NEW YORK -- A few weeks ago, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee noticed Frank Ntilikina seemed nervous at times on the court. He saw the rookie overthinking things in certain situations. Typical stuff for a first-year player. So Lee pulled Ntilikina aside after practice and delivered a message.
"He said don't be afraid to take some risks and just play your game, have fun out there," Ntilikina said.
Lee's words seem to have sunk in.
Ntilikina has emerged as a key piece for the Knicks, impacting games on both ends of the floor in ways that few could have predicted at this point in his career.
He'll wake up Thursday, after the Knicks' 106-101 comeback win over the Utah Jazz, tied for second in the league in steals per game (2.0), leading the NBA in steals per 36 minutes (3.5) and third in the league in deflections per 36 minutes (4.3).
"Yeah, we have great confidence in him defensively," coach Jeff Hornacek said.
Hornacek's confidence was on display Wednesday. He had Ntilikina on the floor for the entire fourth quarter as the Knicks outscored Utah, 29-19. With Ntilikina, the Knicks forced Utah into four fourth-quarter turnovers and limited the Jazz to 33 percent shooting in the final frame.
Ntilikina also knocked down a deep jumper and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to keep Utah's lead at two with eight minutes to go.
"He got in, he was running the pick-and-roll, he wasn't afraid to try to make a play or try to take the big shot. It's just confidence," Lee said afterward. "He already had the physical gifts, being 6-5, 6-6, with long arms and the foot quickness and it's him just learning the terminology and learning where to be at. You knew that was gonna take time, but he's matured fast."
Ntilikina's play and another strong game from Tim Hardaway Jr. (26 points, six assists, six rebounds) showed again that the Knicks (8-6) can win games even when Kristaps Porzingis isn't playing like an MVP candidate.
Can New York keep it up? We'll see.
It's clear they still have work to do on defense. Even with strong play from their rookie guard, the Knicks rank 22nd overall on defense. They rank in the bottom third of the NBA in pick-and-roll defense (plays that end with both the ball handler and roller), per NBA.com. That's a problem.
The holes on defense were evident early against Utah, when the Jazz hit 10 of 18 3s in the first half. Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell went off early on in his first game as a pro in the Garden, hitting seven of his first 10 shots. But New York started to switch on screens in the second half and Ntilikina said that they closed out on shooters and came out higher on ball screens.
It worked, as Utah shot just 36 percent in the second half and was outscored by 15. Afterward, Hornacek credited Ntilikina for influencing the Knicks on defense.
"It's great that a young guy comes into this league with more defensive principles than the offensive principles. ..." he said. "It's hard to teach."
The numbers back up what Hornacek sees from Ntilikina.
The Knicks outscore opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions with Ntilikina on the floor, the second-highest net rating on the team (behind Porzingis, who has a plus-16 net rating).
With Ntilikina on the floor, the Knicks are giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions. That would rank as the eighth-best defense in the league. When Ntilikina is off the court, the Knicks give up 108.7 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 29th in the NBA.
"We love that part of it," Hornacek said. "That's what we're trying to become."
Earlier this week, LeBron James said he thought the Knicks made a mistake when they passed on drafting Dennis Smith Jr. James, of course, may end up being right on this. We probably won't know if Smith or Ntilikina is the better in New York for several years.
But at the moment, it seems as if the self-anointed King of New York sold short on Ntilikina.