostly with elbows.
A lot of people still don’t get exactly what it is about Ntilikina that Knick fans adore. What is it about this seemingly mild-mannered and mediocre point guard?
It’s this remembered sense of city and self, of tough defense and team-first offense, the common principles that perfectly sum up a 21-year-old French kid, as well as the only brand of sustained winning Knick basketball the franchise has ever known. It’s this Knick DNA that drives the folk-hero affection for a flawed and developing point guard becoming an unlikely favorite at Madison Square Garden. It’s the absolute contrast between the refreshing good in Frank and the relentless bad in Dolan.
Who knows how long Ntilikina can last as a Knick. Many hope it’s somewhere in the vicinity of forever. A fairytale ending for a player who lends himself to fairytale narratives. Regardless, could he already be one of the most beloved Knicks this century? It’s an absurd question to even consider, considering he averages a solid six points per game.
But then, it’s never really been about the numbers with Frank. It’s about the way he plays, what he represents, and, perhaps most importantly, who he’s not.