Knicks' Tom Thibodeau looking forward to see what Frank Ntilikina can do as he enters pivotal season

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Ian Begley
·3 min read
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Frank Ntilikina pushes ball up floor against Pacers
Frank Ntilikina pushes ball up floor against Pacers

Frank Ntilikina is entering his fourth NBA season. In that span, he’s played for three coaches (four if you include 2019-20 interim head coach Mike Miller) and three team presidents.

Some observers cite all of that turnover as a reason why he hasn’t excelled, consistently, with the Knicks. Others wonder if the Knicks haven’t developed him properly or provided him with enough playing time.

And then there’s a group of Knick observers/fans who don’t believe Ntilikina has the talent/ability to succeed in the league.

No matter where you stand on Ntilikina, this much is clear: 2020-21 is a pivotal year for the guard.

He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Knicks have to decide at the end of the season whether they want to offer him a new deal, or let him sign with another club as a restricted free agent (New York can also trade him during the season). 

So Ntilikina’s future in New York depends, in part, on how new head coach Tom Thibodeau views him. Here’s what Thibodeau said on Sunday when asked for an early assessment of Ntilikina:

“I like Frank," he said. "Obviously, we didn't have a lot of time this summer to spend around each other. But (I’m) getting to know him now and there's things that he does very, very well.

“He's got good size, he's versatile defensively, and he works hard, so I want to see what he can do.”

Ntilikina’s role under Thibodeau is one of several storylines worth keeping an eye on in training camp and the preseason.

New York has a crowded backcourt, so Thibodeau will have to decide if Ntilikina, selected eighth overall by New York in 2017, deserves minutes over some of the established guards (Elfrid Payton, Austin Rivers etc). Ntilikina has defended small forwards in the past, so it’s possible that he could play small forward in smaller Knick lineups.

One thing that’s held Ntilikina back? He hasn’t shot consistently and hasn’t shown that he can regularly beat defenders off the dribble/create shots for his teammates.

Maybe that changes in Year Four.

NO LINEUPS YET

As you’d expect, Thibodeau hasn’t made any decisions on lineups or rotations. No coach gives out that information after the first team practice.

But Thibodeau did offer this observation about his team: “We are young and we are athletic. I want to take advantage of that.”

One of the interesting positional decisions is at power forward. Will Thibodeau start rookie Obi Toppin? Will he start Julius Randle ahead of Toppin? Will he play them together?

Toppin said Sunday that he’s comfortable with any decision Thibodeau makes with regards to his position.

“Coach Thibs is a great coach…. Wherever he needs me to play, I think I’m pretty ready to play (that position),” Toppin said. “He’s a smart guy and he’s not going to put me in a position to fail. So he’s always going to put me in a position that he knows I can play and help the team….If he puts me at the five, he believes I can play the five, I believe I can play the 5. If he puts me at the 4, the 3, he’s a smart guy, he knows I can play that position.”