Frank Ntilikina

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Knicks waive Ramon Sessions, to sign Trey Burke for season

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Ramon Sessions started the first three games of the Knicks season, and after that has barely been seen or heard. Jarrett Jack has been a stabilizing veteran presence at the point, and Frank Ntilikina is the present and future at that position, showing real promise as a rookie.

With that, the Knicks are releasing Sessions and taking a flyer on Trey Burke at the point.

Burke is a score-first point guard who washed out both in Utah (he was third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2014 because he could score, but his game never evolved), then as a backup with the Wizards.

However, playing for Westchester in the G-League this season Burke has been impressive — and more well rounded, according to sources. He is averaging 26.6 points, 5.3 assists and is shooting 41.6 percent from three. He told CBSSports (via the NY Post) that he had to re-invent himself.

“I had to look myself in the mirror and be real with myself,” Burke told CBS. “I had to kind of stop lying to myself about I should be here, I should be this, this team should put me in this position when I wasn’t doing everything necessary to put myself in that position.”

“I am a playmaker naturally,” Burke said. “Guys ask, ‘Are you a point guard? Are you a shooting guard?’ I believe I am a point guard and a shooting guard. I believe I’m both: a combo guard, you might say. I believe I can run a team as a point guard, though, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

A lot of players who were college stars have a tough adjustment to being an NBA role player, but if Burke got his head around that he’s halfway there.

Rumor: Mavericks pre-draft courtship of Frank Ntilikina was ‘ruse’

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A photo of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and president Donnie Nelson with Frank Ntilikina made the rounds – aided by the Mavericks themselves – before the draft:

Word leaked Ntilikina’s coach in France would coach Dallas summer-league team:

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Yet it was all something of a ruse. That whole time Dallas was growing infatuated with Smith

If it were a ruse, it worked. The Knicks drafted Ntilikina No. 8, and Dennis Smith Jr. fell to the Mavericks at No. 9.

Vincent Collet never coached the Mavericks’ summer-league team. They hired Smith’s college coach at North Carolina State, Mark Gottfried, as a scout, though.

Either guard could have the better career, but both before the draft and currently, I’d take Smith over Ntilikina. (LeBron James agrees.)

So, did Dallas pull a fast one?

Cuban, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“Not a stunt at all,” Cuban wrote Friday. “We like Frank quite a bit. If Dennis had been selected there was a very good chance we would have taken Frank.”

Take Cuban’s denial for what it’s worth – something, but not everything.

Maybe he’s telling the truth. Ntilikina would have been a reasonable pick at No. 9 (just as he was a reasonable pick at No. 8). If the Mavericks tricked the Knicks, Cuban might take a victory lap.

But maybe Cuban doesn’t want to offend Ntilikina or his agent by acknowledging they’d been used. Or maybe Cuban doesn’t want to reveal tricks that would make future Dallas subterfuge less effective.

Cuban and the Mavericks could have just been playing their Ntilikina interest straight all along. But if they were misdirecting, there’s at least some incentive to keep it up.

Five things to watch in NBA on Christmas Day

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For many fans, Christmas Day is the unofficial start of the NBA season. Forget the fact that things are kind of already decided — last year 13 of the 16 NBA teams that made the playoffs were already in that position, the season before it was 14 out of 16 — this is the day many fans start really paying attention to the NBA because football is winding down. So what should you be watching for on Christmas Day? We’re going to help you out with five things to keep an eye on.

1) Joel Embiid vs. Kristaps Porzingis: Battle of the modern big men. First, a plea to the basketball gods: Please let them play. Both played in their team’s most recent games, but in both cases the teams are understandably thinking about the long term and being cautious rather than just throwing them out there injured to win a December game. Whether or not Embiid plays for the Sixers may determine just how entertaining this game is: When Embiid is on the court the Sixers play at the level of a 56 win team, but when he is off the court they play at the level of a 24 win team (by net rating). He matters that much to them.

Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are must watch because they epitomize how the modern NBA big man is evolving — when teams talk about “going small” it doesn’t have to be literally smaller. It’s about the style of play. If you’ve got a 7-footer who can step out and stretch the floor on offense, who is athletic enough to switch on defense and cover a guard on the pick-and-roll, plus get back and defend the rim, then you are playing “small.” Embiid and Porzingis can both do those things. Both have become the face of the franchise and cornerstone building blocks in the “small ball era” because of the versatility of their skills. And both are incredibly hard to defend.

Embiid is ahead on the growth curve right now because he is a bigger force defensively, plus he is more able to punish smaller defenders in the post. Porzingis is better as a threat from three, he and Frank Ntilikina have developed a good pick-and-pop chemistry that will be hard for the Sixers to defend.

Rarely will they be matched up on each other (keep an eye on Kyle O'Quinn, who should get a lot of run for New York) but watch them play and see the future of the big man in the NBA.

2) The Cavaliers vs. Warriors rivalry continues. LeBron James is among those who have said Cavs/Warriors isn’t a rivalry. Um, yes it is — you meet three straight seasons in the NBA Finals and it’s a rivalry. End of discussion.

Both of these teams are once again near the top of their respective conferences while not playing terribly focused basketball so far this season — both understand their season really starts mid-April. Also, both teams will be without a star guard: Stephen Curry is still out for the Warriors (right ankle sprain), and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will make his debut in the Cavaliers uniform later in the week but not on Christmas day.

Not that this game is lacking star power. LeBron James, playing at an MVP level this season while carrying a ridiculous workload, will be looking to measure where his team stacks up against the bar every team in the NBA is trying to clear. Kevin Durant has been the focal point since Curry went down, averaging 32.3 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game (all while playing the best defense of his career). Then there is Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Dwyane Wade all suiting up in this one.

What makes this matchup an especially tantalizing mid-season game is these teams know each other and the scouting reports so well. Most NBA games teams might tweak their defense — “go under the pick vs. this point guard” — or try to massage their rotation a little for matchups, but basically, in the regular season they play their game. Teams are who they are. Come the playoffs there can be significant adjustments to take advantage of weaknesses or matchups — because the Warriors and Cavaliers know each other so well we will see far more of the chess match. They know the scouting reports and can fall back on them in a way they cannot against most teams during the season.

Plus, both these teams know this could well be a Finals preview again. It’s not a statement game, but winning can be a confidence boost (especially for the Cavaliers).

3) Houston’s offense vs. Oklahoma City’s defense. The Houston Rockets don’t just have the best offense in the NBA this season — 113.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com — but they are on pace to have the best offense in NBA history. They have been insanely good.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it is the reason that while their “you take a turn, then I take a turn” offense has stumbled to start the season, the Thunder are now three games over .500 and the five seed in the West.

In a matchup of strengths, who comes out on top? The Thunder can throw Paul George and Andre Roberson at James Harden as defenders, with Steven Adams patrolling the paint behind them. The ball will be in Harden’s hands a lot, without Chris Paul the Rockets have become the Harden show again (he had two 51-point games in a row). The Rockets are jacking up a historic-pace of 43.1 threes per game (hitting 37.1 percent as a team) and the Thunder are not particularly good at chasing opposing teams off the arc — if Houston gets clean looks they will win this game.

In reality, this game may be won by which is better between the Rockets defense (which has been top 10 in the NBA this season but terrible in two recent losses) or the Thunder offense (which has been better lately, with more Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony accepting an off-the-ball role). The improving Thunder — winners of four in a row — may also come in with a chip on their shoulder, seeing this as a chance to make a “we are who you thought we were before the season” statement.

But the fun part watching is how the Thunder defense lines up when Harden has the ball.

4) The symphony of Boston’s team play (not just Kyrie Irving). This is just another game for Kyrie Irving, because Christmas is not really a holiday to him, it’s just another day for a televised game. Whatevs.

