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.

Five players poised to make first NBA All-Star game this season

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Who is ready to make the leap?

Every season there are players on the cusp of becoming an All-Star — not only has their game improved to be one of the top 24 players in the league, but their stature has risen to the point fans (voting for the starters) or coaches (voting for the reserves) want to see them in the game.

Here are five players on the cusp of making that leap and getting the chance to suit up in Salt Lake City this February for their first All-Star Game.

1. Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers)

He was the centerpiece headed to Indiana in the trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento — and a lot of executives around the league were shocked the Kings gave him up. After the trade, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists a game with a 62.9 true shooting percentage — and this season he’s going to be asked to do even more on a team that is rebuilding (but still has Myles Turner and Buddy Hield on the roster… what exactly is Indiana doing?).

The Pacers will take a step back this season (which doesn’t help his All-Star chances) but Haliburton himself will be unleashed. He will draw the attention of fans and opposing defenses — coaches know and like his game, which is why he stands a good chance to be an East All-Star reserve this season.

2. Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves)

Edwards has made the leap in popularity and stature — he is trash-talking Kermit in Adam Sandler’s Hustle — and he probably should have been an All-Star last season averaging 21.3 points a game.

Edwards has the explosive, highlight-factory game and has the big personality fans love (although his homophobic social media post over the summer does not help his cause). He will be in the spotlight more on an improved Timberwolves team — he will be the outside to Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert inside — that should be in the mix for the playoffs in the West. Anthony Edwards has a lot of All-Star Games in his future, this season should be his first.

3. Evan Mobley (Cavaliers)

As a rookie, Mobley was already a top-flight defensive big man who averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game — and he came back this season stronger and ready to make a leap on the offensive end. He finished a close second in the Rookie of the Year voting and took that personally, hitting the gym hard and coming out with a chip on his shoulder this season. He flashed potential last season with the ball in his hands, a guy who could beat his man and be a playmaker. Expect to see more of that, more of Mobley out on the perimeter as a creator this season (maybe even grabbing the board and bringing the ball up in transition himself).

He’s going to get noticed on a Cavaliers team with an All-Star backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, and if he has added to his game this year it’s Mobley’s turn.

4. Tyrese Maxey (76ers)

Maxey got thrust into the starting point guard role last season when Ben Simmons never suited up for the 76ers (and played like the guy the 76ers hoped Markelle Fultz would be). Then he thrived after the trade, working a little more off-ball and being a secondary shot creator off James Harden. Maxey averaged 17.5 points and 4.5 assists a game last season, and he is in a position to have those numbers jump again this season.

Maxey is quick with the ball and can get downhill, with the skill set to finish at the rim or pull up and nail the jumper. He shot 42% from 3 last season, although that may be unsustainable (he can shoot, but over 40% every year may be a big ask). Maxey is adding to that game on the court, but it’s his maturity and decision-making — this is his third year in the league — where the biggest leaps are coming.

The 76ers are going to be in the spotlight a lot and should win a lot of regular season games, and with Maxey shining in that light, the All-Star game is a real possibility.

5. Jalen Brunson (Knicks)

Brunson burst out of Luka Doncic’s shadow last season in Dallas and averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists a game last season — now he’s going to have the ball in his hands every night on the biggest stage in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau will hand Brunson the keys to the Knicks offense, which means the guard’s counting stats should climb — and with that his All-Star chances go up.

There are questions about how the Knicks’ offense will fit together with Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, but Brunson is going to get the chance to prove he can be a No.1 guard. In that spotlight, a trip to Salt Lake City is in the offing.

Steve Nash on Ben Simmons: ‘I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot’

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The last season he played, Ben Simmons took just 9% of his shots from beyond 10 feet — he did not space the floor at all, which meant Joel Embiid had to at times. That lack of a jumper he trusted has always been one of the knocks on Ben Simmons’ game.

Steve Nash doesn’t care. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“That’s why I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot for the Brooklyn Nets. He’s welcome to, but that is not what makes him special and not what we need. He’s a great complement to our team, and he’s an incredible basketball player because of his versatility.”

In an offense with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving setting the table — particularly in the halfcourt — Simmons is going to be asked to play more of a role: Be an elite defender, push the ball in transition, work in some dribble-handoff situations where he can drive the lane as an option, be a cutter off the ball, and be a distributor in the halfcourt. It’s why Simmons’ ideal role with the Nets often gets compared to Draymond Green — it’s a Draymond-lite role. There will be far less of him as lead guard running pick-and-roll.

Will Simmons settle into that role? Also, it should be noted that peak Green (2016 for example) shot better than 30% from 3 and had to be respected out there (last season 29.6% on 1.2 3s per game) — he had to be covered at the arc. Simmons does not. Also, Green did not avoid getting fouled and getting to the line.

Nash has the task of meshing Simmons into the system and figuring out the rotations — can he play Simmons and Nic Claxton together, or is having two non-jump shooters on the floor at once clog the offense? Is Simmons going to play center at points? There is championship-level talent on the Nets roster, but so many questions about fit, defense, and grit.

There’s no question about Simmons taking jumpers, but Nash doesn’t care.

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.

 

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Celtics, Suns? Should NBA end one-and-done?

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NBA training camps just opened and teams have yet to play a preseason game, but already two contenders are dealing with problems.

The Celtics have the suspension of coach Ime Udoka as a distraction, plus defensive anchor center Robert Williams will miss at least the start of the season following another knee surgery.

The Suns have the distraction of a suspended owner who is selling the team, plus Jae Crowder is out and demanding a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not seem happy.

Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself go through all the training camp news, including the wilder ones with the Lakers and Nets, breaking down what to take away from all that — plus how good Zion Williamson and James Harden look physically.

Then the pair discusses the potential of the NBA doing away with the one-and-done role and letting 18-year-olds back in the game — is that good for the NBA?

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.