Frank Ntilikina has become the prodigal son of Madison Square Garden — which is an odd thing to say considering the other promising youngsters on the team like RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox.
Yet the French guard, now in his third NBA season, has become a major focus of the New York Knicks faithful due to a lack of playing time through the team’s first four games.
The 21-year-old has played just 25 minutes this season, including 2:54 in the season opener against the San Antonio Spurs, a DNP against the Brooklyn Nets, and 18 seconds on Saturday against the Boston Celtics.
Saturday’s game saw the Madison Square Garden crowd grow restless with head coach David Fizdale and struggling point guard Dennis Smith, as they chanted “We want Frank,” during the third quarter amidst the fellow youngsters’ struggles.
Averaging 8.7 minutes per game in his first three outings of the season, Smith — who has averaged 14.2 points per game in his first two NBA seasons — has made just one of his first 11 shots this season.
It’s a difficult start for a player that has shown plenty of promise. Though lingering injuries (wrist while with the Mavericks, back in preseason) and a rusty, revamped jumper is stacking the deck against the 21-year-old.
Smith took a leave of absence ahead of Monday night’s win against the Chicago Bulls after the passing of his stepmother. There is no timetable for his return as of yet.
Under the unfortunate circumstances, Ntilikina had an opportunity to get consistent playing time in a crowded Knicks backcourt alongside Elfrid Payton and rookie RJ Barrett — who has gotten significant minutes at the 1 despite being a natural 2 or 3.
While the Knicks pulled out their first win of the season on Monday night behind the late heroics of Bobby Portis and Julius Randle, Ntilikina’s game was once again a major talking point.
In 22:16 of playing time, Ntilikina provided stifling defense, especially down the stretch as the Knicks finished the game on a 15-0 run.
The box score wasn’t as kind, though, as he went 0-for-6 from the field with two rebounds and two assists.
He has yet to score a single point this season.
Regardless, Ntilikina’s defensive contributions and his decision-making in every aspect but shooting the ball should put him in strong consideration for Fizdale to give him the start on Wednesday against the Orlando Magic.
Having a strong defensive presence in the backcourt is often a rarity in the NBA and if Ntilikina can improve on his shot selection and overall aggression on the offensive end of the floor, the Knicks are looking at a player who could put up 10-to-15 points per game.
Realistically, that’s all the team would need in an offense that one day will be carried by Barrett.