This is Christmas to Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina: the smell of warm mulled wine and bakery sweets. Fairy lights twinkling throughout the city center. A majestic Christmas tree in Place Kleber. An ice-skating rink at the foot of the cathedral. Small wonder his hometown, Strasbourg, in northeastern France, calls itself the capital of Christmas.
Ntilikina lived five minutes from the city’s popular Christmas market, which has been around since the early 15th century. It’s the place where he drank hot chocolate with high school friends after practice. A place of cobblestone streets lined with hundreds of small wooden stalls with vendors selling crafts and Christmas.
“When you’re in that city, you’re waiting for Christmas time, for the Christmas market,” Ntilikina said. “I wish people can go there and experience it because it’s really special. It’s unbelievable.”
Hold a crystal ornament to the light, and it changes depending on the reflection. For Ntilikina, the Christmas market still evokes the innocence of childhood — but something else, too. On Dec. 11, a gunman opened fire on the crowded open-air market, killing five people and injuring about a dozen others. The suspected gunman died in a shootout with the police two days later.
“I was really worried,” Ntilikina said. “I was watching this on my phone trying to follow what was happening, calling all my family and friends. Thankfully, I had news from everyone.”
“It’s something that touches your life,” he continued. “You think, you don’t want this to happen. Then you think, you don’t want this to happen to your friends or family. Then you think, God, this could have been me because I was there all the time.”
The next day, friends sent him photographs of the empty market. “I felt powerless for the people touched by it and the city because this was our thing that got put in danger,” Ntilikina said. He tapped his chest. “They took your little thing away from you. Even if I’m here.”
The locals and the tourists have returned to the Christmas market. But the familiarity of a carol is now accompanied by a dissonant chord of vulnerability. “Now everyone that is going to the Christmas market is watching over their shoulder,” he said. “They think they can be in danger.”
Ntilikina’s mother, Jaqueline, is in New York this week to watch the Knicks play Milwaukee on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden. His older brothers — Yves, a surgeon, and Brice, a physical therapist — will be watching from home in Strasbourg.
It has been a baffling season for Ntilikina, 20, whose crisis of confidence has undermined his progress and altered his playing time. After starting the first 14 games, he fell out of the lineup and was later benched for three games. He showed flashes of promise in his return to the rotation but has slumped offensively in recent games.
“Frank is a young, young player,” the Knicks’ president, Steve Mills, said. “There are a lot of things that he continues to get better at from a defensive standpoint. We’ve got to find a way to work with Frank and allow the confidence on the offensive end of the floor to sort of live within him all the time. It’s there sometimes, it’s not there other times.”
Ntilikina, whom the Knicks chose eighth over all in the 2017 N.B.A. draft, is averaging 6.3 points, shooting less than 35 percent from the field.
“Sometimes, I’m thinking too much and not playing off my instinct,” Ntilikina said. “I’ve made improvement, but it comes and goes, so I have to find a way to make it consistent. I know I have the ability. If not today, it will come because I’m a really hard worker.”
His defensive skill, however, is unquestioned. At 6-foot-5 with a seven-foot wingspan, Ntilikina’s strength is one of the major weaknesses for the Knicks (9-25), who have the second-worst defensive rating in the league.
“His first step on defenders is crazy,” the rookie Kevin Knox said. “He has quick lateral feet, so anytime you make a first step, he’s almost right there with you, and his arms are so long he can block shots.”
Ntilikina’s popularity is a paradox. Heated online debates rage between Frank fans and Frank haters. Is it because he plays for a fan base obsessed with finding the next great point guard hope? Is it because he is too reluctant to shoot in an era when point guards are expected to be more than pass-first facilitators?
Or is it the fact that he was Phil Jackson’s draft pick? That the Knicks passed on two point guards — Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell — to take him? That his development is not progressing fast enough? And on it goes.
The amount of angst and ink spent on the great Frank debate is certainly out of proportion with the number of minutes — 22 — he is averaging. The love, though, seems to outweigh the criticism.
“It’s seriously unbelievable,” said center Enes Kanter, the Knicks’ statistical leader in social media posts made. “I’ve never seen anything like that. I think it’s so crazy. I understand it’s Frank, but people love him soooo much. All over the city everywhere I go, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re Frank’s teammate.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s me.’ It’s cool, man.”
“The one thing about Frank is he’s one of the most unselfish guys that I see at practice, on the court, off the court,” Kanter added. “He’s a very good teammate.”
After practice on Sunday, the 6-11 Kanter dressed up as the world’s largest elf, complete with pointy ears, a long green tunic and a brown beard. His red sack was full of random gag gifts such as toilet paper, New York subway maps, Lady Speed Stick and his autographed picture. He reached in and gave Ntilikina a gift. The young man who grew up surrounded by Christmas laughed and left the court full of cheer.