GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Peering out the window of the aircraft returning him to New York this summer, Frank Ntilikina was struck by the emotions bubbling up inside of him.
He'd just spent three weeks in his mother's apartment in Strasbourg, France, the city his family moved to when he was three years old. It was a trip he'd been anticipating for months, both a respite and reward for the grueling year he'd endured. Yet, somehow, the vacation still exceeded his expectations. He met his older brother's son for the first time. He ate his mother's plantains, his favorite childhood dish. He was free to speak in his native French. Also, he died the tips of his black hair blonde.
But as his plane descended towards New York, Ntilikina suddenly felt a mix of joy and excitement. He really missed Bella, his baby Goldendoodle. He couldn't wait to climb into his own bed and flip on an episode of Empire. He'd gone weeks without devouring chicken parm and was craving a sandwich.
"It was strange," Ntilikina said after an October practice at the Knicks' Westchester County training center. "I was leaving France, but I really felt like I was going home. I feel like I'm home in New York and just am comfortable in life, When you feel good off the court, you have a better chance to feel good on the court."
Ntilikina's rookie season had been up and down. At times, he flashed the skills that had propelled him into the previous draft lottery. Other times, he resembled a talented but overwhelmed JV kid trying to hang with the varsity. Mostly, he seemed to just coast.
"I spent a lot of time getting acclimated last season," he said. "Everything was so different."
That included the language, culture, food and of course, the basketball, with its speed and bigger and stronger opponents and complex schemes. Ntilkina proved himself to be one of the league's better perimeter defenders. But he also averaged just 5.9 points and 3.2 assists in 21.9 minutes per game.
He hoped that his growing comfort with life away from the court would help boost his production on it. So far, that hasn't been the case. Ntilikina is once again averaging just 5.9 points. He's connected on an ugly 25.7 percent of his deep looks. In recent weeks, he's been relegated to the end of head coach David Fizdale's rotation.
Still, Ntilikina remains confident in his abilities.
"I know it's been a bad moment for me shooting-wise," he said this week after a blowout loss in Philadelphia, in which he was scoreless in 14 minutes. "But it's going to be alright. It's the story of the NBA. It's the story of young players coming in, and you know, this is how it happens."
As a rookie, Ntilikina was never granted time to acclimate to his new surroundings. Most prospects spend the lead-up to the NBA draft in local gyms, honing their craft and surrounded by trainers and agents. Ntilikina spent it commuting between France and New York, playing nearly 30 minutes in a French Pro A championship game one night, then walking the Barclays Center draft stage and shaking hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver the next.
He celebrated being selected eighth overall by the Knicks by jetting back to France for one last game. He sprained his knee that night, forcing him to the sidelines during summer league and robbing him of the opportunity to begin getting acclimated to the NBA game.
He arrived in the NBA fairly fluent in the English, enough so that he could conduct interviews—albeit in a slow, slightly mumbled voice. He even read a book in English by longtime basketball trainer Tim Grover.
But then practices started and the Knicks coaches would throw out dozens of phrases he never heard before. He'd listen to the instructions while doing his best not to forget whatever mystery terms he needed translated, even though, as he said, "It was hard at times to keep track." He'd then pull aside a teammate, such as veterans Courtney Lee or Lance Thomas, and ask for a hand.
After practice, Ntilikina would return home and play video games in his apartment or binge episodes of Empire or Suits or play FIFA alone.
"I didn't really want to do much off the court because I had a few injuries and just wanted to rest up," he said.
He'd often tell his agent, Rich Felder, with whom he lived with for six months, that he missed home. His teammates noticed.
"He was real quiet," Lee said.
But all that's changed since Ntilikina returned to New York. He no longer spends his off days cooped up in suburbia. Some French-speaking friends have introduced him to a plethora of local restaurants. He's become a die-hard New York sports fan, frequenting Yankees and New York City Football Club games and giddily posing for pictures alongside slugger Aaron Judge. He received his driver's license, thanks to hours of tutelage by a Knicks security official in various White Plains shopping malls.
"You knew he was comfortable when he went home and died his hair blonde," Lee said.
Asked if any Knicks give Ntilikina grief for the boy-band hair, he added: "We let him live, man. That's his swag."
On the court, Ntikilina's defense remains impressive. Statistically, the Knicks have limited opponents to 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Ntilikina on the floor, per NBA.com. Many opposing scouts still project him as a future All-NBA Defensive Team member and other teams, as both The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov, and ESPN.com's Ian Begley have reported, sense that perhaps the Knicks have soured on Ntilikina and are beginning to sniff around on his availability.
It's his reticence on offense that's knocked him out of the rotation. He still won't attack the rim, and he doesn't look to shoot as often as the Knicks would like. And even when he does take jumpers, he's not finding much success. It's no coincidence that the Knicks score 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Ntilikina plays, one of the worst marks in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But there's an argument to be made that the Knicks are making a mistake in not providing Ntilikina a longer leash. He's still just 20 years old and already boats an elite NBA skill with the size and range to guard three positions. His jump shot might not be falling, but opposing scouts are quick to point out that his form doesn't look crooked or broken. Maybe Ntilikina will never evolve into a dynamic point guard. But there are plenty of other ways for him to contribute.
In the meantime, Ntilikina is continuing to focus on the little things in his life, like finding a suitable spot to order steak frites, training his dog to use a Wee Wee Pad and feeding New York reporters something other than a bland quote. On a recent afternoon at the Knicks' training facility, he spent about five minutes fielding questions about subjects such as his role with the team and growth under Fizdale. Afterwards, Ntilikina turned to a Knicks public relations staffer.
"I'm getting better, right?" he said.
A proud smile stretched across his face.