Well, that was fast. Yes, the quick hook for New York Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina in his team’s humiliating 115-89 home loss to the Orlando Magic on Sunday night. But more so, the culmination of a steady decrease in playing time for Ntilikina after being handed the starting point guard spot at the start of the season by head coach David Fizdale.
With a couple of other veteran options available in sixth-year guard Trey Burke and fourth-year guard Emmanuel Mudiay, Fizdale initially showed his confidence in the still wet-behind-the-ears, second-year Ntilikina by handing the keys of the Knicks’ offense to the 20-year-old former eighth overall draft pick.
Ntilikina played more than 30 minutes seven times while averaging 30.3 minutes per game over New York’s first nine games of the season, but has yet to play more than 25 minutes while averaging just 18.6 minutes in the Knicks’ five games since that time.
Getting the start for the 14th time in as many Knicks games this season, Ntilikina played the first 5:45, but became a spectator thereafter against the Magic.
After New York (4-10) missed its first seven shots and trailed Orlando, 14-2, before the midpoint of the opening quarter, Fizdale had seen enough and pulled Ntilikina for good, after the raw guard went scoreless on three shots and turned the ball over twice.
That part was completely understandable. What’s puzzling is that Ntilikina never returned in a game that was never competitive.
It would be one thing if Ntilikina’s replacements led the Knicks back in the game, but that was never the case.
Neither Burke (10 points on 5-of-13 shooting, five assists and one turnover in 20 minutes) nor Mudiay (three points on 1-of-4 shooting, no assists and two turnovers in 17 minutes) were exactly lighting it up as the Magic eventually ballooned its lead to as much as 34 points by the early stages of the fourth quarter.
Fizdale attempted to explain Ntilikina’s benching by saying he was simply trying some different looks and seeking to spark the offense. No problem there, except when 14-2 became 30-10 after the first quarter, 42-19 in the second, 65-40 by halftime, 87-60 after three quarters, and as bad as 98-64 less than 3½ minutes into the final period before the Magic settled for a 26-point rout.
In a game like that, when the Knicks never came close to competing even after Ntilikina was benched, it seems curious that Fizdale couldn’t find another moment to put Ntilikina back in to see what he could do.
Even if that’s taken as an isolated incident, it’s hard to ignore that it came immediately after a string of five straight games in which Ntilikina’s playing time was reduced by a good degree compared to the previous nine games to start the season.
While he hasn’t put it all on Ntilikina’s offensive deficiencies, Fizdale has pointed to New York’s slower-than-desired pace of play and general lack of organization on the floor — two crucial things which fall on the point guard position.
Further, in today’s NBA, it’s not enough to be the floor general as a point guard, but some scoring has to come from that position as well. And although Ntilikina might very well be the Knicks’ best and most consistent defender (and had already shown that ability greatly as a rookie last year), he has struggled with his shot and showing a capability to be any sort of reliable scorer.
Only on three occasions this year — in consecutive games against Golden State and Brooklyn, when he scored 17 and 16 points on 6-of-11 and 5-of-13 shooting, respectively, and five games later, when he scored 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting against Atlanta — has Ntilikina scored or been aggressive enough with his shot to assuage Fizdale’s concerns. He otherwise hasn’t scored in double figures this season.
Prior to his 14-point game, Ntilikina went scoreless while missing all six of his shots, playing just 16 minutes in a double-overtime loss to Chicago.
For the season, Ntilikina is shooting just 34.5 percent, including 28.8 percent from 3-point range. That includes a recent four-game stretch in which Ntilikina missed 13 straight 3s. Before that span, Ntilikina started a solid 41.4 percent (12-for-29) from behind the arc, but has since shot just 13 percent (3-for-23) from that distance.
Ntilikina often makes just two shots per game, taking around seven or eight. He’s gone 2-for-8 three times in his last seven games, and over his first four games this season, he went 2-for-6 once and 2-for-7 twice.
While Ntilikina has limited his turnovers (at 1.7 per game), he’s only had 3.3 assists per contest, posting more than five assists just twice (and even in those two instances, he only had seven assists each time).
With Ntilikina as the primary point guard, the Knicks’ offense has ranked near the bottom of the NBA in several key categories. New York is 23rd in points scored (106.4 per game), 26th in shooting (43.1 percent), 28th in 3-point shooting (31.9 percent), 21st in 3-point attempts (29.1 per game), and tied with three other teams in points per shot (1.17 per game), all while playing at only the 22nd-quickest pace in the league. When it comes to assists, the Knicks are averaging a league-worst 19.1 per game.
Certainly, that doesn’t all fall on Ntilikina, but no one has more of a hand in directing much of that than he does as the starting point guard.
Maybe Ntilikina will remain Fizdale’s choice to start at point guard and perhaps he’ll have a long leash at that spot as Ntilikina continues to learn and gain experience throughout the season.
However, Fizdale’s concerns with the offense under Ntilikina seem to be more than simply conjecture at this point.
The more Ntilikina has struggled of late, the more his playing time has slowly decreased. And if Ntilikina can’t get back into a game that got much further away from the Knicks over the final 42 minutes than it was when he played over the first six minutes, it might indicate that Fizdale (in his first year with New York) is already considering a shakeup in the lineup which might include Ntilikina playing off the ball or off the bench rather than sticking with Ntilikina as his starting point guard.
One way or another that will all unfold as the season moves along. But it hasn’t taken long for the signs to already point toward Fizdale searching for another option at the point.