Frank Ntilikina, RJ Barrett
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina’s budding relationship on and off the court should give the New York Knicks hope for the future.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…

RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina are developing into a formidable backcourt tandem as the 2019-20 season pushes onward. Although the young New York Knicks guards aren’t always on the floor together, there is a clear bond between the two foreign-born players.

“I like it a lot,” Barrett said of playing alongside Ntilikina after a February game against the Indiana Pacers. “I understand his game a lot. [He’s a] European player — that’s kind of the way I played growing up. I feel like we understand each other.”

In fact, the two speak French together on the court, further cementing their on-court bond. And according to the pair, they are close friends off the court as well. Ntilikina has long been the subject of trade rumors during his career, but perhaps his relationship and feel on the court with Barrett will make incoming team president Leon Rose think long and hard about signing the Frenchman to an extension.

That synergy between the two guards was on full display in Friday’s nailbiting win over Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the Houston Rockets. On one end, Barrett shouldered the offensive load, tying his career-high with 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting to go along with five rebounds and five assists.

But Barrett’s biggest play of the night came when the Knicks needed a basket the most. With P.J. Tucker matched up on him, the rookie would not be denied.

But Barrett’s late bucket didn’t seal the victory. Not quite.

On the next play, Ntilikina was called for a questionable foul—it was a clean strip—that sent Westbrook to the line where he converted both free throws. Julius Randle hit one of two on the other end, forcing the Knicks to defend the high-powered Houston offense for one more play.

Westbrook vs. Ntilikina.

Ntilikina sticks on Westbrook’s hip and doesn’t allow him to reach the paint. When the former MVP pulls up, the French point guard’s length bothered Westbrook just enough to force the miss.

Although Ntilikina isn’t starting alongside Barrett in the backcourt, seeing them close games together is a positive sign for the future. The Knicks can play through the rookie on offense while leaning on Ntilikina for his defensive acumen. It’s a complementary pairing that works like a charm.

“I thought Frank played well all the way,” interim head coach Mike Miller said of Ntilikina’s 29 minutes. “I thought he had a good turn in the first half. … As he was going, his defense was really good and he had command offensively. We saw him as a guy that was going good so we stayed with him.

We might see the Knicks go back to the 21-year-old as the starter over Elfrid Payton at some point, but closing games is more important for Ntilikina than starting them.

This is similar to how the Knicks are handling Mitchell Robinson. He’s coming off the bench but playing the bulk of the minutes at center. Eventually, Robinson will need to become a permanent fixture in the starting lineup. That much is clear.

But with Ntilikina, there is more nuance. Although there is so much to like about him, the long-limbed guard probably won’t ever become a top point guard in the NBA. However, he doesn’t need to do that to be successful. He can be extremely valuable to the Knicks in his current role as the first guard off the bench.

Ntilikina takes some of the defensive pressure off of Barrett when he checks in, plus he allows the rookie to have the ball in his hands more on offense.

As we’re seeing, Barrett is starting to come into his own as an offensive player. He’s averaging 17.3 points on 47.7% shooting since the All-Star break and although his shot is still a work-in-progress, he’s hit six of his last 14 attempts from distance. If nothing else, he’s far more confident in his jumper.

“I think he’s healthy again,” Miller said of Barrett’s recent surge. “I think the biggest difference is that I see him moving fluidly and he can get to his spots and everything is fluid.”

With 21 games left on the schedule, New York has an opportunity to build a little momentum and enter the offseason with a semblance of hope for the future. And this time around, that hope doesn’t stem from dreams of success in free agency.

For all the bashing of the Knicks for not running their young guys out for 30 minutes each night, there are legitimate signs of growth from the young core. Robinson, 21, was a force again, scoring 12 points and scooping up 13 boards. Kevin Knox, 20, was not quite as impactful as he was on Saturday, but he is not the constant liability on defense he once was earlier in the season.

Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier are still buried on the bench, but Barrett takes a lot of the minutes at shooting guard and for what it’s worth, Wayne Ellington is playing his best basketball as a Knick right now.

But the point remains, the young players—and more specifically, Barrett and Ntilikina—are growing before our very eyes. The Knicks are constantly derided when they fail to develop their own guys. It’s only fair to dole out some credit when we see encouraging signs of progress.

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