Frank Ntilikina’s 21st birthday was a memorable one. It marked his return to basketball after two years of wandering, seemingly lost on the Knicks’ roster.
That day, July 28, 2019, he reported to French national team training camp at INSEP, the country’s elite sports school and campus tucked into leafy Bois de Vincennes in eastern Paris. Known as the “land of champions,” INSEP is where most French national teams and athletes prepare for international competition, as well as where some of the country’s most promising teenage sportswomen and men finish their academic and athletic training. Among NBA players, the Orlando Magic’s Evan Fournier studied at INSEP, and before him Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf.
Ntilikina did not attend INSEP. For him, passing through the famed gateway was like walking into the heart of French sports history. By playing for the national team this summer, he solidified at least a small place in the nation’s record books. In the process, he also turned a page in his story.
Fêted by the New York Knicks, media and fans following the 2017 NBA Draft, Ntilikina’s young career stagnated last year. Expectations were high but his rookie season left everyone — the Knicks, fans and Ntilikina himself — pining for the Frenchman to play more aggressively. The start of the 2018-19 season held promise, but Ntilikina quickly found himself mired in an offensive slump, for which he was scathingly criticized as being “soft.” He played solid defense, but soon lost playing time, appearing to be falling out of favor with Knicks coach David Fizdale.
Ntilikina suffered a groin injury mid-season, then re-aggravated it after his first game back in late March. Some called it a lost season, but not Ntilikina.
“I learned a lot of things, even on the bench, more than you can imagine,” he told French sports daily L’Équipe. “You see the game, consume a lot of video, and progress in understanding the game. I wasn’t on vacation doing nothing.”
But while Ntilikina progressed in many respects, he was the subject of trade speculation during the 2019 offseason, his confidence potentially falling into tatters. Because of his lingering injury, he wasn’t sure how much he could trust his body, which impacted his on-court movements and shooting.
That lack of confidence was especially jarring to those who have watched Ntilikina since he was a kid, like broadcast journalist George Eddy, France’s television voice of the NBA for the past 35 years. Eddy, like many, views Ntilikina’s time in New York so far as a disaster.
“[Frank is] very intelligent, and it’s easy to see why Phil Jackson liked him and drafted him,” Eddy says. “They’ve played his mind in terms of playing time and the way they’ve used him.
“They didn’t do it on purpose, but everything they were doing was going towards ruining his confidence in himself and impeding his progress as an NBA player.”
Ntilikina’s rocky time with the Knicks is why Ntilikina’s strong performance this summer with Les Bleus was so noteworthy. He came off the bench during the FIBA World Cup and consistently came up with clutch plays, particularly in the team’s 89-79 quarterfinal win over the United States. And it wasn’t just French fans who took note; Coach Fizdale watched a majority of France’s World Cup games in China last month, suitably impressed with what he saw.
The road back to basketball hasn’t been easy for Ntilikina. It has required months of hard work to get healthy, regain belief in his body, and learn — a lot — about the game and letting go of bad experiences. He needed to return home and feel the embrace of his French basketball family.
The first phase of Ntilikina’s journey did not begin in France, but in Los Angeles. There, shortly after his season ended, Ntilikina worked with physical therapist and osteopath Fabrice Gautier in conjunction with Knicks staff.
Although Gautier left France 20 years ago for California, he never left French basketball. He was the osteopath for Les Bleus from 2009 to 2013, and has worked with many of the country’s NBA players since 2014.
Ntilikina spent three weeks in LA working with Gautier to get his body back into competition form.
“I worked on the body, tried to get him strong, and tried to find out what might be the cause of his adductor problem,” Gautier explains.
After a short vacation in France, Ntilikina was back in Los Angeles in June to continue getting stronger and reacquainting himself with basketball movements. Such preparations were particularly crucial for Ntilikina when he was called up for national team service.
“We all know that it’s a game of confidence,” Gautier says. “If you start healthy, feeling good, and feeling confident, you’re going to try things that’s really going to make you shine.”
Ntilikina’s Team France training consisted of two or three practices a day against hard competitors like Fournier, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert and Vincent Poirier. Ntilikina says Gautier’s program prepared him for the national team’s rigors.
“All of that helped me trust my body again and to let go,” Ntilikina says. “When you try to get back onto the court, sometimes the tough part is trusting your body.”
Ntilikina always dreamed of playing for Les Bleus.
“From the youngest age, we look up to the players on the national team,” Ntilikina says. “It’s amazing and it’s an honor to play for France.”
His return to France was also a reunion with Vincent Collet, the coach who gave him his first professional break, at SIG Strasbourg.
Since 2009, Collet has led Les Bleus as they have accumulated medals — two bronzes at the World Cup, a EuroBasket silver, and the 2013 European championship title. He also has longtime experience identifying and elevating young talent. While head coach at Le Mans in the Sarthe, he gave a young Batum his first taste of playing professionally, just as he did for Ntilikina in 2015.
With Ntilikina’s first-ever call-up to the national team this summer, Collet had both of his “basketball sons” with him on Team France for the first time.