Irving is getting all the hype — and early MVP talk in some quarters — but Boston is the ultimate team this season. The Celtics are no one-man show, they are a unit with Brad Stevens pulling all the right strings. Their defensive switching is sublimely smooth and beautiful, and Al Horford is having his best defensive season, serving as a backstop in the paint and a guy who can contest a little on the perimeter. Jaylen Brown has been fantastic defensively, as has Marcus Smart, and the Celtics switch just about everything. Washington will force them to do just that with lots of picks, but Boston’s defense is deep with smart players.

On offense, Irving is playing within the system (most of the time), and Horford’s jack-of-all-trades game plays brilliantly in this offense. Jayson Tatum is getting open looks, and to his credit, the rookie is not hesitating to pull the trigger — he has a ridiculously good 49.5 percent three-point shooting percentage, and his true shooting percentage is 64.6. That’s incredible for a perimeter player (or even a guy who gets his shots at the bucket). Boston moves the ball, moves off the ball, and gets clean looks.  Watch Boston and enjoy the NBA’s best team this season.

5) Will Lakers show Timberwolves what grit looks like? Minnesota is 19-13 on the season, they are loaded with young talent led by Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the fifth best offense in the NBA, and they are on pace to break a playoff draught that dates back to when “Hollaback Girl” was just released (the longest in the NBA).

Still, Minnesota feels like a mirage, a team not as good as their talent or record (they have played the second easiest schedule in the league so far). They have the 25th ranked defense in the NBA and Towns — despite his world of talent and potential — is disinterested on that end of the court. The Timberwolves are getting wins because coach Tom Thibodeau is running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins is third in the NBA in minutes played, Towns seventh, and Jimmy Butler is 14th. There are rumors all over the league of friction between Thibodeau and his young stars.

Christmas Day the Timberwolves take on a Lakers team that is also is young, not quite as talented, but plays hard every night for coach Luke Walton, defends, and shows grit. The Lakers have shown the heart Minnesota lacks. The Lakers have been playing better lately as Lonzo Ball’s decision making and shooting are showing more confidence, as Brandon Ingram is developing into a dangerous scoring threat, and as Kyle Kuzma keeps scoring like a guy who belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Los Angels gets a lot out of guys like Josh Hart and Julius Randle, and Larry Nance Jr. is a keeper and a draft steal by the Lakers. Walton trusts his young players, goes deep into his bench every game, and has the Lakers with the seventh best defense in the NBA this season (although it has had a couple stumbles of late).

Who wins out, the more talented team with the franchise player, or the team playing more as a unit and with more grit? It makes an interesting desert to a strong NBA lineup on Christmas Day.

Frank Ntilikina finding his comfort zone in New York

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If there is one word to describe Frank Ntilikina’s first few months in the NBA, it’s adjusting.

Last season he was playing in the French league as a two guard, working a lot more off the ball. This season he’s the Knicks point guard coach Jeff Hornacek trusts with the ball in his hands at the end of games. Last season he was living in Strasbourg, a city of less than 300,000 in the Alsace region of France, just miles from the German border and a long way away from Paris. This season he’s living in the ultimate big city, New York.

Ntilikina is adjusting. Finding his comfort level.

“I’m obviously more comfortable on that court these last games, but I still feel I can do more now and keep working on my game to be even more comfortable,” Ntilikina told NBC Sports.

What has evolved for him as the season has worn on is he started to trust himself and his basketball instincts. Like every NBA rookie, Ntilikina — the No. 8 pick of the Knicks last June — had moments of doubt and was struggling to find his way. However, veteran Jarrett Jack saw the potential in practice and told Ntilikina to trust his gut on the court and just be himself.

“I was thinking, maybe, too much, a little too much before, so (Jack) helped me, gave me a lot of advice on how to play, just without thinking,” Ntilikina said. “He saw me playing as myself, so he understands it, and after a little taste of it I feel more comfortable.”

He’s adjusting off the court, too.

“It’s been different. Obviously the culture is different, but the transition was easy,” Ntilikina said. “I had a couple of people who helped me get adjusted to the lifestyle. Then on the court, good teammates, like I said before Jarrett Jack, but all my teammates helped me make that transition to the NBA.”

One of those transitions was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before games. It’s an NBA trend, one that doesn’t exactly show up on the training tables in France.

