TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — In insisting Monday he never intended to insult Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina, LeBron James took a shot at Enes Kanter instead.
Speaking to reporters at Madison Square Garden two days after he said New York goofed by not drafting Dennis Smith Jr., who plays for the Mavericks, James confirmed what many initially suspected: His comments were targeted at former Knicks president Phil Jackson, not Ntilikina. Jackson drafted the French point guard just before parting ways with the franchise.
James, whose Cavs face the Knicks on Monday night, said he wanted to clarify his remarks for “people who just live in a box and for Enes Kanter, who always got something to say. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
“I wasn’t throwing shade at Frank at all, for people that got their pants in bunches and things of that nature here in New York, that look for any controversy here,” the Cavaliers superstar said.
Kanter, the Knicks’ starting center, rushed to Ntilikina’s defense after James said Saturday night: “The Knicks passed on a really good one, and Dallas got the diamond in the rough. He should be a Knick.”
Kanter quickly took to Twitter to write: “Nope!! We love what we got…Thanks!!!”
At practice Sunday, Kanter said he was “pissed” about what James said.
“This is my rookie,” Kanter said. “This is my team. This is my organization. I cannot just let (James) disrespect (Ntilikina) like that. Frank’s doing an unbelievable job. Every day he’s working really hard.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that. The coaches, the GMs, the president, this organization knows what they’re doing.”
Kanter wasn’t the only Knick who stuck up for their 19-year-old teammate.
“I don’t know why he (James) made those comments, but all I can say is we love Frank,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “We’re happy with him. He’s doing a great job. He’s playing great, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to. And I would not change Frank for anybody. Simple.”
There has been bad blood between James and Jackson since the former Knicks exec called James’ business associates “a posse” in an ESPN interview last season. James said he lost all respect for Jackson for using what he viewed as a racially charged term.
“To use that label — and if you go and read the definition of what the word ‘posse’ is, it’s not what I’ve built over my career,” James said at the time. “It’s not what I stand for. It’s not what my family stands for. And I believe the only reason he used that word is because he sees young African-Americans trying to make a difference.”
Nitlikina brushed off James’ comments Sunday and said they wouldn’t impact him on the court.
“I’m motivated every game,” he said. “I’m just focused about the team, focused about us and we are just 100 percent motivated every game day … so it’s not affecting us.”
“I don’t have to prove to them. I have to prove to myself. I have to prove to the team,” Ntilikina said. “I don’t care what people say.”
The Mavericks selected Smith, also a point guard, with the ninth pick in June, one spot after the Knicks selected Ntilikina. Through 12 games, Smith, who has started every contest, is averaging 14.8 points, 4.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.0 steals. In 10 games, Ntilikina, who comes off the bench, is averaging 4.4 points, 5.0 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals.
“They’re both great young players,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We have Frank, and Frank has done a great job for us. His abilities, the way he’s grown from Day 1 and the things that he’s worked on, we expect him to be a great player also.”