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This week in Knicks history: Frank Ntilikina is born

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A day that will go down in the history books.

The French Prince? More like King.
Wikipedia

Frank Ntillikina is polarizing because he plays exemplary defense but struggles to string together consistent offensive showings, but one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that the Knicks’ resident Frenchman was born 22 years ago this week.

Ntilikina was 18 when the Knicks selected him 8th overall in 2017 and had turned 19 by the time he stepped on an actual NBA court. Though he was drafted as a long-term project, Knicks fans quickly became enamored with Ntilikina due to his intense defensive prowess and the fearlessness with which he stood up to a bully named LeBron James.

Alas, the shooting struggles he displayed early on in his career have mostly remained (he’s improved ever so slightly but is still not very good), as have his limited minutes (he averaged almost 22 minutes per game as rookie compared to 20.8 this year). Despite his meager career statistics to date — 6 points (37% from the field, 31% from deep), 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal per game — you won’t have to look far to find a legion of Frank stans willing to spend hours explaining why the counting stats don’t account for all the ways in which Ntilikina impacts the game.

But this isn’t a post arguing why Ntilikina is mostly a net positive when he’s on the court. It’s a post celebrating that he was born 22 years ago, on July 28, 1998. The Yankees were in the midst of a historic season, President Bill Clinton was dealing with his impeachment scandal, and mankind was starting to worry about Y2K.

Clinton Speech After Impeachment
No longer the most recent president to be impeached.
Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Baby Frank didn’t care about any of that. All that mattered to him was being fed and getting sleep. The sun probably seemed way too bright.

Born in Belgium to Rwandan parents who had dealt with the 1994 genocide and escaped to Strasbourg, France to safely raise a family, Frank began honing his basketball skills early on, playing with his brothers at a park near his house called La Citadelle, according to this 2017 profile from The New Yorker.

In that same profile, Frank’s childhood coach explained that even as an 11-year-old he had a strong work ethic.

“He worked a lot. When he missed a lot of shots, he got to the playground after practice and worked alone.”

“Which playground?” I ask.

“The Citadelle! At the Citadelle, he played very free, but in practice he was very rigorous. My philosophy when working with young players is to give them a sense of pleasure in working. Frank’s values, I saw it in his eyes from the first day. We begin the first practices and you tell him, ‘Go to this line,’ and he goes. And when he plays in a game he immediately uses what you taught him. But he uses it in a way that makes it his own.”

“Not a lot of young players have this ability to combine what you tell them with the ability to improvise. Not a lot of young players can do that.”

Because he’s been in the league for three seasons now, it’s easy to overlook just how young Ntilikina still is. If he had come to America as a teenager and gone to college for four years, he could very well be getting ready to begin his rookie season in the NBA. When Patrick Ewing was traded to the Seattle Supersonics, Ntilikina was just over two years old. When the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, Frank was 13. The last time the Knicks won the championship, Ntilikina was still a quarter century away from being born.

Seattle Supersonics v Charlotte Hornets
Can’t forget history because then we’ll repeat the mistakes.

Ntilikina has had a strong family to lean on as he’s been dangled in trade rumors and discussed with disdain by doubters. He used to watch the NBA All-Star festivities from France in the middle of the night with his two older brothers, Yves and Brice, according to this 2018 story from Newsday. Yves and Brice are 12 and 10 years older than Frank, respectively.

In that Newsday story, it’s revealed that Frank’s love for the game of basketball dates all the way back to when he was a toddler.

“He started with us when he was 2 or 3 years old,” Brice said in a phone interview. “He could barely carry the big ball. When we went on to play for teams in Strasbourg, he was always there in the background. Basketball was just always a big part of life for him.”

Basketball remains a big part of life for Frank today, but instead of the park near his house in France, his home court is Madison Square Garden. He’s currently signed through next season, meaning he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer unless the Knicks agree to extend his deal before then.

Though the previous front office didn’t seem as smitten by Frank as some Knicks fans, there is hope for multiple reasons. First, the team’s new president of basketball operations, Leon Rose, used to be Frank’s agent. Second, the team’s new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, appreciates players who work hard on defense.

Here’s hoping that this time next year, we’re celebrating not just another birthday for Frank, but a standout season in which he has cemented himself as part of the franchise’s present and future. Vive le Frank, and happy birthday.