With Frank Ntilikina’s departure to Dallas as a free agent, the debate over the value of the former lottery pick is over for the Knicks. Four seasons under four coaches and three team presidents – including Phil Jackson, who drafted him to run a system that was discarded a few days after the draft – left him with a legacy of just 55 starts and most disappointment.
But in his limited minutes last season for Tom Thibodeau, Ntilikina filled a role. As the season went on and into the playoffs, Thibodeau would call on Ntilikina for a defensive stop. And while Thibodeau and some of his players still speak longingly about Elfrid Payton’s defensive ability, Ntilikina was imposed on the crucial defensive moments.
Now with Payton and Ntilikina away, and Reggie Bullock also out of the picture after signing with Dallas, the Knicks have lost some of their backcourt defensive talent and size. The starting point guard is expected to be Kemba Walker, who is listed — perhaps generously — at 6 feet tall. So a question for Thibodeau is just who is going to take over the defensive stopper role in the backcourt this season.
The answer could come in the form of rookie Miles McBride.
“I think if you light more fire under Deuce, you’d have a forest fire,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told reporters at the NCAA tournament last season. “Deuce doesn’t have to light up. He’s a guy who comes every day and works. He’s a guy who spends countless hours on his own working on his game.”
Listed at 6-2, McBride is a former highback quarterback who has impressed with his offensive ability, but his calling card in West Virginia was a stubborn style that works perfectly for Thibodeau.
“Well, we’ll find out,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what I like about him and Quinton [Grimes], both have a defensive component to them. Obviously you have to learn the NBA game, you have to teach the players, you have to teach our players and our system. It takes time. But I love how they compete. Their toughness, their competitiveness, their basketball IQ. They are mushrooms, they are in here all the time, they pick things up. Our veterans have done a great job with them. We’ll find out, but I’m sure when they get their chance, they’ll play well. “
“I feel like my defense is something I can always lean on,” McBride said. “So offensively I can make shots. I think defense is something that’s going to get me on the floor. Just keep learning from [veterans] and hopefully see my minutes rise. “
An opening arrived Sunday when the Knicks announced they were giving up guard Luca Vildoza, who was in camp on a non-guaranteed contract but was unable to play with an ankle injury. Thibodeau did not hesitate to hand over rookie Immanuel Quickley a huge role last season as he produced his options. With a gap to fill a unit that ranked third in defensive rating last season, McBride was able to find his place this season.
“I always have my expectations very high,” McBride said. “Obviously this is a higher level so I want to take the time to learn. It’s different. So I can definitely see myself exceeding expectations and I think that’s what a coach would have for its players. “