Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina
Robby Sabo, ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Amid recent criticism, Kevin Knox leads the Knicks to a thrilling overtime win over the Bucks, but Frank Ntilikina is nowhere to be found.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Kevin Knox, Saturday was the type of game he’s been craving. For Frank Ntilikina, it’s best to chalk this one up as a learning experience. But for anyone monitoring the progress of these young players, it’s wise to avoid sweeping generalizations about either.

Madison Square Garden was jumping on Saturday night when an MVP candidate and a top team in the Eastern Conference met their match. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks fell to a ragtag Knicks group led by Kevin Knox and Emmanuel Mudiay.

Mudiay made the decisive plays in crunch time, but Knox’s scoring explosion was the spark that lit the fire for a fourth-quarter comeback. The rookie has come under fire lately for some lackluster play, but he answered the critics with 13 of his 26 points in the fourth. He did struggle late, failing to score in the final five minutes of regulation or the overtime period. Fortunately, the Knicks survived without his scoring. Veterans like Mudiay and Tim Hardaway Jr. took control of the game late as the Bucks began keying on Knox, making his life difficult.

The rookie went 9-for-20 from the floor and 5-for-12 from deep. But even after missing a few shots and failing to score down the stretch, fans finally saw the confidence and scoring ability that made Knox a fan favorite over the summer.

“I put a lot of work in. Tonight, it was good to see the ball go in the net,” Knox told reporters in a scrum following Saturday night’s victory. “It felt good, but I just have to keep on working. Never get too high, never get too low. I just made some good, contested shots. I’m going to keep shooting. I missed some easy ones in the first half but that didn’t stop me.”

Hardaway is clearly one of the leaders in the locker room and he couldn’t say enough about Knox’s performance. But Hardaway seems most impressed with the rookie’s work ethic and ability to fight through adversity.

Knicks head coach, David Fizdale also spoke glowingly about Knox in his postgame press conference. I asked him about Knox’s breakout night and Fizdale implied that knew the rookie was capable of this.

“Well, it’s in there. It’s just going to be a matter of time before we really get it to come out fully,” Fizdale said. “But, like I said before, this kid works. He comes to work every single day. He busts his butt. His teammates are rooting for him and it was just a matter of time before he got those jitters out of him and found his rhythm.”

Earlier this week, Knox and Ntilikina came under fire their poor play of late. Fizdale rushed to the defense of his players and stressed how difficult it is to become great at such a young age.

“Give them a break,” Fizdale said to Chris Iseman of after the Knicks’ practice Friday. “These guys are learning on the fly. Whoever’s criticizing them, let me know how many people can become great at 19 and 20 while they’re being punched in the face and they’re learning it all at the same time. I don’t hear those critics.”

Knox showed flashes of greatness on Saturday. He answered the critics and left any and all doubters quiet for the time being. Unfortunately, Ntilikina would not have the same opportunity to silence his naysayers.

Frank's Quiet Night

Amidst the chaos of an overtime victory, Frank Ntilikina was missing. The second-year point guard and former first-round pick received the dreaded “DNP-Coach’s Decision” for the first time in his career. When asked about the decision, Fizdale maintained that this is nothing to stress over.

“Coach’s decision. As you can see with these guys, none of them are ever in the dungeon. He was the example of my postgame speech because if you watch our bench tonight, he was the most energetic, the first one up, the first one rooting guys on, the one making sure people knew what they were supposed to do coming out of a timeout. That’s not easy when you’re getting a DNP. As you know and as they know, I will come back to him in no time. (Dotson) is a perfect testament to that.”

Damyean Dotson is the best example of someone who rode the bench, but was never completely out of the picture. He didn’t play in the first two games of the season before providing a spark off the bench against Boston in game three.

He was later confined to the bench again, but this time for four straight games. In the three games since returning from his most recent stint on the bench, he’s averaging 18 points per game on 67.9 percent shooting from the floor and 71.4 percent from distance. Dotson is an example of how a trip to the bench can bring out the most in a player.

Mudiay and Trey Burke have received DNPs of their own this season. Perhaps it was simply Ntilikina’s turn to take a breather and learn from the sidelines. This move has worked for Fizdale multiple times already this season. As a result, it’s fair to give him the benefit of the doubt and let this play out.

With young players like Knox and Ntilikina, fans want instant success. Each player will have his ups and his downs. However, as we can see with both, making sweeping evaluations from night-to-night is pure folly. At that point, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.