When the New York Knicks broke camp and began their current season, second-year, eighth-overall draft pick Frank Ntilikina was their choice to run their offense at point guard.
Ntilikina got the start over New York’s first 14 games of the year, but he hasn’t had a start since while seeing his playing time diminish.
Meanwhile, fourth-year guard Emmanuel Mudiay (whom the Knicks acquired via a trade last season after Mudiay was taken seventh overall by Denver in 2015) has stepped into Ntilikina’s former role so well, Ntilikina may never get it back this season (or beyond).
Despite playing a total of two minutes over the New York’s first eight games this season, Mudiay has already started more games (16) over the Knicks’ first 30 contests than Ntilikina has.
While Ntilikina is scoring just 6.6 points per game (only 0.7 more than his rookie season) on the same underwhelming 36.4 percent shooting as last year, Mudiay is posting career-bests of 12.9 points per game and 46.3 percent shooting. He’s also been impressive as a major catalyst in a few of the small number (nine) of Knick victories.
Mudiay had a team-high 27 points to rally New York to a five-point home win over New Orleans on Nov. 23. Four games later, he topped that with a game-best 28 points (along with seven assists) as the Knicks overcame three separate deficits of at least 13 points each over Milwaukee at home on Dec. 1. And in the New York’s latest surprise win (as 11-point underdogs at Charlotte on Friday), Mudiay led all scorers with a career-high 34 points to help the Knicks dig out of a 21-point first-half hole as Mudiay poured in 29 points after halftime.
After losing his starting spot and not doing much in nine games off the bench, and then receiving three consecutive benchings, Ntilikina responded when given a good opportunity two games later, with a career-high 18 points (playing 20 minutes, behind Mudiay), on 7-for-11 shooting, while making all four of his 3-point attempts during an eight-point home loss to Charlotte. He followed that up nearly matching that point total, with 16 points on solid 6-for-13 shooting, in 24 minutes, during a seven-point defeat at Cleveland.
One game before those two outings, Ntilikina only played 16 minutes off the bench but made half of his six shots while adding three assists.
With the momentum of those three games, Ntilikina seemed poised to gain favor in head coach David Fizdale’s rotation. But while he wasn’t benched again, the learning French 20-year-old only saw 15 minutes and scored just three points on 1-for-4 shooting as Mudiay had his career night in leading New York to a highly improbable victory.
While he benched Ntilikina, Fizdale insisted he hadn’t given up on the guard he initially gave the starting job to this year. However, if Mudiay keeps performing as he as, it’s difficult to imagine Ntilikina regaining the starting role or the type of minutes he was getting when the season began.
There’s also added competition for Ntilikina with 26-year-old Trey Burke at times, showing flashes this season of the ways he opened many eyes during his first year as a Knick last year.
In terms of the battle between Ntilikina and Mudiay, it’s a good problem to have — compared to where New York has been — with a 22-year-old lottery pick outplaying a 20-year-old fellow lottery choice to the degree where the former has played so well, he isn’t relinquishing what he’s rightly earned so far. Competition among young players is a good thing to have in a rebuild. And too many times in the past, New York had only one option that didn’t work out.
So, for now, the overall picture is one of progress and hopefulness. But for Ntilikina it may be a while before he regains what he had if he ever can.