Three-game message sent.
Knicks coach David Fizdale gave all indications Frank Ntilikina is no longer French toast.
After benching him for three straight games, including letting him sit during Thursday’s nationally televised 128-100 loss in Boston, it looks as if the 2017 lottery pick will be back in the mix when the Knicks host a rare Garden back-to-back — Saturday against the Nets and Sunday against Kemba Walker’s Hornets.
Fizdale even played center Luke Kornet, who has played less than 16 minutes this season, in the final minutes of the carnage against the Celtics — but kept Ntilikina on the bench.
“I did not want to put him in in garbage time,’’ Fizdale said after Friday’s practice. “Cause I still see him, even though there is so many minutes in a game, as a player, I still see Frank as a rotation player. I didn’t want to do that to him. He was right there on my mind, even to put him into the real action. And he still is.”
Fizdale appears ready to reintroduce Ntilikina, whose future is a huge key in team president Steve Mills’ master plan. Former president Phil Jackson and Mills drafted Ntilikina at No. 8 overall of the 2017 draft and it’s challenging for a rebuilding team to miss completely on a lottery pick.
Fizdale likely was testing Ntilikina — similar to the way his mentor, Pat Riley, used to play mind games.
“I do think that’s player development,’’ Fizdale said. “I think earning some of the stuff that you get is a big chunk of growing and having to fight for it is a big chunk of growing. The beauty of it is Steve and [general manager] Scott [Perry] are both on board with me of we’re not just going to hand it off to them. We want them to go about it the right way. Do I always make the right decision, the perfect decision? No. But I really try to be fair and at the same time develop them.”
Thursday, however, Fizdale seemed to turn Ntilikina into a sympathetic figure among some “Free-Frank” Knicks fans.
“No one is ever buried on our team,’’ Fizdale said. “It’s just one quick decision away from getting him in the mix. He had a heck of a practice today and you will be seeing Frank on the court sometime soon.’’
The reserved 20-year-old didn’t get testy in speaking with the media Friday — as he did Wednesday. In fact, he was much more insightful.
“I’m going to get out of this better, get out of this experience better than I was,’’ Ntilikina said. “This is going to get me tougher on the court, tougher mentally. Just better. It’s an experience that helps players.”
Ntilikina, drafted as a point guard, has struggled badly recently, playing mostly off the ball and off the bench. Ntilikina, whose strength is as an on-ball defender, went scoreless in his past two outings and is shooting 33.3 percent — 25.8 percent from 3-point range.
Fizdale said he hopes Ntilikina responds to this statement from the coaching staff with panache — similar to the way Damyean Dotson, Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay did. Making the demotion even more startling is that Burke has been hurt the past three games and Fizdale used undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier over Ntilikina as backup point guard.
“I just saw them bounce back real good on the court,’’ Ntilikina said. “Like they did, and what I’m doing right now, they competed really hard at practice. They got extra work. That’s what I’m doing every day. We all got to stay confident. We’ve been through some tough things in life. It’s just a thing that will help me bounce back in life and get better.”
Ntilikina gave no indication whether or not he was OK with Fizdale withholding him from garbage time.
“I understand what that means,’’ Ntilikina said. “It’s his decision so he didn’t put me in.”
Fizdale said he believes Ntilikina will ace his return.
“All those guys went through it,’’ Fizdale said. “And they came back better on the other side of it. The way Frank has handled it has been exceptional. He’s totally engaged in winning. He’s gone about it literally the exact same way that those other guys have. That’s why I think when he does go back in there, he’s going to be ready.”
It looks like it’s going to be Saturday.
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