Ntilikina also wanted to be more involved in the community, so he is helping The Boys & Girls Clubs of America raise money, promoting the fact every time anyone uses #PBJLikeAPro on social media, Jif and Smuckers will donate $1 to the Club (up to $10,000).

“JIF and Smuckers and the Boys & Girls Club helped me learn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I knew coming to America it was a big tradition to eat, but I didn’t know how to do it because coming from France we don’t do it a lot.”

The Boys & Girls Club can always use more help, where the Knicks needed help was on defense. That’s what Ntilikina could bring from Day 1 — New York’s defense is -4.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Ntilikina is off the court. He brings length and defensive instincts to the floor, which is why he gets 1.4 steals per game, but more importantly, he says he brings a work ethic to it.

“I think defensively I bring a lot to my team,” Ntilikina said. “I think defense is 80 percent will and 20 percent ability, and I have some of the ability. I know I can do it and help my team on the court.”

Defensively, Ntilikina impressed Kyrie Irving from the Celtics Thursday night, with the All-Star saying he was particularly impressed how the rookie did not back down, especially in the fourth quarter. It’s high praise from a clutch player like Irving.

Offensively,Ntilikina is more a work in progress. The largest percentage of his shots taken are long twos (16 feet out to the arc) mostly off the pick-and-roll, he’s shooting just 32 percent on threes, but more concerning is the 37.7 percent he is shooting at the rim. He has struggled to finish on drives against NBA length. He is turning the ball over on 23.3 percent of his possessions used, which is far too high.

However, he’s improving. He’s become a more aggressive and better pick-and-roll player, and he’s developed a good early chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis — a pairing Knicks management thinks could be a big part of the franchise’s future.

“Kristaps is a great player and he’s going to be even more great in the future,” Ntilikina said. “He’s young, he’s going to improve a lot. Playing with him makes my job easier, how tall he is and how he can move on the court. You just have to work to find him in the right spot. I mean, we worked a lot together, we talked a lot together on and off the court. If we work we can do a lot of things together.”

The other thing Ntilikina is becoming more comfortable with is taking what the defense gives him, including little mid-range pull-ups he can hit.

“I’m trying to be comfortable and see what other teams give me on the court, and that’s one that teams give a lot, so I got a lot more practice,” Ntilikina said of the mid-rangers. “It was something I knew I needed to keep working on, and I’m getting more comfortable and confident with it.”

You can see that confidence growing. You can see that the game is slowing down for Ntilikina, that he has excellent vision and accuracy with his passes. However, you can also see he is rough around the edges — he is learning how to run a team, but his handles and finishing need to take steps forward.

“It’s slowed down a little bit, I’m less in a rush than I used to be at the beginning of the season, I just feel a lot more comfortable,” Ntilikina said returning to his theme. “My focus is on the offense and how I run the team. I’m more comfortable and I won’t stop working on my game.”

That’s all Knicks fans can ask. For now.

PBT Podcast: Frank Ntilikina talks adjusting to NBA; Xmas day game previews

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To open the podcast, we spend about 10 minutes with Knicks’ point guard Frank Ntilikina to talk about his adjustment to the NBA, how Jarrett Jack and Jeff Hornacek help him out, and about running the pick-and-roll with Kristaps Porzingis.

We also discuss how Ntilikina is getting used to the NBA trend of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the locker room — that’s not something served in France (where he was born and played until this season). Ntilikina is helping The Boys & Girls Clubs of America raise money, promoting the fact every time anyone uses #PBJLikeAPro on social media, Jif and Smuckers will donate $1 to the Club (up to $10,000).

After that, Dan Feldman from NBC Sports joins me to break down the Christmas Day games — Joel Embiid vs. Kristaps Porzingis to open the slate of five games (well, if both are healthy), then Cavaliers at Warriors have a rematch of the last three NBA Finals (and it could be a preview of the 2018 Finals, too). From there it’s Houston vs. Oklahoma City, Washington vs. Boston, and on through the day until the Timberwolves face the Lakers at the end of the night.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.