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The only Frenchman who will take the court Tuesday in Utah figures to be Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
Though Frank Ntilikina was made available after a 3 ½-week absence with a sprained left knee, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau bluntly said the club’s 2017 lottery pick doesn’t yet have a playing role.
It’s just another bump in Ntilikina’s rocky Knicks career that could come to end by the late-March trade deadline. According to sources, his fans in France want him out of New York at this juncture.
“Right now we have a rotation, but things can change,’’ Thibodeau said after Monday’s practice in Salt Lake City.
The 6-foot-5 point guard sprained his MCL early in the game against the Cavaliers on Dec. 29. He’s been out since New Year’s Eve and still hasn’t played a minute in 2021. When he does get minutes, he’ll wear a knee brace.
Ntilikina had played well on both sides of the ball to start the season, even going 4 of 6 from 3-point range in the Milwaukee win, though his minutes were limited.
“It is, it is [frustrating],’’ Ntilikina said after practice in Utah. “Especially when you find a good rhythm, you’re on the court, you’re helping your team, you’re helping your teammates. I was feeling good, we were feeling good as a team. Me being on the side didn’t stop the team from getting better, but to me it is a little frustrating.
“Now what I had to do, I did. I was doing my best job to get back on the court, get back healthy. Right now that is the case, so I’m really happy.”
Now it’s up to Thibodeau, a defensive-minded coach who has a defensive player in Ntilikina, a teammate of Gobert’s on the French national team that beat Team USA in the 2019 World Cup.
Ntilikina understands his situation can change.
“First, if I play hard on the court, I can give a lot to my team,’’ Ntilikina said. “On both ends, especially defensive end. He knows I’m pretty versatile, I can guard a lot of positions. He is going to ask me what he asks everybody: Go on that court and give 100 percent and be hungry and just be ready to take the challenge, grow everyday. So I’m ready for it.’’
Thibodeau has his point guard rotation with starter Elfrid Payton and rookie Immanuel Quickley, whose legend grew Sunday in the loss to Portland when he scored 31 points — 21 in the fourth quarter. The Quickley explosion spearheaded a comeback from 25 points down before falling short.
Fans on social media want Quickley in the starting lineup over Payton, but it’s not happening yet. Quickley is good with the second unit and Thibodeau is keen enough to know when to extend his minutes.
“We’re obviously very pleased with Immanuel and the way he’s progressed,’’ Thibodeau said. “And he has great versatility. He has the ability to play both on the ball and off the ball. So we like the group that he’s with right now. And we think that it functions best that way. So you want to have everybody play to their strengths and also you want to cover up weaknesses. So right now we feel the best opportunity for us to win is doing the things that we’re doing.’’
Since Ntilikina sprained his MCL, Austin Rivers’ groin pull healed and he’s been a backup guard, making a nice tandem with Quickley.
That leaves Ntilikina on the outside looking in. Thibodeau listed his guard options Monday, and he didn’t even mention Dennis Smith Jr., who had an early-season injury and returned to be a garbage-time specialist. But Thibodeau did mention Alec Burks as a point guard option, too, Monday.
“I like his versatility a lot,’’ Thibodeau said of Ntilikina. “We have some guys that are similar. I think Alec is a three-position guy, Austin is a three-position guy. That was something we were looking to do when we were putting the roster together. So everyone will get an opportunity at some point.’’
Indeed, the Knicks entered preseason with a point guard glut and nothing’s changed — except Quickley’s rise and Ntilikina’s untimely injury.
“It’s not easy,’’ Thibodeau said. “You have to make tough decisions. You evaluate everything. You evaluate how people practice and then you also evaluate how people perform and then it’s not only their individual performance, but the group performance. But one thing we know throughout the course of the season, you have a number of situations, whether it’s injury, illness, foul trouble, where everyone does get an opportunity. When that opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready to go. We’re still looking at a lot of things.’’
Previously, Ntilikina had not been made available to the media since he got hurt, but Monday he explained what occurred.
“It was a play against Cleveland — beginning of the game actually,’’ Ntilikina said. “I felt something on my knee. During the game it wasn’t hurting that much. But after when it got cold, that’s when I felt the injury.’’
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