ATLANTA – It could have been perceived as a blessing or curse for Frank Ntilikina when Leon Rose took over for Steve Mills as Knicks team president.
Mills, who as the general manager drafted the French point guard with the No. 8 pick in 2017, had been Ntilikina’s staunchest supporter in the organization.
Rose was Ntilikina’s agent at the time of the draft and is familiar with his history. However, Ntilikina and Rose parted ways before this season, and Ntilikina replaced him with countryman Bouna Ndiaye. Sources said some within Creative Artists Agency were not thrilled at the time.
What to do with the 21-year-old Ntilikina is now one of Rose’s many decisions to make as he takes charge of the Knicks’ future. In training camp, Mills exercised the fourth-year option on Ntilikina’s rookie contract for 2020-21 at a cost of $6.1 million.
Rose is said to be in full evaluation mode, and Ntilikina’s recent surge of aggression will give Rose something to think about as he considers whether to put Ntilikina on the trading block this offseason. The organization still believes they need a starting point guard and is honing in on the position in the 2020 draft.
Ntilikina said he has spoken to Rose since the hiring.
“He really is motivated about our future,’’ Ntilikina said. “We’ve had good conversations that we want to be better.”
On Tuesday in Washington, Ntilikina became the youngest Knick to post a 20-point, 10-assist game, blending a smooth 3-point shot with his newfound ability to get into the paint.
“He’s playing good, man,’’ said Bobby Portis, who made a dynamic bench duo with Ntilikina in the Knicks’ comeback from an early 18-4 deficit. “I told him in the locker room, ‘Keep it up, keep building. We still have 17 games to go, keep building and keep getting better.’ It’s kind of cool to see a guy’s progression throughout the season. Starting the season off and then coming to where he is now, it’s a blessing.”
The knock on Ntilikina has been his reluctance to penetrate to create for others and perhaps for himself. Knicks interim coach Mike Miller pointed out Ntilikina is finally figuring out the nuances.
“I think one of the emphases that I was trying to work on was really being aggressive and still looking for the right play and not settling on playing on the perimeter,” Ntilikina said. “To do that, I watched a lot of film to see where I can do good plays, get good plays for my teammates, for myself and play the right basketball. Watching a lot of film, working on my game is really what I was trying to do and what I will keep on doing.”
There isn’t a doubt Ntilikina is higher on the list than the embattled Dennis Smith Jr., who returned from the concussion protocol Tuesday only to receive a DNP.
Smith’s only edge over Ntilikina has been his ability to get to the basket at will. Now Ntilikina is progressing amid a season that’s seen more groin issues and shooting-percentage woes.
Ntilikina’s field-goal percentage has climbed, though, even if it is a modest 39.9 percent and 32 percent from 3 entering Wednesday’s Hawks contest.
Ntilikina shot 6 of 9 – 3 of 5 from 3-point range – versus the Wizards and is averaging 6.2 points and 3.0 assists for the season. He’s also shooting a team-best 86.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Tuesday, Ntilikina was a plus-17 in his 29 minutes while starting point guard Elfrid Payton was a minus-24.
“He’s seeing the defenses well, he’s really picked up on that,” Miller said of Ntilikina. “He had a pocket he was getting four, five assists, and now he’s getting to the basket. He shoots free throws at such a high level. He’s a smart player to get to the basket and get fouled.”