His family’s roots are in Rwanda, and Ntilikina said his mother still has horrid memories of the genocide that occurred there in the first half of the 1990s but doesn’t talk about it. “She always wanted to protect me about all the stuff that happened,’’ he said.
As a child in Strasbourg, he would trail his brothers as they went to play basketball, and his introduction to the sport was brutal. Yves and Brice bullied him on the court, posting him up, crossing him over and shooting in his face, knowing Frank had no recourse — a circumstance known to little brothers everywhere.
But basketball stuck, even when his brothers moved on to focus on their studies. (Brice is now a physical therapist, and Yves is a surgeon.) Ntilikina began playing on local teams, and his bedroom, which he shared with Brice, became a testimonial to the N.B.A., with posters of Derrick Rose a constant on the walls.
By the time he was 14 he joined the Strasbourg organization. By 16, he was playing with Strasbourg’s highest-level team. His teammates were sometimes more than twice his age. Louis Campbell, the point guard he would solicit advice from, was 35.
Ntilikina had to ingratiate himself with seasoned professionals. He quickly decided his niche was as a role player who brought energy and defense in large supplies.
He also peppered them with questions about the N.B.A. — where teammates like ex-Knick Mardy Collins and former Dallas Maverick Rodrigue Beaubois had played. The European game, they told him, was focused more on basketball I.Q., a style of play in which guile can make up for whatever is lacking in athleticism. The N.B.A., he was told, was ruled by the best players, and talent was the most important currency.
“They told me like when you go here, you don’t have to think too much, because I used to think a lot,” he said. “I used to play the game as a chess game. So they told me when you go there, you just have to play your game and not think too much. Play on your instinct and not think about too much tactical things, because here they’re more aggressive, right to the basket.”
His coach last season, he said, prioritized the cerebral style. Changing his approach, Ntilikina believes, won’t be an issue. He said he played off instinct with France’s U-18 team and did well. And he has been studying N.B.A. players long enough to know how the league works, watching tapes of Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Rose, hoping to refine parts of his game by copying from theirs.
The Knicks’ demands for him this season are unknown. The team recently signed veteran point guard Ramon Sessions, but neither he nor Ron Baker, a second-year player, has a lock on the job. If Ntilikina offers defense and energy, that alone could make him a steady contributor in the coming season.
However, he has also found himself in the N.B.A. rumor mill before training camp has even started. Various trade scenarios that would have a disgruntled Kyrie Irving end up with the Knicks often include Ntilikina going to Cleveland as part of the package the Cavaliers would get in return.
But trade scenarios are just that, scenarios. For now, Ntilikina is trying to focus on what he knows is ahead, a career in the N.B.A.
“What I know is maybe I’m not — not ready — but I’m not going to be great now, but what I’m going to do for sure is work a lot,” he said. “I’m going to work very hard. I will trust the process, work hard and try to be the best me in the future. Maybe it will take time, maybe not. We’ll figure it out.”
The biggest adjustment so far, he says, is not on the court or with the language. He learned English at school, and through movies and music. Instead, he is still getting used to the difference between the French and Americans. He is surprised and enthralled by the friendliness he has experienced here.
“Everyone talks to everybody,” he said. “It’s crazy how some random people you met on the street you can be friends with. In France, it’s not like that much.”
Last month, he went to a restaurant with Felder and a woman stopped him and jumped into a 15-minute conversation. She did not know Ntilikina, and he was not wearing a Knicks shirt to offer a hint. “It was cool,” he said. “I think it’s just the best example to tell of how American people are. They’re very friendly.”
He has been recognized once, while shopping in Brooklyn, and made sure that the person who stopped him was able to take a photograph. He felt compelled to cooperate after benefiting from that kind of graciousness as a child. Ntilikina went to Strasbourg games every Saturday and then took photos with the players. He was grateful…