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How Frank Ntilikina Became a New York Folk Hero, in 14 Easy Steps

The Knicks rookie point guard has played only 14 games, but he’s already been minted as an NYC basketball legend by busting the draft-bust chatter, shoving LeBron, and making defense cool in the Big Apple

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Frank Ntilikina—a.k.a. Frank Nicotine, Frankie Smokes, the French Prince, the 19-year-old point guard the Knicks selected with the eighth pick in 2017—is a New York folk hero. The city that sanctifies bodega felines and pizza-stealing vermin is not thought of as a folksy place, but it is, and the city holds its folk heroes dear.

Of all the players in NBA history who shoot less than 35 percent from the field and less than 25 percent from 3 and never seem to make a layup while I’m watching, he’s far and away my favorite. Ntilikina was semi-recently mentioned in trade rumors for former-Sun and current-Buck Eric Bledsoe—a wondrous, hurtling, bowling ball of a guard in the prime of his career—and my body reacted with instinctive violence, as if trying to reject poison. Not my son. Not my beautiful French son who’s currently in the midst of a historically bad shooting season for a rookie guard. NOT HIM. NEVER HIM.

How did this happen? How did a lightly regarded European prospect with bust potential become the hero the city needs? This is the story of Frank Ntilikina’s metamorphosis from potentially desperate draft reach to “Where should we put his statue?” as told through 14 moments in his young career.

1. Booed at the draft (of course)

Welcoming young players with a noxious gale of boos is a Knicks fan tradition. It’s been over 40 years since the team won a title. It’s been nearly 20 years since the team was truly relevant. There are millions of 20-something Knicks fans who do not know a world where the Knicks are sustainably good. Mallory Edens, Knicks fan, model, and daughter of Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, says Jared Jeffries is her favorite Knick of all time. That’s how bad the past couple of decades have been.

These fallow years have driven Knicks fans out of their minds. Every rookie is either a messiah or a bum. No surprise, then, that Frankie Smokes was booed on draft night. Knicks fans would boo Jesus if a better-known American player was still on the board. Kristaps Porzingis, my first-born son, current fourth-leading scorer in the entire NBA, real-life mythological beast, and pride of the five boroughs (plus Latvia), could, today, win the mayorship of New York City should he choose to run. And even he was lustily booed when he was selected with the fourth pick in 2015. Children wept at the sight of his gangly frame ambling up to the stage to shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. Now he’s the king (LeBron be damned) of New York City, the vanquisher of Phil Jackson. So, don’t worry, Frank. We boo everybody.

2. “I invented drafting Frank Ntilikina!” —Steve Mills

In July, Steve Mills—the man who presided over former Knicks president of basketball operations Isiah Thomas’s regime of incompetence and sexual harassment and who pushed the button on Tim Hardaway Jr.’s truly wild four-year, $71 million contract—wanted it known that he would have taken Frank regardless!

“I went over, I talked to our scouts a lot about Frank before the draft. I went over and watched Frank play prior to the draft, met with Frank’s coaches and learned a lot about who he is as a player and who he is as a person,” Mills said. “So I’m very comfortable with that draft pick. I would have selected Frank at that point in the draft myself.”

OK, dude! We believe you!

3. Concern grows as Frank misses summer league due to various nagging injuries

For true basketball addicts, summer is a time of renewal. It’s when we imbibe that first, sweet dollop of hoops methadone—the unveiling of the rookies. This offseason, anticipation was higher than usual. New York had needed a point guard for the better part of the past 18 years. Frank was the team’s first point-guard lottery pick since Michael Ray Richardson in 1978. Fans couldn’t wait to see him play. Unfortunately, Frank’s young ligaments and tender joints, unused to the rigors of [squints] summer time, were not willing to cooperate. A nagging knee injury held Smokes out of the Orlando summer league, robbing fans of that first hit. Worse yet, a troika of young American guards whom New York passed over to select Frank were either showing out or talking about how they thought they were going to be on the Knicks. That old Frederic Weis feeling began creeping in.

4. Donovan Mitchell gives Knicks fans drafter’s remorse

5. Followed by Malik Monk, the Almost Knick

6. Then the Dennis Smith Jr. remorse hive begins a-buzzin’

Mitchell, an under-heralded 6-foot-3, scorched-earth scorer who eventually wound up on Utah with the 13th pick, laid waste to the Las Vegas summer league like he was Randall Flagg in The Stand.

Monk averaged nearly 20 points a game on 45 percent shooting and just under 40 percent from 3 in his lone season at Kentucky. He buried eventual national champion North Carolina under a 47-point avalanche of Curry-esque jumpers, pull-ups, and cuts, which caused Roy Williams to throw his navy-blue blazer in anger.

