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Frank Ntilikina still searching for role at key Knicks juncture

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The day before last season ended early for the Knicks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank Ntilikina ran roughshod over the Wizards.

In continuing a spurt of lively point-guard play, Ntilikina posted his career-high in points and became the youngest Knick to post a 20-point, 10-assist game in a win.

The next night, in Atlanta, the season was postponed — and their 2017 lottery pick never got to build on that outing and cement his place as a Knick. Based on their record, they weren’t invited to the Orlando restart.

On Dec. 21, the Knicks will face the deadline to give Ntilikina a rookie-contract extension and there’s no evidence they will do so.

Expected to be a restricted free agent in 2021, Ntilikina stands a chance of being dealt at the trade deadline in March.

Regarding his contract, Ntilikina said, “The business part is going to take care of itself. I’m here to get better every day, to get this team better.’’

Frank Ntilikina
Frank Ntilikina
Corey Sipkin

Knicks president Leon Rose is his former agent, but Ntilikina dumped Rose for French rep Bouna Ndiaye. Rose, who took over on March 1, missed out on seeing whether Ntilikina would continue to rise.

“It was really disappointing,’’ Ntilikina said of the season’s abrupt finish. “The end of last season really motivated me a lot. I saw improvements. When you work really hard every day just to improve, it’s really motivating when you see those improvements, when you feel that on the court. It just gave me so much energy for the future.”

Now the 6-foot-5 Ntilikina faces a hodgepodge battle for the starting point-guard job. Elfrid Payton was re-signed, Austin Rivers was brought in and Dennis Smith Jr. still is here.

Most likely, because of his defensive gifts, defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau will find a niche for Ntilikina off the bench, perhaps off the ball.

“It’s part of the game,’’ Ntilikina said of the playing-time battle. “We have a lot of guards on this team, a lot of competitors, which is going to bring the best out of the team. We’re going to compete hard for minutes and the coach is going to decide what he wants to do. We have trust in him. He knows what he’s doing. He knows his job. So he’s going to put the best players together on the court.’’

There were rumors on social media this summer about Ntilikina being traded after he had taken his Knicks bio off his accounts.

“I heard about it. It’s been a while — a really long time,’’ Ntilikina said. “I don’t know. I’m here. I’m happy to be a Knick. I’m working every day to represent this team the best I can. And I’m really happy to be here.”

If Ntilikina continues to improve his ball-handing — as he did late last season — and gets a little more efficient on his 3-point shot, he can still be a keeper. His career 3-point percentage is just 31.1, but he’s always had nice form.

Back and forth to France amid the pandemic, the 22-year-old said he worked “on everything” in the offseason.

“At the end of last season it allowed to be more comfortable on the court,’’ Ntilikina said. “Of course [I worked on] my defense, but also offensively being a better player, being able to score and give my teammates a lot of options. That’s why I felt really more comfortable at the end of last season and that’s what I’m trying to work on and keep improving.’’

In his fourth NBA season, Ntilikina has yet to be on a winner. And there’s been dire forecasts about the 2020-21 club.

“About these predictions, they’re predictions,’’ Ntilikina said. “We don’t really care about what people say. We don’t really care about predictions or statistics. What we want to do is get better every day, get better as a team and just complete our goals.”

Two new French point guards were drafted into the NBA — Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon. As expected, the Pistons scooped up Hayes at No. 7 and Ntilikina will face the American-born, French-raised guard in the first two preseason games Dec. 11 and Dec. 13.

Meanwhile, Maledon, considered a late first-round pick, fell to the second round. The Knicks had a chance to take Maledon at No. 33 but traded the pick for a 2023 second-rounder.

“If they’re here, it’s for a reason,’’ Ntilikina said. “For everybody to make it here, it means you’re talented. The following part depends on you and how hard you work. And these guys are hard workers. I wish them the best things.”

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