A host of negative issues surfaced that took the buzz off the final week of the Knicks’ preseason:
Rookie Kevin Knox’s mysterious funk. Fellow rookie Mitchell Robinson’s rawness, which will lead him to some G-League action. The flummoxing point-guard dilemma facing coach David Fizdale. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s wrist sprain, suffered in Friday’s preseason finale.
All the while, Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick, has remained solid and healthy. Because he is so versatile, he may not fit best as the starting point guard for the regular-season opener Wednesday against Trae Young and the Hawks at the Garden.
But after a so-so rookie season, the 6-foot-6 Ntilkina looks different — powerful and nimble to the rim while being more active on defense with his long arms and energy.
It’s a far cry from last preseason, when Ntilikina played just one game, nursing a sore left knee that cost him the 2017 summer league.
“Last preseason, I didn’t have time to prepare,’’ Ntilikina said. “I was getting healthy from the summer. It’s a different feeling right now to prepare and get ready for that season.’’
Ntilikina’s gains in weight and height are manifesting themselves on the court. The extra bulk — about 10 pounds — has him stronger to the rack and sturdier in guarding power forwards on switches. Ntilikina’s progress in the preseason was overshadowed by a point-guard race that didn’t do the Frenchman justice. (Fizdale started four different players at the position in five games).
“My overall body, it [gives me the] ability to feel comfortable on the court right now — defensively and offensively,’’ Ntilikina said, “I feel I played with a more free mind.”
Ntilikina averaged 7.1 points in 20 minutes on 45.2 shooting and 50 percent on 3-pointers this preseason. He shot almost 10 percent higher than last regular season.
How it all factors into Fizdale’s final decision on his starting point guard is unclear. The coach said he will pore over analytics regarding “which groups had the best offensive, defensive efficiency together.”
The 20-year-old Ntilikina can play enough minutes at shooting guard and small forward to show his worth. By contrast, Trey Burke, who ended last season as the starter, is strictly a point guard.
Those are reasons why Burke is the favorite to win the job despite a modest preseason performance (35.9 percent shooting). Emmanuel Mudiay and Ron Baker may be left fighting for scraps.
“They all showed the ability to run the team and guard their position well,’’ Fizdale said. “They’ve made it tough on me — which is good.’’
During last season’s All-Star weekend, Ntilikina expressed a preference to start, but he’s not going there. His English is more measured this season and he pauses a couple of seconds before answering in his second language.
“We have a great coach for our team,’’ said Ntilikina, whose seven starts last season all came at shooting guard. “We trust him to do the best decisions. He knows basketball. If he wants me to start, I’ll start. I’ll be ready. If he wants me to come off the bench, doesn’t matter. I’ll come on the court as ready as I’ll be.”
Though Ntilikina showed well, Knox got worse as the preseason progressed, finishing off at 32.7 percent shooting. Knox was reduced to 12 minutes Friday against the Nets because of five fouls — including two offensive. Fizdale admitted Knox “stunk’’ in the final three preseason games, all at the Garden. Interestingly, Knox’s lone Garden game while in college at Kentucky, against Monmouth, was his worst (1-for-9, seven turnovers).
All the summer hype could have backfired with opponents charged up to neutraliz Knox. Fizdale maintained Knox is the starting small forward — for better or worse.
“This is all learning for me,’’ Knox said. “Like he says all the time, I’m going to get my butt kicked a lot and I’m going to have a lot of mistakes. It’s part of a rookie year, you’re going to have ups and downs. It just shows how much confidence he has in me keeping me in the starting lineup. As I keep playing more, get used to playing in the system, get used to playing Madison Square Garden, New York, I’ll get better and I’ll be able to find my rhythm.”
If politics weren’t involved and Fizdale stuck with his mantra that the starters would have to earn it, the coach could have trotted out a Burke-Ntilikina-Hardaway starting alignment. However, the overriding theme of 2018-19 is player development.
Knox, 19, who lit up summer league in Las Vegas with springy dunks and hard drives to the hole, said he realizes he has a bull’s-eye on his back as a touted Rookie of the Year candidate.
“That’s going to be every night, coming in. New York, the Garden, everybody’s coming in here to try and drop their career high,’’ Knox said. “Fiz is going to put me on them, they’re going to try and go at me.”