Frank Ntilikina Forged Own Path From Soccer-Crazed France to New York Knicks
LOS ANGELES -- Frank Ntilikina was 18 when he crossed the Atlantic for the 2017 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But when it comes to playing in the Big Apple, the young Frenchman—whom the New York Knicks would take with the No. 8 pick—was no novice.
When he was just 15 years old, Frank was invited to play in the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn. From a luxury car ride from the airport into the city to Manhattan’s glittering skyscrapers, Frank remembers the “little stars” in his eyes from his first New York City experience. And though his peers in that game—D'Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kelly Oubre Jr., to name a handful—weren't yet NBA standouts, to Frank, the trip made New York an easy sell.
“You dream every day to be in America to play basketball and for a week they treat you like you're an American player, like you're an NBA player, like you're a pro,” Frank tells CloseUp360 on a rainy walk back to his hotel room between treatment with osteopath Fabrice Gautier and a session with neuromuscular physical therapist Barrence Baytos. “You got all the same coaches that are coaching college or the pros. They’re giving you advice. They're working with you. So it's like they're giving you the chance to touch your dream for a week.”
“So when you go back, you're working really, really, really hard because you just touched it. You got a taste of it, so you want it. You want it to happen for real.”
Frank Ntilikina took his first trip to New York City when he was 15, for the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic. (Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)
Growing up in Strasbourg, France, Frank would've seemed a natural fit to fall into soccer, which is the No. 1 sport in the country. He remembers most kids obsessing over their favorite football club. For him and his brothers, Yves and Brice, their allegiance lay with Paris Saint-Germain F.C.
Still, as much as he loved soccer as a kid, Frank was drawn to basketball.
“It was no question that I wanted to just play basketball,” he says. “I knew I had that thing for basketball—the love, the love of the game.”
But his love for basketball didn’t develop overnight. Instead, it was instilled in him by following the lead of his older brothers, hooping with them in local parks and on youth club teams. Yves and Brice were 12 and 10 years older than him, respectively. Having found basketball later in their lives, they instead pursued careers in medicine. Yves became a surgeon and Brice, a physical therapist.
“My brothers played a big part. They just loved basketball,” Frank says. “Basketball was the sport we played when we went out to have fun in parks or anything.”
They also turned him on to watching the NBA, right around the time when LeBron James first entered the league in 2003.
“[He] was my favorite player,” Frank says. “I think more and more as I was growing up, I didn't really have a favorite team no more. I just appreciated the game and I just wanted to be part of it.”
Frank’s eagerness to compete at that level set him on a path to professional basketball early on. When he was five, he started playing for Saint-Joseph Strasbourg, a local youth club in the French town where the Ntilikinas had moved after leaving Belgium when Frank was three. At the age of 12, he began attending a school specifically for basketball.
“Basketball was really special for me,” he says. “I wanted to play basketball all the time, after school, just trying to get better. Even since the youngest age, I don't know how I did, but I was just trying to learn new stuff about basketball. I was watching so much of the NBA.”
As Frank grew on the court, he watched as France emerged as a basketball powerhouse, both in the NBA and on the international circuit.
“When I was younger, it was more soccer. Soccer is still the big thing—the biggest thing. Basketball wasn't that known,” he says. “But when these French players came to the league like Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum, and played for the French national team, that's when it got really famous. You started to see more people outside playing basketball. It was more people that played basketball than before, and it was thanks to these guys that came in and did their thing.”
By the time he was 15, Frank’s years of playing basketball with his club and his brothers—in addition to watching domestic and NBA games on TV—finally paid off when he turned pro as part of SIG Strasbourg’s youth squad. "I had been watching and playing as much as I could," he says. In April 2015, at the age of 16, Frank got his first call-up to the top level of pro basketball in France, to help SIG cope with a heap of injuries to its main roster.
To his surprise, Frank was summoned off the bench during a French LNB Pro A game, in which he not only played 15 minutes, but also scored a basket in Strasbourg’s 93-71 win over S.O.M.B. based in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
“It was surreal,” he says. “I grew up watching the [SIG Strasbourg] games and sometimes going to watch the games. I couldn't afford to get tickets for the game… Just to be on that court and actually score. We won the game. It was just amazing. One of the best moments of my young career.”
Two years later, the idea of becoming an NBA player was no longer a tease. Though Frank was never a bona fide star for his hometown team in France, he showed enough talent and potential there—as well as at the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 and at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Global Camp in Toronto in 2016—to earn the intrigue of teams across the league, including the Knicks.
Now, nearly two years since arriving in New York as an NBA player, Frank has settled into the city. He has soaked up the many attractions of Manhattan—though it took some time.
“I love it,” he says. “It was tough at the beginning, but I got adjusted real quick, and once I figured out some things, I was just loving it.”
While visiting Los Angeles, Frank is excited to dine at West Hollywood hot spot Craig’s, but not before two sessions of osteopathy and physical therapy.
When he’s in New York City, he enjoys spending his spare time exploring different cuisines from Italian to Latin and even authentic French food from his favorite restaurant Le Baratin. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, he found “a little piece of home” in the small restaurant nestled in Greenwich Village.
“It really tastes like back home. Really,” he says. “So when I go there it just feels a little bit like I'm home.”
At 18, Frank became the youngest player taken in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft. (Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)
Frank also maintains a connection to France’s preferred sport. Despite being a dedicated hooper, he still keeps up with PSG and proudly wears the club’s kit. He and his brothers were elated when France won the World Cup championship in 2018. Together, they celebrated in the streets of Strasbourg when Les Bleus topped Croatia to claim the title in Russia.
“The whole country was reunited for this game,” Frank says. “It felt amazing because France has some politically tough situations, but that day you felt like the whole country was just reunited behind that game.”
Though he’s traveling with the Knicks, Frank hasn’t played since late January due to a groin injury he sustained earlier this year. But his drive is unshakable as he spends his downtime in LA seeking treatment to help him recover from the injury as quickly as possible—even with only five weeks left in the season. He looks forward to getting back to playing on the Knicks' world-renowned home court.
“Madison Square Garden is not like any other place,” he says. “The fans, the atmosphere, the big lights—it's just what's made every game so special there. To be a Knick is just amazing.”
Despite his recent injury troubles, Frank has found a comfort zone in NYC. (Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)
While it may seem like he’s already reached his goals at the ripe age of 20, when it comes to his future, Frank keeps everything in perspective.
“You got to know where you come from to go further,” he says. “I did something that I was dreaming of when I was young. I remember the first time I was watching the NBA, I never thought I was going to be able to do it and to be here. But with work, with everything that happened in my life, it became possible.
“But, of course, now it doesn't stop. It does not stop here.”