The Knick Who’s Barely 19: Ntilikina Is ‘Enjoying the Moment’

The Knick Who’s Barely 19: Ntilikina Is ‘Enjoying the Moment’

Last month, at a media event in New York City, Frank Ntilikina met Spike Lee, the filmmaker and Knicks über-fan. Lee has never been shy about sharing his thoughts, certainly not when it comes to his beloved basketball team.

He is like many Knicks fans: devoted yet beaten down. The franchise has not made the postseason in four years. Its star player is currently in a stalemate with the front office and wants to go elsewhere. There is hope, but it seems off in the distance.

Ntilikina is not responsible for any of this. He is barely 19 years old and is the team’s most recent first-round pick. The Knicks selected him eighth over all in June’s N.B.A. draft, betting that his length, athleticism and capacity for the game will allow him to grow into a significant player. For now, at least, he is just adjusting to the beginning of his journey.

But a meeting with Lee is a reminder that expectations are always in front of your face.

“He said that we need to get better next year,” Ntilikina said, recounting Lee’s message. “Because that’s what we all want.”

Ntilikina, who is from France and speaks English fairly fluently, says this with a laugh and glee in his voice. He is still young and earnest. He is 6 feet 5 inches with a seven-foot wingspan and a cherubic face. The perks of newfound celebrity are still new and exciting.

For instance, when he found out last month that he would be going to see the Barcelona soccer team practice and would meet some of the players afterward — he is a fan of the club — he whooped in delight. Ntilikina reveled in meeting Neymar, who has since moved on to P.S.G., but it was Ntilikina who was asked to pose for a photo by Umtiti, a fellow Frenchman and a Barcelona center back.

So Ntilikina’s world is changing. For the first time, he is living abroad, away from his family, assimilating into a new country as much as a new team. Ntilikina is no longer a teenager living in northeastern France, shuttling back and forth between his mother’s apartment and his team’s gymnasium. Instead, he is a rookie preparing for his N.B.A. debut, living in an upstairs bedroom at the New Jersey home of his agent, Rich Felder.

Largess may await him, but Ntilikina is still at least a month away from even living alone. A productive career could be in his future, but first he’ll have to use his experience fitting into a new team as its youngest member.

“Obviously, I take care of enjoying the moment because we live only one time,” said Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-KEE-nah). “Being here I think it’s necessary sometimes to sit down on the couch and say: ‘Wow, I did this. I did that. I’m here. I’m there.’ But not too much to me because what I want obviously is more. I don’t want to stop being here just getting drafted, stop working, stop looking for more and more. I want to go further than that. That’s why I don’t spend too much time sitting on the couch and, ‘Like, wow, I’m in New York.’ I want more.”

He’ll have his opportunity to prove that in October, when the 2017-18 season begins. For now, Ntilikina leads a slow and uneventful life, just another member of the Felder family.

Sneakers line the walls of his bedroom, taking up whatever free space exists on the hardwood floors, and a portable basketball hoop sits in the corner, though the name stamped across the backboard — COREY — is a giveaway that it’s not Ntilikina’s. His Knicks jersey hangs from a hook on his closet door, hiding between other shirts.

Ntilikina has known Felder for three years and signed with CAA, Felder’s agency, two years ago. While Ntilikina was finishing his French Pro A season in June, Felder camped out in Strasbourg for more than a month, waiting until he could shepherd him back to the United States to finish preparing for the draft. Instead, Ntilikina’s team unexpectedly pushed to the finals and a deciding Game 5.

With that game still to be played, Ntilikina flew to New York the day before the draft and had a lengthy meeting with the Knicks’ brain trust, which then included Phil Jackson, the team president. The next night, Ntilikina became a Knick, staying in town long enough to finish interviews with the media. With Game 5 beckoning, he and his mother, Jacqueline, caught a flight back to France while others in his group celebrated at a New York City diner.

Ntilikina returned to the United States in time for the summer league six days later — an injured knee kept him from playing — and he hasn’t been back to France, nor seen his family, since. He spends his mornings working out at the Knicks’ practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., before whiling away the rest of the day jumping from room to room in the Felder home or taking part in the family’s activities.

He has become a frequent guest at summer basketball games played by Felder’s son, Corey, a guard for the Northern Valley Demarest High School team, In effect, Corey Felder has found a live-in mentor. The two sometimes work out in the garage and, in at least one instance, were rebuked by a neighbor for playing basketball outside near midnight.

“He’s a nice kid,” Felder said of Ntilikina. “Otherwise I’d throw him out.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Ntilikina has thought about the N.B.A. for much of his life. He said he began watching the N.B.A. draft when he was all of 5 years old, which is when he also started playing basketball.

