The New York Knicks are looking to salvage Dennis Smith, Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. Can Tom Thibodeau save them?
When Derrick Rose revived his NBA career, Tom Thibodeau was the biggest voice in his corner.
“He was the only coach that believed in me,” Rose said.
If Kenny Payne has built a reputation as a big man’s whisperer in Kentucky, Thibodeau had the same effect on point guards since he became a head coach in Chicago.
Thibodeau made Rose the youngest MVP in league history in 2011. He was able to squeeze every ounce he can get from rental guards D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson, John Lucas III, and C.J. Watson.
Augustin credited Thibodeau for reigniting his love for the game during his lone season in Chicago in 2013-14, where he averaged a career-high 14.9 points in 30.9 minutes.
“Not only did he give me the opportunity, he actually brought my love for the game back,” he said in 2014. “You kind of lose that a little bit, your passion for the game, throughout the years in the NBA depending on playing time and different situations you may be put in. Coach Thibs, I owe him a lot. I give him credit for bringing my passion for the game back and wanting to learn and play hard.”
Robinson, meanwhile, swore by Thibodeau in a July interview with Ian Begley of SNY.
“One of the best men, honestly. He’s a student of the game and he’s a teacher – he’s both. He’s like Yoda,” Robinson said. He knows his stuff, he really gets after it, he watches a lot of film. He preaches defense-first and if you play defense, you get offense. That’s the reward. I learned a lot from coach Tom Thibodeau over the years when I was in Boston with him for a year and when I was in Chicago for a year. If (there’s) anybody that can change the Knicks, it’s probably him.”
Robinson averaged 13.1 points in his one season in Chicago in 2012-13, the most since he posted a career-high 17.2 points in New York in the 2008-09 season.
The Knicks are hoping Thibodeau can have the same effect on Smith and Ntilikina.
Both young point guards are entering the final season of their rookie contracts, and no Knick rookie has been extended since Charlie Ward in 1999.
“I’m getting to know both guys. I like what they’ve done so far. They got to continue to work,” Thibodeau said in a zoom call with reporters on Friday. “There’s oftentimes ups and downs for young players there’s, you know — there’s a learning curve they have to go through. Some experiences will be better than others.”
Smith is on the same spot when Rose and Augustin were looking to regain their confidence. After a promising start to his NBA career, Smith rammed into a wall last season while dealing with an assortment of injuries and coping up with the loss of his stepmother. He was in and out of the lineup. With his confidence shattered, he averaged a career-low 5.5 points.
On the other hand, Ntilikina has never lived up to his billing as a lottery pick. The French point guard showed flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, but his limited offensive skillset has made him ill-suited for a roster lacking in shooters and floor spacers.
Thibodeau has already plotted his bounce-back plan for both young guards.
“They both have had some good moments in the league. You want to build consistency. And how do you get there? You have to do it through your work, you have to learn from the experiences and you have to be disciplined. And so, hopefully, we can get there this is a very important offseason for both players,” Thibodeau said.
The gift of Thibodeau is he’s a basketball lifer, a teacher. He empowers his players by harnessing their strengths and covering up their weaknesses.
“You look at the things they do well and try to build off that and try to add things to their game,” Thibodeau said. “That’s why I think offseason is important because you can zero in on those things and help build confidence. I think that’s where your confidence comes from. Your confidence comes from your preparation. Your willingness to work on those things and see that you can be successful in doing them. But you never want to take a guy away from what his strengths are.”
Smith and Ntilikina are at a crossroads. All they need to do is follow Thibodeau’s lead.