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.