Frank Ntilikina embracing Olympic chance after lost Knicks season

Frank Ntilikina will play plenty Sunday vs. Gregg Popovich and the U.S. Olympic Team in Tokyo. The France-Team USA rematch is on when they meet Sunday at 8 a.m. (EST) in the Olympic Games...

Frank Ntilikina will play plenty Sunday vs. Gregg Popovich and the U.S. Olympic Team in Tokyo.

The France-Team USA rematch is on when they meet Sunday at 8 a.m. (EST) in the Olympic Games opener.

“We’ve been preparing for France for two years,’’ Popovich said. “I think about it everyday.’’

Indeed, it’s a grudge match. France stunned USA in the World Cup, costing the Americans a medal as Ntilikina outplayed Kemba Walker.

There’s no Walker on this Olympic Team but there is Ntilikina, who likely will start at guard after failing to make Tom Thibodeau’s rotation in his fourth season with the Knicks in 2020-21.

Because of limited access this season due to Knicks-controlled Zoom, Ntilikina had not talked to the New York press since Feb. 26. That was not long after he returned from a ten-day absence due to COVID-19 tracing.

Frank Ntilikina playing against Spain in an Olympic warmup on July 10, 2021.

Earlier this week, Ntilikina, the longest-tenured Knick, talked about his 2020-21 season in an interview in French with France’s sports publication that was translated for The Post by @FrenchKnicksPod.

“Not playing is not easy for a player,’’ Ntilikina said. “I would definitely like to play more. But I train all season long. And because I’m still a young player, I know I have a lot of things of my game that I can improve on in future seasons. This is what I did this season offensively in games with the Knicks as soon as I had playing time, being at my advantage over the opponent’s points guards.’’

Late in the season and in the playoffs, Thibodeau would use Ntilikina for a defensive possession to close out the first half or – as in the playoffs – the game. Ntilikina was put in cold to defend the Hawks’ Trae Young in the final seconds of Game 1 but couldn’t stop his final-second game-winning floater.

Ntilikina was still satisfied with his Knicks’ contributions in the 33 games he played in the regular season. While he averaged just 2.7 points, he shot 47.9 percent form 3-point land in limited attempts (23 of 48).

“I adapted well this season in games to make the right choice offensively at the right moment to either shoot or dribble or pass,’’ Ntilikina said. “ And this happened because in my opinion, all my individual work during the season made me a better player even with few minutes this season.”

Frank Ntilikina playing against Spain in an Olympic warmup.
AFP via Getty Images

Ntiliikna played in two of the three French exhibition games. Both games he played came against the Team Spain juggernaut.

He scored 13 points in the first game vs. Spain (2 of 4 from 3), and 7 points in the second game (2 of 2 from 3-point range).

“My approach to the Olympics is a bit the same as the one I had for the World Cup,’’ Ntilikina said. “I try to bring as much as possible to the team. It’s the Olympics, it’s not just anything, it’s something I watched every four years. Now having the chance to go with the France team is a childhood dream.’’

NBA scouts are watching. Ntilikina, who turns 23 next week, is a restricted free agent in August when the medal rounds begin.

The Knicks need to make him a qualifying offer of $8.3 million to keep him restricted. Then his cap hold would become a sizeable $18 million. But the Knicks can remove that hold on Ntilikina if he signs an offer sheet, just like the Wizards did when the Knicks signed Bobby Portis.

The market for Ntilikina might be soft enough for the Knicks to match a modest offer. The Post reported Wednesday they haven’t ruled out bringing Ntilikina back if they lose Reggie Bullock.

“New York is a spécial city for me,” Ntilikina told Le’equipe.

But don’t be surprised if Popovich’s Spurs take a run at the Frenchman, especially if he stars for “Les Bleus” in Tokyo. The Spurs legend has always been complimentary of Ntilikina.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Marc Berman

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