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France's Ntilikina starting to meet lofty expectations
VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - Frank Ntilikina won the FIBA U16 European Championship in 2014 with France and triumphed once more at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016, garnering the honor as the tournament MVP.
To do this for a country that routinely sends talented young players to the NBA, well, everyone knew this kid had a very bright future.
Ntilikina made mouths water with his performances in the France shirt and then his one season at SIG Strasbourg under coach Vincent Collet. The New York Knicks thought so highly of his potential that in the 2017 NBA Draft, while he was still just 18, they selected him eighth overall.
After sputtering in his first two seasons with the Knicks, especially on offense, Ntilikina has begun to look like the player New York wanted when they added him to the fold.
Since the end of his last NBA season and the start of this one, Ntilikina has taken his game to new heights. He's been far more assertive. With France at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, he took responsibility when the ball was in his hands.
When Les Bleus claimed the scalp of the United States in the Quarter-Finals on September 11, 89-79, Ntilikina lit up the Dongguan Basketball Center and especially with his drives to the basket.
He went to his left hand and banked in a shot over the outstretched arms of center Brook Lopez in the first quarter and in the third quarter, he attacked on the right and got two more points off the glass thanks to a quick release that surprised Jaylen Brown.
In crunch time, with 6:44 remaining and the USA leading 74-69, Ntilikina stepped up by again going hard to the basket and scoring. With 4:35 left, he drilled a game-tying 3-pointer and then, from the wing with 2:16 remaining, he threw in a 3-point dagger, despite USA guard Kemba Walker getting a hand in his face.
The basket extended France's advantage to 83-76 and they pulled away for an impressive win. France slipped up against Argentina in the Semi-Finals, 80-66, yet bounced back with a 67-59 triumph over Australia in the Third-Place Game.
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"It was amazing," Ntilikina said, reflecting on the World Cup. "It was great, first of all just the feeling of being back on the basketball court (after having his NBA season end in March due to a groin injury), playing basketball and on that stage, the World Cup, with the French national team against the best national teams of the world. This experience was great for me, for us and it helped me a lot."
Early indications are that the World Cup experience has impacted his play in the United States.
In his first start, against the Boston Celtics on November 1, Ntilikina played well for 38 minutes.
He finished with 10 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds, 3 steals and a block. His overall effort was outstanding, especially on defense. Boston won that game, 104-102, when Jayson Tatum hit a tough, long jumper from the right.
Defensively, one might say that in his first two NBA seasons, Ntilikina was fine. He could guard multiple positions. It was on offense where he struggled. He seemed reluctant to make plays. Ntilikina was rarely in attack mode.
Collet, who is also the France coach, believes the World Cup can end up being the spark Ntilikina needed to get his career moving.
No player for the national team, Collet said, improved as much as Ntilikina from the start of training camp to the end of the tournament.
His advice to his player when he stopped by to say hello in Strasbourg before flying back to New York?
"I told him he must keep going," Collet told The Athletic. "He must take advantage of the World Cup. When you start the camp, you must show them you are not the same Frank anymore."
It's exciting to think about the possibilities for Ntilikina and not only for New York, but next year when France compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
The way he talks, Ntilikina indicates that France have unfinished business.
"We wanted to go all the way (at the World Cup), especially after beating Team USA, we thought we had the ability to go all the way," Ntilikina said. "Still, a medal at that competition is very good for us.
"We'll take it, but we wish we went all the way. It was a tough loss against Argentina. They deserved it more than us, but it's something to learn from in the future."
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