Frank Ntilikina looks like a different player with Knicks exile behind him

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From getting buried at the end of the bench to suddenly moving into the starting lineup, Frank Ntilikina’s rollercoaster season with the Knicks is back on the upswing.

The Knicks produced a rare clunker Tuesday night in San Antonio, but Ntilikina played effectively in his first start of the season at point guard in place of injured Elfrid Payton and COVID-protocoled Derrick Rose.

The 2017 lottery pick nailed all three of his 3-point attempts and scored a season-high 13 points with one turnover in 25 minutes, likely earning more playing time in the Knicks’ final game before the All-Star break Thursday night against the conference-worst Pistons at the Garden.

Rose sat out against the Spurs due to an inconclusive test result, but he has tested negative thereafter and potentially could return to the lineup against Detroit as long as he continues to do so.

“You’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to be ready,” Ntilikina said after Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs. “That’s what I want to do, I want to play, I want to be on the court, I want to help my teammates out.

“When Coach calls my name, when my teammates need me, I’m excited to go out there and compete with them, get the job done and get better.”

The 22-year-old Ntilikina rejoined Tom Thibodeau’s rotation when Payton first sat out with a hamstring issue Feb. 25 against Sacramento. It was the fourth-year guard’s first appearance since Dec. 29, due partly to a knee injury and a week sidelined with the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols.

Ntilikina also didn’t play in several games while healthy and available, but he didn’t complain and continued to put in the work daily in practice.

“It’s not really hard. You’ve just got to stay ready, keep working on your game, even when you’re not having a lot of minutes, keep working on your game and keep getting better,” Ntilikina said. “Your team is going to need you at some point, so that’s the mindset.”

The All-Star break at least should work in the team’s favor. Even if Rose misses another game, the Knicks (18-18) don’t open the second half until next Thursday in Milwaukee. If Payton sits out against the Pistons, the stoppage would give him an additional full week to strengthen his hamstring for the stretch run.

“We’ve got more than enough to get it done. So we have to find a way,” Thibodeau said Tuesday night.

Ntilikina started the game, Thibodeau added, because the coaching staff wanted to keep rookie Immanuel Quickley as the top scoring option with the second unit. Despite the backcourt absences, veteran guard Austin Rivers didn’t play for an eighth straight game.

“I feel comfortable playing with everybody. We work really hard as a team, everybody works really hard as a team to [mesh] on the court, just be the best team we can be,” Ntilikina said. “It’s a long season. We’ve got to give the coach a lot of options. Everybody has to be ready, ready to play together, ready to play with different teammates out there, face different matchups. That’s the beauty of the game.”

Ntilikina clearly has been working on his outside shot during his downtime. His 3-for-3 showing Tuesday night improved his 3-point percentage in eight appearances this season to 55.6 percent (10-for-18) after connecting on just 127 of 409 attempts (31.1 percent) from long distance over his first three seasons.

“I feel definitely more comfortable shooting it, just playing on the court,” Ntilikina said. “Comes back to the same thing – work, dedication, focus, and everything I can bring to prepare and be ready to play this game. Like I said all the time, it’s going to get better with time and work.”

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