In the process of kicking former New York Knicks president Phil Jackson on his way out the door, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James slighted Knicks rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina from halfway across the country, and the French teenager’s teammates weren’t about to let LeBron slide.
“I don’t care who, I just cannot let anyone disrespect my family like that, because when I play for an organization, I see my teammates and that organization as like a family,” Knicks big man Enes Kanter said on Sunday, via ESPN’s Ian Begley. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that. The coaches, the GMs, the president, this organization knows what they’re doing. … I mean, come on. That’s a rookie. You cannot just say anything like that about him.”
LeBron took his shot at the Knicks following Saturday’s 111-104 win over the Dallas Mavericks, having just watched Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — drafted one spot behind Ntilikina this past June — drop 21 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and a pair of blocks on his Cavs:
— Brad Townsend (@townbrad) November 12, 2017
“The Knicks passed on a really good one,” James told the media in Dallas, “and then Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick. That’s going to make some headlines, but he should be a Knick. Dallas is definitely, I know they’re excited that he didn’t go there.”
LeBron’s comments appeared to be one last jab at Jackson, whose last order of business as Knicks president was drafting Ntilikina over Smith, reportedly because the former fit the triangle offense better. James lost respect for Jackson after the legendary coach turned executive referred to his friends and colleagues as a “posse” — a term LeBron felt was derogatory toward young black men.
“I’m not a fan of Phil Jackson,” LeBron said from shootaround in New York on Monday morning. “I think you guys already know that.”
— Barbara Barker (@meanbarb) November 13, 2017
“I’ve been knowing [Smith] since he was 14 years old,” added James, “so I know what he’s capable of. And I wasn’t throwing shade at Frank at all. People got their pants in a bunch or things of that nature in New York. They look for any controversy here. I was basically stating what I saw from Dennis Smith, and what I saw from him coming out and watching the draft, and thought he would be a great fit here with [Kristaps] Porzingis.
“And that’s not to say Frank won’t be a great fit. I haven’t seen much of him. I knew about him from my best friend who I went to high school with who actually played with him overseas the last couple years, but it’s the same — I think Deshaun Watson should be a Brown. It doesn’t mean that Myles Garrett won’t be a great football player, but Deshaun Watson should’ve been our quarterback. It’s the same thing. It’s not you s***ing on the next guy. It’s just you stating what you see.”
LeBron may not have meant to take a cheap shot at Ntilikina while poking fun of Jackson, but he did, and the Knicks weren’t so happy that the game’s best player was knocking their young point guard.
“I mean, I don’t know why he made those comments, but all I can say is we love Frank, we’re happy with him,” Porzingis told reporters at Sunday’s practice. “He’s doing a great job. He’s playing great, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to. And I would not change Frank for anybody. Simple.”
Kanter doubled down on his defense of Ntilikina, and James had words for the Knicks center, too. “And for Enes Kanter, who always got something to say,” LeBron added on Monday, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” James stood by his choice of Smith of over Ntilikina. “I’m just stating facts, that’s all. Have you seen Dennis Smith play? Have y’all seen him play? So, get out of here. Y’all be tripping here.”
Less than a month into their NBA careers, Smith is averaging 14.8 points (on 40.5 percent shooting from the field and 29.8 percent accuracy from 3-point range) to go along with 4.9 assists, 3.8 steals and a steal in 28.8 minutes per game as a starter for a 2-12 team. He has looked as explosive as advertised.
Meanwhile, Ntilikina is producing 4.4 points (34 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3), five assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 20.2 minutes per game off the bench on a Knicks team that is currently 7-5 and tied for fourth in the East. He runs the pick-and-roll and locks down defensively as expected.
Ntilikina is a plus-37 in 202 minutes, fifth among all rookies, and Smith is a minus-84 in 346 minutes, second-to-last among all first-year players this season. In other words, it’s way too early in their careers to tell whether the Knicks or Mavericks got the better point guard midway through the lottery.
Now is probably a good time to remind you that James doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to evaluating rookie point guard talent. A few years ago, he called Shabazz Napier “my favorite player in the draft” and added on Twitter, “No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.” LeBron’s Miami Heat then traded their first-round pick and two second-rounders to move up a couple spots and draft Napier ahead of Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic and other NBA regulars at No. 24 in 2014.
Remarkably, the 19-year-old Ntilikina took the highest of roads when asked about James’ comments.
“I think in life people can think whatever they want,” Ntilikina told reporters on Sunday, via ESPN. “However, it’s not gonna affect us and me, so whatever is said, whatever people think, me and the team are just focused on what we’re doing every day to improve and just to make us better.”
Strangely, Ntilikina’s day-to-day focus now turns to LeBron. The Knicks and their top-10 offense play host to the Cavs and the NBA’s worst defense on Monday in a game that has a little more juice now.
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