That was about two years after Ntilikina, who was born in Belgium, moved to Strasbourg with his mother and two older brothers, Brice and Yves, after his parents separated.

His family’s roots are in Rwanda, and Ntilikina said his mother still has horrid memories of the genocide that occurred there in the first half of the 1990s but doesn’t talk about it. “She always wanted to protect me about all the stuff that happened,’’ he said.

As a child in Strasbourg, he would trail his brothers as they went to play basketball, and his introduction to the sport was brutal. Yves and Brice bullied him on the court, posting him up, crossing him over and shooting in his face, knowing Frank had no recourse — a circumstance known to little brothers everywhere.

But basketball stuck, even when his brothers moved on to focus on their studies. (Brice is now a physical therapist, and Yves is a surgeon.) Ntilikina began playing on local teams, and his bedroom, which he shared with Brice, became a testimonial to the N.B.A., with posters of Derrick Rose a constant on the walls.

By the time he was 14 he joined the Strasbourg organization. By 16, he was playing with Strasbourg’s highest-level team. His teammates were sometimes more than twice his age. Louis Campbell, the point guard he would solicit advice from, was 35.

Ntilikina had to ingratiate himself with seasoned professionals. He quickly decided his niche was as a role player who brought energy and defense in large supplies.

He also peppered them with questions about the N.B.A. — where teammates like ex-Knick Mardy Collins and former Dallas Maverick Rodrigue Beaubois had played. The European game, they told him, was focused more on basketball I.Q., a style of play in which guile can make up for whatever is lacking in athleticism. The N.B.A., he was told, was ruled by the best players, and talent was the most important currency.

“They told me like when you go here, you don’t have to think too much, because I used to think a lot,” he said. “I used to play the game as a chess game. So they told me when you go there, you just have to play your game and not think too much. Play on your instinct and not think about too much tactical things, because here they’re more aggressive, right to the basket.”

His coach last season, he said, prioritized the cerebral style. Changing his approach, Ntilikina believes, won’t be an issue. He said he played off instinct with France’s U-18 team and did well. And he has been studying N.B.A. players long enough to know how the league works, watching tapes of Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Rose, hoping to refine parts of his game by copying from theirs.

The Knicks’ demands for him this season are unknown. The team recently signed veteran point guard Ramon Sessions, but neither he nor Ron Baker, a second-year player, has a lock on the job. If Ntilikina offers defense and energy, that alone could make him a steady contributor in the coming season.

However, he has also found himself in the N.B.A. rumor mill before training camp has even started. Various trade scenarios that would have a disgruntled Kyrie Irving end up with the Knicks often include Ntilikina going to Cleveland as part of the package the Cavaliers would get in return.

But trade scenarios are just that, scenarios. For now, Ntilikina is trying to focus on what he knows is ahead, a career in the N.B.A.

“What I know is maybe I’m not — not ready — but I’m not going to be great now, but what I’m going to do for sure is work a lot,” he said. “I’m going to work very hard. I will trust the process, work hard and try to be the best me in the future. Maybe it will take time, maybe not. We’ll figure it out.”

The biggest adjustment so far, he says, is not on the court or with the language. He learned English at school, and through movies and music. Instead, he is still getting used to the difference between the French and Americans. He is surprised and enthralled by the friendliness he has experienced here.

“Everyone talks to everybody,” he said. “It’s crazy how some random people you met on the street you can be friends with. In France, it’s not like that much.”

Last month, he went to a restaurant with Felder and a woman stopped him and jumped into a 15-minute conversation. She did not know Ntilikina, and he was not wearing a Knicks shirt to offer a hint. “It was cool,” he said. “I think it’s just the best example to tell of how American people are. They’re very friendly.”

He has been recognized once, while shopping in Brooklyn, and made sure that the person who stopped him was able to take a photograph. He felt compelled to cooperate after benefiting from that kind of graciousness as a child. Ntilikina went to Strasbourg games every Saturday and then took photos with the players. He was grateful for the ones who stopped to talk to him. Campbell, his former teammate, took a picture with him when Ntilikina was 8 years old.

In a few months, when he begins his first N.B.A. season, Ntilikina will face a similar situation. Players he only watched before will share the court with him. He does not intend to be star-struck. He has already thought about what it will be like to face, say, Russell Westbrook for the first time. Ntilikina said he will not be excited. He will just play.

His brothers and mother will remain in France, visiting him on occasion. And soon, he will move out of Felder’s home and into his own place. The new chapter in his life will not have many strings attached.

“I obviously know why I’m here,” Ntilikina said. “It’s not that difficult.”

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Published at Tue, 15 Aug 2017 09:02:42 +0000

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