Frank Ntilikina has fallen extremely far out of the rotation after a sprained right knee kept him sidelined for 13 straight games, but the 22-year-old Frenchman must remain ready to capitalize if and when Tom Thibodeau ever decides to give him a chance.
Thibs’ reputation preceded him; the coach wants to win the basketball game that’s in front of him, and, unless there’s incontrovertible evidence otherwise, he trusts veterans more than youngsters. Further, Thibodeau only just arrived, so he’s got no loyalty to first round draft picks of years past. Amid that backdrop, Ntilikina hasn’t played a single minute since returning from injury late last month. He’s been a DNP for five consecutive games; the Knicks are 1-4 over that stretch.
But fear not, Frank fans. Ntilikina is most certainly down right now, but he’s not out. The NBA season is long. Given the state of New York’s roster, Frank will almost surely be given an opportunity at some point, even if only because Thibs needs someone to step in due to injury. When that chance comes, Ntilikina needs to grab it.
Everyone knew he was a long-term project when drafted, but four years into his NBA career, Ntilikina has amassed a laundry list of injury issues while failing to compel any of his coaches to give him consistent minutes. To date, Ntilikina has only played in 182 of the 252 total Knicks games that have taken place since he was drafted in 2017. Thus, he’s missed almost 28% of the games in which he could have played. Not all of those missed games were due to injury, but a lot of them were.
Now, Frank’s in the final year of his rookie contract. At the end of this season, if the Knicks haven’t already traded him, they can extend a roughly $8.3 million qualifying offer, which would make him a restricted free agent. Or they could renounce his rights, giving Frank the option to fly away from his cage and onto another franchise via free agency.
It’s kind of crazy that we’ve reached this point with Ntilikina, but here we are. His opportunities in New York are dwindling. Frank must now either force the Knicks to retain him or be tossed onto the free agent market. Here’s the thing. There’s still a role that Ntilikina could earn. On this team. This year.
Elfrid Payton is causing nightly conniptions, and the calls for Immanuel Quickley to take over as starting point guard will only get louder as the rookie continues to astound. Meanwhile, Dennis Smith Jr. was buried so deep on the bench that he chose to be sent to the G-League, where he’ll be able to get some run. Austin Rivers is fine if you like someone who can reliably be counted on to be incredibly inconsistent.
Besides IQ and RJ Barrett, the guard positions are nowhere near set in stone. Ntilikina is out of the rotation for now, but all it takes is one injury and suddenly he could be thrust into a significant role.
Last year, he finished the season with perhaps his finest series of games to date. In his final 10 outings last year, Ntilikina notched 8.4 points, 3.6 assists, 1.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 21 minutes per night while shooting above his career averages for both field goals at large and three pointers (he shot 45% from the field and 33% from deep over those 10 games, compared to career averages of 37% and just under 32%, respectively).
In four games this season, Ntilikina was 6-14 overall (43%) and 5-9 from deep (56%). It looked like he was ready to carve out a nice role as an off-the-bench guy providing defense and maybe some spacing. But then he sprained his knee, and by the time he was healthy, Thibs had found a rotation he liked.
But rotations change. Players get injured. Opportunities arise. To his credit, Frank (as well as teammate Theo Pinson) seem to get this, at least if you believe their Instagram accounts.
With his rookie contract is coming to an end, does Ntilikina have it in him to take back his role and earn a place in the future of the franchise? Only time will tell.