New York Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina didn’t respond directly to LeBron James on Sunday after the Cleveland Cavaliers star said a night earlier New York should have drafted Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr. But Ntilikina’s teammates strongly defended him in the wake of James’ comments.
“I mean, I don’t know why he made those comments, but all I can say is we love Frank, we’re happy with him,” Kristaps Porzingis told reporters after the Knicks’ practice on Sunday. “He’s doing a great job. He’s playing great, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to. And I would not change Frank for anybody. Simple.”
James unleashed what could be considered one final shot at former Knicks president Phil Jackson on Saturday, declaring that Smith, who the Mavericks selected ninth overall in this year’s draft, “should be a Knick.” The Knicks decided to pass on Smith with what ended up being the final draft pick of Jackson’s tenure as team president, selecting Ntilikina eighth overall.
“The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough,” James said after the Cavaliers’ 111-104 win Saturday night over the Mavericks. “He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
James and the Cavaliers play Ntilikina, Porzingis and the Knicks on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, where the home crowd likely won’t react kindly to James’ comments.
Ntilikina is averaging 4.4 points, 5.0 assists and 1.9 rebounds per game for the Knicks (7-5) and has excelled on the defensive end.
Smith is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Mavericks (2-11). Some in the Knicks’ organization had interest in drafting Smith, who canceled a scheduled pre-draft workout with New York. But Ntilikina’s teammates, coaches and Knicks executives are pleased with Ntilikina’s play and enthused by the promise he’s shown.
“They’re both great young players,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We have Frank, and Frank has done a great job for us, his abilities, the way he’s grown from day one and the things that he’s worked on, we expect him to be a great player also.”
Knicks center Enes Kanter didn’t take long to respond to James’ comments, tweeting that the team is happy with Ntilikina.
He expanded on those thoughts at practice on Sunday.
“I don’t care who, I just cannot let anyone disrespect my family like that because when I play for an organization, I see my teammates and that organization as like a family,” Kanter told reporters on Sunday. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that. The coaches, the GMs, the president, this organization knows what they’re doing. … I mean, come on. That’s a rookie. You cannot just say anything like that about him.
“I don’t care, it doesn’t matter LeBron or whoever it is. I don’t care who. I cannot let anyone disrespect my family like that.”
Ntilikina seemed to take the high road Sunday.
“I think in life people can think whatever they want,” Ntilikina said. “However, it’s not gonna affect us and me, so whatever is said, whatever people think, me and the team are just focused on what we’re doing every day to improve and just to make us better.”
Asked whether he sees himself in a rivalry with Smith, Ntilikina added: “I️ see rivalry with all the point guards in the league. I see rivalry with all the teams in the league. We’re competitors and we try to get all the wins we can get. All I can say is a lot of people think what they want and it must not affect us so we just have to stay focused on what we’re doing to improve.”
Asked whether he had anything to prove to the rest of the NBA, he added: “I don’t have to prove to them, I have to prove to myself. I have to prove to the team. It’s all about me and it’s all about the team. I don’t care what people say.”
Jackson, the legendary former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach whose rocky stint as an executive with the Knicks ended in June, angered James a year ago with comments in an ESPN interview characterizing James’ business associates as a “posse.” James responded by saying that he lost all respect for Jackson.
“No relationship at all,” James said last November, when he made it clear that he believed the term “posse” had racial connotations. “I had nothing but respect for him as a coach for what he was able to do. Obviously he was at the helm of [the team featuring] my favorite player of all time [Michael Jordan], and also being there growing up and watching him with the Lakers, but I got nothing for him.”
ESPN’s Ian Begley contributed to this report.