Frank Ntilikina
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic

New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina has returned to the team’s rotation and is showcasing offensive improvement in his last three games.

Collin Loring

Former lottery pick and sophomore guard, Frank Ntilikina, spent three games sidelined on the New York Knicks bench last week. Head coach David Fizdale elected not to play him after a drought offensively.

Whatever the reason may be, Ntilikina has been reinstated into the Knicks rotation and is thriving on both ends of the floor. A look at the young French guard’s journey in year two, and just why he may have finally found his groove.

Entering the summer, Ntilikina was challenged with putting on NBA weight. He responded. The guard added somewhere from 10-15 pounds during offseason workouts.

With Kristaps Porzingis out indefinitely, the team prepared to place all focus on Ntilikina’s growth. They’re the team’s latest lottery picks, at four and eight respectively. As a duo, they’ve got the defensive capability to lock down every end of the floor.

Still, Ntilikina’s game had one gaping hole–offense. The guard had averaged just 5.9 points on 6.4 shot attempts his rookie year. There were brief moments of brilliance, but not one back to back display of offensive aptitude.

So year two began. Frank had what was then thought of as a coming out party in October; putting on a 16-point performance in a win over the neighboring Brooklyn Nets:

It would last only the one night, as the guard quickly fell into a slump that would last months.

In November, Ntilikina posted averages of 4.3 points and 2.2 assists on 29 percent shooting. He had just one performance of 10-plus points and connected on just six threes in fifteen games.

So, Fizdale benched the young guard for three straight games, as a means of instruction. Fans grew irate at his lack of playing time, not realizing it was likely the best means of direction.

Then Trey Burke went down with injury, and undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier soon after. So, the call-to-rise rang for Ntilikina, and he appeared all but nervous to get back on the floor.

It started subtly, with a seven-point night against the Brooklyn Nets.

Then Ntilikina exploded offensively in the next game against the Charlotte Hornets. The confidence he displayed that evening was similar to that of Stephen Curry amidst one of best nights.

After the game, Ntilikina told the Post his performance was in part credible to his recent benching, and ability to watch from the sidelines:

“So I wasn’t playing, but I was always cheering and getting advice as well for my progression, I was seeing from another point of view where I could get better.”

It showed that night, and the next, with 17 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over this three-game stretch, he’s averaging 13.7 points per game on 53 percent shooting.

It’s not a huge improvement, and certainly a small sample size, but a step in the right direction.

So what’s been different for the guard?

And more importantly, what’s next?

A Stroke of Confidence

His recent play could be just as simple as a feeling, living in the moment. But Ntilikina’s clearly more confident in his return from the Knicks bench.

There’s a lack of hesitation that once was, an eagerness to shoot the ball. After the 18-point game against the Hornets, he told the Post he just felt ‘free.’

“I felt comfortable, I was aggressive and my mind was free.”

But one can’t help but ask if this sudden spark and trigger-happy attitude comes from the circling of trade rumors that surround him?

Shortly after his being buried on the Knicks bench, ESPN’s Ian Begley reported that multiple teams reached out to New York about his availability.

Could Ntilikina be buying into the rumors? Just hearing that he’s holding interest could signify New York’s willingness to listen.

And if we’ve learned anything in this age of NBA, it’s that players pay more attention to Twitter than you’d think.

Whether it is or isn’t about the trade rumors, the young guard needs to maintain this free mentality. It might beg for an up in his minutes or bigger role in the rotation.

Return to the Starting Lineup

With his recent play, Ntilikina is proving he’s ready for a larger role, a return to the starting lineup. While Mudiay has served the purpose in Burke’s absence, New York is still 0-4 since the starting guard shake-up.

The Knicks’ next game will be in Charlotte against the Hornets.

This very team is the one who broke Frank out of his shell in that 18-point performance and has a point guard with some firepower offensive tendencies.

To the naked eye, it seems like the perfect situation to start Ntilikina once more. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is currently averaging 25.8 points per game, the NBA’s 9th best.

Both teams will be on the second night of a back-to-back, but only one of the two point guards has been conserving his energy along the sidelines. Should he be given the chance, Ntilikina may prove he can sustain this groove offensively.

New York is free falling in the East, but Frank Ntilikina is finally finding his stride offensively. To put it to the test, head coach David Fizdale should reinsert him into the starting lineup.

After all, at 8-21, there are very little things that could hurt at this point. For Frank’s sake, and the sake of the New York Knicks future, it’s a move that may prove worthwhile.

Writer, reader, entertainer. New York Knicks and the Carolina Panthers. Hoodie Melo is my spirit animal.