Frank Ntilikina

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Rick Pitino says he tried to convince Knicks to draft Donovan Mitchell

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Many criticized the Knicks for drafting Frank Ntilikina over Dennis Smith Jr. with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Now that New York has Smith and Smith has failed to separate himself, that chatter has quieted.

But everyone still loves to pile on the Knicks. (They deserve most of it.)

So, it’s time to second-guess New York passing on Donovan Mitchell, who was the No. 13 pick to the Jazz. Former Knicks coach Rick Pitino, who coached Mitchell at Louisville, is leading the charge.

SiriusXM NBA Radio:

Pitino:

I tried to get the Knicks to take him.

Nah, they can’t take him at that number.

Donovan, I knew would be a star in the league. I always felt he could play the 1. Can he run a pick-and-roll? Without question. Can he get other people shots? Without question. So, I always knew he could play two positions. He’s just a unique personality.

A lot of people – 7, 8, 9 – they passed on him, because they, A, they didn’t think he could play point guard, B, they questioned certain things.

Donovan is a worker. He’ll get in the gym, and he’ll perfect it. He doesn’t have a big ego, but he has an ability mentally. He wants to be the best. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He has a boulder on his shoulder, because he wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. He was ranked 55th in high school instead of top 10, top 15. And he’s always out to prove that he’s one of the better players. So, it’s a good chip. He wants to be the best, and he’s willing to pay the price to be the best.

This is the same Pitino who, when Mitchell declared for the draft, said:

I think (Mitchell) will go out there and try out. And if he can move into the post-lottery area, anywhere from 13-20, it’s something we’ll talk about, but if it’s not there he’ll come back.

Pitino’s optimistic outlook was Mitchell getting drafted in the middle of the first round. Yet, we’re supposed to take seriously Pitino knew Mitchell would be an NBA star? That’s hard to jibe.

To be fair to the Knicks, many – myself included – didn’t have Mitchell ranked that high. He just didn’t look that exceptional at Louisville. But Utah watched him dominate a private pre-draft workout then traded up to get him.

I don’t blame the Knicks for not taking Pitino’s advice (if he truly gave it that way). They can’t listen to every college coach who raves about his own player. Mitchell is likable, and that gets people around him to vouch for him. But drafting teams must assess a player’s basketball ability, not just his likability.

Mitchell had the goods, and in hindsight, New York should have drafted him. The Knicks should self-assess and learn from that mistake.

But I doubt the applicable lesson is listening more to Rick Pitino.

RJ Barrett at point guard? Knicks are experimenting

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Opening night, Dennis Smith Jr. is expected to be the starting point guard for the New York Knicks (although veterans Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina are officially still in the mix).

However, why not let rookie RJ Barrett run the point at times? The Knicks want to put the ball in the wing shot creator’s hands’ anyway, so why not just call him the point guard at times? Knicks’ coach David Fizdale is experimenting with that a little, he told Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

“I’ve thrown him at that position a couple times already,” David Fizdale said Tuesday. “He played some of that in college. I think it adds another layer to how dynamic he can be. Especially having somebody that big that can switch things do some different things defensively. So yeah, I’ll sprinkle that in…

“He’s really poised. He looks comfortable,” Fizdale said. “The kid likes having the ball in his hands. He’s unselfish. He finds people. He understands – he knows our plays from that position. I feel very comfortable if I have to throw him there.”

This is what training camp and preseason games are for, just try some things. That should carry over into the start of the regular season.

The Knicks didn’t draft Barrett No. 3 to have him work off-the-ball most of the time, he was drafted to be a difference maker on offense. Call him a point guard, a wing, whatever, just get the ball in his hands and let him work.

Through two preseason games — so take a lot of salt with this — he has averaged 16 points a game, shot 36.4 percent from three, and averaged seven rebounds a game.

This season, as a rookie, having all that offensive responsibility will mean some hard lessons to go with his successes — we saw him struggle at Summer League, and that is only going to continue against better defenders in the NBA. There’s a steep learning curve. Barrett has the skills and mindset to grow from all that.

And he’d make a pretty good point guard in certain lineups.

Knicks try to sell they built the team they wanted in free agency

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Free agency was only a few hours old when the New York Knicks acknowledged their fans’ disappointment.

Three months later, the Knicks have changed their tune.

Not only was free agency a success, they said at media day to tip-off training camp, but fans are going to forget about who the Knicks didn’t get because they’re going to love who they did.

“These are guys that our fans are going to like, the toughness that they bring every day when they come to the court to play for the Knicks,” team President Steve Mills said Monday.

The Knicks signed seven new players in free agency, adding Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock. But by that time, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had already committed to Brooklyn in the early hours of free agency, and Mills released a statement that night saying he understood that fans could be disappointed but that the team remained confident in its plans.

And though the Knicks had enough money to afford two top free agents, Mills said the team they ended up assembling was exactly the type of roster the front office targeted all along.

“So we’re excited about the group of guys that we have,” Mills said. “Obviously based on the timeline and how we signed those guys it was clear they were on our radar and they were part of what we thought the future of the Knicks could be and what it should look like.”

It’s certainly good enough, combined with No. 3 draft pick RJ Barrett, to improve on what was an NBA-low 17 wins last season. The physicality in the frontcourt and the shooting just about everywhere should exceed anything the 2018-19 Knicks could offer.

