CLEVELAND — As the Knicks’ season shuts down Wednesday in Cleveland, a light bulb has turned on inside French rookie Frank Ntilikina’s head.
Although it’s probably too late for Ntilikina to make one of the two All-Rookie Teams, the 6-foot-5 point guard has adapted more of an attack mode/scorer’s mentality — weaving in some razzle-dazzle moves to boot.
Since mid-March, Ntilikina has posted five of his top six scoring games, capped by a career-high 17 points Monday against LeBron James’ Cavaliers. He set his previous career high (French League included) with 15 on March 17 against the Hornets.
While LeBron James touted Ntilikina’s “cerebral’’ play beforehand, trying to make nice after a November slight, Ntilikina is now putting on the moves.
Though he could have been flagged for traveling, Ntilikina wowed the Garden crowd with a dash down the lane vs. the Cavaliers, faking an underhand feed before going all the way to the basket.
Last Friday, the so-called defensive specialist performed a similarly imaginative play against Miami, heading downhill to the rim and faking a behind-the-back pass before laying it in.
“I’ve tried some thing things I’ve been working on and I can do on the court during games,” Ntilikina said. “I feel when I get more comfortable I can do a lot more things. Obviously today I got to the rim a lot of times, tried that Euro step. I’m going to keep working on my game to be more comfortable and do a lot of great things.”
Ntilikina’s offensive numbers are still underwhelming — 5.8 points, 3.2 assists on 36.2 percent shooting — but recent signs show development has occurred offensively since mid-March for the 19-year-old lottery pick from Phil Jackson’s reign.
That’s a positive checkmark for the embattled Jeff Hornacek, who could be coaching his last game Wednesday as Knicks coach. Ntilikina’s defensive analytics have always been solid.
“I just feel like the game is slowing down, that I can do a lot more things,” Ntilikina said. “I try to do things I’ve been working on at practice. It was a whole new atmosphere, a whole new experience. I learned a lot here. Now I will bring a lot of things with me this summer. I know what to work on.”
Knicks brass believes Ntilikina hit the rookie wall after his hyped, early January showdown in Dallas when he outplayed rookie rival Dennis Smith Jr. He admits to winter weariness, and Hornacek has made notes across the way of Ntilikina tiring late in games and playing with minor knee/quad pain.
“Obviously I might hit a wall during the season when you’re tired and feel not comfortable on the court,’’ Ntilikina said. “The rookie guys, we don’t play that much games when we’re younger in college, high school and EuroLeague we don’t play that much games. It might be hard to adjust. That maybe why I was feeling like that.”
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Dallas coach Rick Carlisle called Ntilikina “a foundation piece,’’ and Spurs guru Gregg Popovich praised his “confident’’ demeanor.
On Monday, James, who took a dig at the Knicks in November saying Smith should be in New York, said of Ntilikina, “He knows how to play the game.”
“It will motivate me a lot,’’ said Ntilikina, who will play July’s Las Vegas summer league.
NBA scouts attending Knicks games the past month have keyed in on the Knicks’ three young point guards, figuring something will shake out this summer. Emmanuel Mudiay, 22, is now done for the season, in the NBA’s concussion protocol and will have missed the season’s final three games.
Mudiay was a disappointment on both ends (he shot 36.8 percent as a Knick). The February pickup started 14 straight games at point guard out of the All-Star break before losing the job to Trey Burke. Ntilikina has made eight starts, all at shooting guard. Knicks brass wanted to see him defend that position, but also were concerned about his dribble penetration skills.
“It definitely didn’t start in one day,’’ Ntilikina said of his recent attack mode. “Like the prime of players isn’t there until 27, 28. As a player you keep working on your game until you retire. It’s not going to come like that [soon]. It’s just the work I put in every day. It’s paying [off].’’
Hornacek has one last chance to give Ntilikina a start at point guard Wednesday — which many scouts still consider his natural position despite doubts by Knicks brass.
“He’s made strides,” Hornacek said. “I thought the beginning of the game he was playing [Monday], ‘All right, I got great confidence in my game.’ I thought he played well the whole night. He drove the ball to the basket. Made some shots. Defensively, he’s always good. That was a great game for him.”