Frank Ntilikina didn’t get the start on Saturday against the Hornets, but he still posted his best finishing performance of the season.
The rookie combo guard buried five-of-eight shots and scored a career-best 15 points in the Knicks’ skid-busting victory — including a four-point play — after being held scoreless in their previous loss — No. 9 in a row — to Philadelphia.
Afterward, the 6-5 Ntilikina also pushed back against the reasoning Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek offered for not deploying him in the starting five — despite Courtney Lee missing Saturday’s game for personal reasons. Hornacek cited match-up concerns against bigger guards such as Ben Simmons of the Sixers and Nic Batum of Charlotte.
“As a competitor, I won’t agree with that,” Ntilikina said. “Because that would make myself be… I don’t know how to say it in English — but you know me, I just want to take every challenge.
“That’s the coach’s job and coach’s decision to put whoever he thinks is the better matchup on the court. But as a player we all gotta be ready when he calls you. And I was ready when he called me (tonight) and that will be the (approach) every night.”
Ntilikina, 19, has expressed confidence all season that he will thrive in the NBA, adding Saturday: “I know I can do a lot of great things here.”
According to ESPN, the Knicks have allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions with Ntilikina on the court this season, which would rank a respectable 11th in the league, but 110.2 points per 100 possessions with him off the court, which would be 29th in the NBA.
As with many young players, consistency has been the primary issue for the French rookie, particularly on the offensive end. Lately, he has shared playing time amid a three-headed point guard rotation with imported starter Emmanuel Mudiay, who was acquired from Denver at the trade deadline, and Trey Burke, another former NBA lottery pick.
Burke, who spent the first half of the season playing for Westchester in the G-League, is averaging 10.5 points and 3.5 assists in 17 minutes per appearance.
“I didn’t even think about (starting). When you’re a player, whether you’re in the starting lineup or off the bench, you’ve got to be ready,” Ntilikina said. “So when Coach called my name, I was ready. And I didn’t think about starting or not. I just wanted to have an impact on a lot of things when I’m on the court.”
Ntilikina, who has averaged 5.3 points on just 35-percent shooting as a rookie, will look to build on his season-best performance on Monday at the Garden against Chicago. The Bulls (24-45) arrive a half-game behind the Knicks (25-45) in the standings — or more aptly, that much ahead in terms of draft positioning.
“It means something to me, of course,” Ntilikina said of Saturday’s showing. “It shows improvement. Now I feel more comfortable than the beginning of the season. It gives me motivation to get more.”
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