Early in the summer, Ntilikina’s call-up to Les Bleus’ training camp was met with surprise from the media because of his late-season injury and minimal playing time with the Knicks. Collet’s own pre-tournament comments fanned speculation that Ntilikina would have to fight for a coveted roster spot. Yet, according to Collet, his plan was always to have Ntilikina on the team, even before the team’s best offensive point guard, Thomas Heurtel, was forced to give up his roster spot through injury.
“Frank would be an important player,” Collet says, speaking after the World Cup. “He would be on the final team, with or without Thomas.” That decision, made well before Ntilikina proved instrumental during the competition, was a resounding vote of confidence from the coach who knows Ntilikina best.
Admittedly, Collet had to make some initial adjustments for his point guard. Ntilikina had changed in many ways since Collet had last worked with him. His body was different than it had been at 19, but he also had a collection of new on-court experiences. He could play at a faster-paced NBA tempo, and had mastered different playing styles.
“I was much more doubtful, but the NBA changed me,” Ntilikina says, when asked how he learned to be more aggressive on the court despite the criticism of the New York press and fans. “I think [Collet] saw that I was maybe grown up with all this experience. I think he was surprised in a good way.”
But some things remained the same, notably how much the two trusted each other. For Eddy, a longtime observer, the reunion of coach and player came at the right time.
“Collet is a good psychologist with [Ntilikina],” Eddy says. “He’s known him since he was very young, so he knows what buttons to push.”
From the first days of training camp, Collet used that long-held relationship to coax ever-more out of his youngest “basketball son.”
“[Frank] always tries to do what you expect him to do,” Collet explains. “But I know him very well, so I pushed him. I often told him, ‘Do more, and if you do too much, I will tell you.’”
With Collet, Ntilikina could finally test his limits.
Ntilikina’s re-found confidence was also aided enormously by his teammates on Les Bleus. Along with Collet, veteran players like Batum, Fournier, Gobert and Nando de Colo encouraged Ntilikina to take opportunities to score himself instead of deferring to others.
“They were really trying to teach us young players about the experience of being in a big time tournament,” Ntilikina says.
He learned how to play with the team at a high level of intensity during a short period of time, all while navigating travel and the stress of international competition. He learned how to be more mentally prepared for each and every game, especially from Fournier.
“Evan, mentally he’s like a dog,” Ntilikina says. “He’s really passionate and he brings that to the court every day.”
Ntilikina also learned how leadership and mental tenacity can forge a more cohesive team.
“It was just amazing with this group,” Ntilikina says of Team France’s mix of rookies and veterans, thought he was subjected to well-intended jokes, like being forced to chug water at a banquet dinner during their first days in China.
“It didn’t feel like I was the youngest player. It felt like a family.”
NBA circles are tight, but because of Ntilikina’s limited court time with the Knicks, Collet thought Ntilikina’s game would be relatively unknown to his teammates. Collet was surprised by how much veterans like Gobert lobbied for Ntilikina.
“Rudy very often came to me, saying that for the defense we want to do Frank will be perfect because he can share the ball very easily,” Collet says. “The way they were trusting him, this was good, for I think it helped him to become what he became with us.”
The fact that France’s extended basketball family opened its arms to him — from Collet and teammates, to Gautier, Eddy and others — didn’t escape Ntilikina.
“You fear less,” Ntilikina says. “You are not worrying about making mistakes — you make mistakes, but you have the confidence to make plays and just play basketball and do what you can do. It helps you more to play freely.
“It is a good feeling and I was really thankful, for I felt it a lot.”
Ntilikina put into practice his hard-realized gains at the World Cup. For Eddy, this was part of the mission: not just to win a medal, but to restore Ntilikina’s confidence. “That’s the whole goal,” Eddy says.
While Ntilikina split time on the court with Andrew Albicy and played his usual formidable defense, he also took more shots, averaging eight points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
Ntilikina was a catalyst for Les Bleus against Team USA, pressing the tempo and creating clutch plays when needed. Ntilikina went on a seven-point fourth quarter run, nailing a three-point shot with 4:35 left that tied the game. That shot was the start of a 16-3 run to close out a 10-point win.
The performance didn’t sink in for Ntilikina until after the game when his number one fan, his mother, greeted him in the hotel lobby in Dongguan.
“After that game, she was really proud of me,” Ntilikina says, remembering how the two united in an emotional victory embrace. “Seeing that look on her face was amazing for me.”
Les Bleus did not win gold, but otherwise Ntilikina’s summer could hardly have been more successful. He is still waiting to become a part of the Knicks’ regular rotation, but his time may be coming soon. Fans began chanting “We want Frank” during the team’s third straight loss to open the 2019 season.
“It’s just amazing,” Ntilikina says of his World Cup experience. “[I] knew that this was going to help me either getting back onto the court and getting that confidence, or also knowing my body.” In winning a bronze medal, Team France got its youngest member on the road back to basketball success. Ntilikina won’t soon forget.