“I can tell you this: First and foremost, it’s not going to be like last year,” said Morris, who said the Knicks have a lot of “dogs” on the roster who won’t back down from competition.

The Knicks seem content to view themselves as a hard-working group of underdogs who together can overcome a lack of individual talent.

“The fact that none of them has been heralded as superstars, they understand that they’re going to need each other to win games,” coach David Fizdale said.

Other things of note from Knicks media day:

OWNER ON BOARD

Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan predicted the Knicks were going to have a successful summer during a radio interview last season, which seemed to hint that the Knicks believed they would get some of the top talent that was available. But Mills said Dolan was aware of what the Knicks were planning and satisfied with the results.

“Jim knew we were going to have a successful free agency period and we feel like we did that,” Mills said. “He was on board with what we were doing.”

GETTING THE POINT

The Knicks’ most interesting roster situation in training camp could be at point guard, where Payton will compete with former lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. Smith came from Dallas last season in the trade for Kristaps Porzingis, and Ntilikina hopes to jump-start what’s been a largely disappointing Knicks career after playing well for France when it beat the U.S. at the Basketball World Cup.

“I think it’s going to be a great battle,” Fizdale said. “I think they’re all going to push each other. I think they’re going to compete their butts off.”

INJURY UPDATES

The Knicks said Bullock is making progress from a cervical disk herniation and will be re-evaluated in early November. They added that swingman Damyean Dotson likely won’t play in the preseason because of a right shoulder injury but could be ready for the start of the season.

ROOKIE’S ROLE

Barrett was the Knicks’ highest draft pick since taking Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing with the No. 1 selection in 1985, but he won’t walk right into a starting spot. Fizdale said the swingman from Duke will be treated like Kevin Knox, last season’s first-round pick who had to earn his minutes.

“It’ll be the same but probably tougher on RJ because I think, again, this team is more talented,” Fizdale said. “I think we have more guys that he has to fight with to get those minutes, but I think the kid is up for it.”

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

USA advances to World Cup quarterfinals, clinches Olympic berth with win 89-73 vs. Brazil

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Before they even stepped on the court Monday in China, Team USA had already clinched a trip to the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals, the eight-team tournament and knockout round of the event. Greece upset the Czech Republic earlier in the day, which locked the Americans into the next round.

However, the USA still wanted the top seed, wanted to go undefeated in group play, and wanted to beat Brazil to secure a berth in the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

The USA got all that with an 89-72 victory over Brazil, behind 16 points each from Kemba Walker and Myles Turner.

The USA will now play France in the first round of the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The French team came into the World Cup as a dark horse to win it all thanks to Rudy Gobert locking down the paint on defense and scorers such as Evan Fournier, Frank Ntilikina, and former Spur Nando De Colo (who has been impressive in FIBA games). If the USA, as expected, knocks off France they likely will face Nikola Jokic and the Serbian team — the biggest threat to the USA in this tournament — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Eliminating Brazil also put the USA into the Tokyo Olympics as one of the top two teams in the World Cup from the Americas (Argentina is the other one still standing). Brazil falls into the qualification tournament next summer before the Games.

Monday was a breakout game for Turner, who has been the USA’s best big man in this tournament (so much so that when he is not on the court Gregg Popovich tends to go with small ball now, Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez get very little run). Turner scored at the rim, knocked down a Duncanesque 12-foot bank shot multiple times, and finished 8-of-11 shooting, with 8 rebounds and strong defense in the paint as well. Plus, Turner got Brazil coach Aleksander Petrovic ejected when the coach ran on the court to argue that a Turner block on Anderson Varejao was a foul. (Yes, Aleksander Petrovic is the brother of the late, great Drazen Petrovic.)

The USA also got 11 points from Jaylen Brown, who has arguably been the American’s best all-around player in the FIBA tournament. He is being decisive and attacking with the ball, something Celtics fans should love to see after last season.

There was another good sign in this game, the USA’s zone offense has improved. Most teams are going to a matchup zone against the USA (those teams don’t have the athletes to go man-to-man for long stretches) and at times that has frustrated the USA, especially when their threes are not falling (and Team USA was only 8-of-25 in this win from deep). Turkey had real success with it in the game that took the Americans to overtime. Now the USA is doing a better job of getting into the middle and the heart of the zone, and making plays off that. It’s a good sign for what is coming up, because when France plays a zone two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Gobert is the guy in the paint.

Brazil kept it close in the first half (43-39 USA at the break) with former NBA player Anderson Varejao working as the fulcrum of the offense. He finished the game with 14 points, as did another former NBA player Leandro Barbosa. Victor Benite led Brazil with 21 points for the game.

The USA pulled away in the second half with an 11-4 run sparked by tighter defense, which led to transition opportunities for the Americans. After that, the game was never really in doubt.

It was a good showing for the Americans because they had nothing on the line but chose not to mail it in. The USA had already clinched a spot in the quarterfinals before they took the court because Greece beat the Czech Republic in an earlier Group K game. (As an aside, Greece needed to win by 12 and have the USA beat Brazil to advance, and the Greeks were up 10 with 5:20 left when Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out — on a terrible call, welcome to FIBA — and ended up winning by just 7.)

Here are the matchups for the first round of the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals:

Argentina-Serbia
USA-France
Spain-Poland
Australia-Czech Republic

The USA vs. France game is Wednesday. If the Americans and Serbians win (both will be favorites) their showdown will come Friday in Beijing. The championship game is Sunday in Beijing.