A worryingly serious and unfortunately timed ankle injury, combined with questions about his ability to score at the next level, caused Monk to slip to Charlotte with the 11th pick. Monk apparently thought he was going to be a Knick. “Me, my agent, everybody in my agency, my family—we thought we were going to New York,” he said.

Could New York have passed on not one, but two potential stars who might have complemented Porzingis’s unicorn game in order to take a fragile European teenager with a broken jumper and an untrustworthy handle? What an utterly Knicksian possibility. Then Dennis Smith Jr. began dunking. Frank would miss all of summer league and all but one preseason game.

In The Ringer’s NBA Slack, vultures circled.

7. Frank’s injury woes continue

8. … so trade him for Bledsoe?

Frank played eight minutes in New York’s season-opening loss to Oklahoma City, going 0-for-2 from the field with one assist. He missed the next two games—against Detroit and Boston, both losses—with a sprained ankle. Things looked dire. And yes, it was early in the season. But things have looked dire for 15 years, and this early-season direness appeared like a continuation of that.

So when Eric Bledsoe began to tweet his way out of Phoenix—or the hair salon ... whichever—it made sense that Frank would be mentioned in any proposed deal.

9. The breakthrough vs. Brooklyn

Knicks Film School is a Twitter account that exists primarily to make Knicks fans feel good about Frankie Smokes, particularly his innate feel for high-level perimeter defense. The account is either the cutting-edge manifestation of Knicks fans’ delusion and triumphalism; a sober, lightly biased, and well-researched advocacy of a misunderstood player; or the latest in Russian cyber warfare. Perhaps all three. Whatever the case, Frank Ntilikina, the veteran of exactly two NBA games, put up nine points and five assists against the Nets, and was now the subject of defensive mixtapes.

10. 10 points and seven assists vs. the Pacers

... plus three steals and a plus-minus of +12? In less than 24 minutes? IS FRANKIE SMOKES GOOD? AND THE GO-AHEAD 3-POINTER WITH 1:34 LEFT IN THE GAME? Is this real?

I’ve been team “regardless of who else was on the board or whether the Knicks properly develop him, Frank Ntilikina is great value at the eighth pick” from the jump. But the Knicks have a long and impressive track record of failing to develop young players (Porzingis, pointedly, spent all of this past summer training in Europe) or bailing on them before they realized their potential. And, of course, as previously mentioned, the Knicks have needed a point guard since numerous Ringer staffers were like, 6 years old. COULD THE KNICKS HAVE ACTUALLY FOUND THEIR POINT GUARD OF THE FUTURE?

11. Apologize to my son, you cowards

12. LeBron takes a shot at Phil Jackson, hits Frank

LeBron James is a bully. Not always and not always on purpose, but still. As the greatest player of his generation and one of the greatest players ever, his every utterance is spoken from a bully pulpit. And he knows it. No NBA player, maybe ever, has been as adept at using media—traditional and new—to stir up shit.

On November 11, after the Cavaliers beat the totally-without-hap Mavericks, LeBron said the following of Dennis Smith Jr.: “The Knicks passed on a really good one. Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick. That’s gonna make some headlines, but he should be a Knick.”

LeBron would later say that the comment wasn’t a jab at Ntilikina (except that it was), rather it was some best-served-sashimi-cold vengeance upon Phil Jackson. The Zen Master is currently a cloud of inert gas floating above Montana. But during his tenure as president of the Knicks, he infamously referred to LeBron’s inner circle by using the racially charged term “posse.” It was one of his numerous, embarrassing self-owns that damaged the team’s already sullied profile for prospective free agents. James had every right to be upset and every right to take a delayed dump on Phil’s wampum collection. But leave my son Frank out of it, please.

13. Frank stands up for himself

[Watches this … ]

This is the moment that Frank ascended to the heights of Knicks fan esteem. Frank is 19 years old. Frank was 5 when LeBron was a rookie. Yet when the greatest player of his generation, and of most generations, called him out, Frank didn’t back down. He went out of his way to jostle the bully and let him know that he’s there. Who knows what kind of career Ntilikina ends up having? Maybe he figures out his jumper, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he develops an NBA-level handle, maybe he doesn’t. But that willingness to fight for a place on the court cannot be taught.

[Books three multi-hour sessions at a well-regarded tattoo parlor in order to get this picture inked onto my chest]

14. Frank Ntilkina becomes untouchable in any trade

Leave me and my French son alone.