LONDON — Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina will be forever linked in New York — their careers compared.
Each point guard is experiencing trying times in his sophomore season. Smith has been shopped by Dallas much of the year, and the latest report has him leaving the club briefly but only so the Mavericks can reconcile their differences and not trade him.
Ntilikina is averaging 6.0 points per game.
According to a person debriefed on the situation, the Knicks inquired about Smith before the season but “not recently.” It’s known some members of the organization rated Smith higher than Ntilikina before the 2017 draft.
Knicks general manager Scott Perry didn’t have Ntilikina on his radar at No. 5 when he selected point guard De’Aaron Fox for Sacramento. President Steve Mills has been a firm supporter of Ntilikina. He stated after Phil Jackson got fired he fully supported the pick at No. 8 when the Knicks passed on Smith, now at odds with Rick Carlisle.
The Mavericks were fans of Ntilikina, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban traveled to Europe to meet the Frenchman before the draft.
While in London, Ntilikina, 20, received a mound of attention, with French journalists making the trek across the English Channel. He made a key appearance for Nike as the face of a new “Back to the Future” shoe.
He got peppered with queries, including on his mediocre “72” rating in NBA2K, a popular video-game series.
“I’ve played,” Ntilikina said. “Ratings change sometimes. I’m going to [do] everything possible to change it.”
It didn’t go up after his London game. He performed in his typical understated manner off the bench. He shot poorly (1-of-7, three points) but played solid defense, drew a charge and finished out a plus-11 in the 101-100 loss. David Fizdale’s love affair with starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay continued. The coach put Mudiay on the court instead of Ntilikina on the final defensive breakdown in the last ticks.
“My whole career won’t be summed up by this half-season,’’ Ntilikina told the French daily L’Équipe in his native tongue in London. “To not play is unpleasant, especially when you love competition. But there is always something to learn from this.”
In his two seasons, Ntilikina has made a total of just six starts at point guard — all this season before Mudiay, a more fluid penetrator and scorer, inherited the job for good in mid-November. Mudiay is a free agent, and the franchise is trying to determine if he is worth re-signing. Ntilikina was taken out of the rotation twice.
What that means at February’s trade deadline remains to be seen. When asked by a French journalist if Ntilikina is too unselfish, Fizdale said: “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. He’s a guy who shares the ball and takes good shots and tries to play the right way. I want Frank to be Frank.
“He works on everything. He spends a ton of time on his shot, ballhandling. Obviously he watches a ton of film on his defense to know every guy in the league. He’s a tireless worker, and it’s just a matter of time before everything works out for him.”
Ntilkina heard good news in London, where Commissioner Adam Silver hinted the NBA will play a regular season game in France next season. Does he hope the Knicks get selected?
“I hope so,” he said.