JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Kristaps Porzingis turned just 22 today and already seems far more wiser than that age suggests, which is what an experience in New York will do a person.
He’ll be the youngest player in the NBA Africa Game here Saturday, where he’ll look to do his part to spread goodwill. Even more important, he’s anxious to do the same next season with the Knicks.
“So far it’s been tough in New York, but my journey is only beginning and I hope to stay there my whole career, so as a city we can have some fun and win some games and do something big,” he said.
“For me, it’s now home.”
That’s the most refreshing and reassuring news to hit this summer for a franchise rocked by a front-office earthquake and the ongoing drama swirling around Carmelo Anthony's will-he or won’t-he get traded chatter. Caught in the vortex is Porzingis, who’s the foundation of the franchise and its hope for the future.
Porzingis was clearly unhappy with a losing season and the culture that caused it as the Knicks, all would agree, were backsliding. He skipped his post-season meeting with then-president Phil Jackson, which sent a red alert through the franchise, and headed home to Latvia to refocus his mind and reconfigure his body. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the Knicks ever since, until he arrived here today.
And now? Porzingis seems willing to give the Knicks the benefit of the doubt after Jackson was fired and replaced by Scott Perry. Suddenly, the Knicks have a new voice and a new philosophy, having been freed from Jackson’s stubborn insistence in using the triangle offense, which wasn’t embraced by the locker room.
Every year is almost like a new year. There will be a lot of changes. I’m going into the season hoping we have a group of guys who want to work hard and win. That’s what’s important.
“For everybody, a lot of things were surprising and a lot of things were unexpected,” he said. “We’ll see when I get there and start working out with the guys. We’ll see what has changed. It’s hard to say with everything going on in New York but once I get there I’ll see things more clearer.”
Porzingis’ two seasons with the Knicks has been marked by upheaval. He’s on his second head coach and will undoubtedly embark on yet another offensive system. The system underwent changes when he arrived in 2015 and will see more when he reports to camp; there hasn’t been much consistency or a clear plan, which has been frustrating to all involved.
“We’re going to have a lot of new guys,” he said. “Every year is almost like a new year. There will be a lot of changes. I’m going into the season hoping we have a group of guys who want to work hard and win. That’s what’s important.”
The health between Porzingis and the club is obviously a high priority and there are signals that it’s on the mend. No longer does the line of communication hear a busy signal.
After not speaking with Jackson, Porzingis said he’s been in contact with officials this summer via texts. Everyone knows what’s at stake: Porzingis, a freakish 7-foot-3 big man with a sniper’s shooting range, will soon command a contract extension worth well north of $100 million and the Knicks would love to be the team that pays it. His happiness with the team and the club’s direction is paramount.
I would love to have him around and keep playing alongside him. But it is what it is. It’s a business. If it ends, well ... I don’t know, it’s out of my hands. I’m really thankful for these couple of years I’ve been with him.
That’s why owner Jim Dolan became proactive and Perry was hired and why the Knicks must make critical decisions that fortify the roster and create an environment that Porzingis can believe in.
Lots will depend on what they do with Anthony, either before the season begins or at some point during it. The wedge between Anthony and the team is real. As the team prepares to embark on a rebuilding process centered around Porzingis, Anthony appears to be an odd fit in the back nine of his career. He’s reportedly willing to waive his no-trade clause if the Knicks send him to the Rockets, and thus the delicate dance between teams continue as they try to sort out the tricky task of compensation.
If the Knicks get a fair return for Anthony, that would do plenty to help keep Porzingis’ confidence in the new regime. Porzingis has a solid relationship with Anthony and is a vested spectator at the ongoing spectacle. In a perfect world according to Porzingis, there would be no reason to trade Anthony.
“He’s an All-Star, an incredible player and I’ve learned so much from him,” Porzingis said. “There’s still so much for me to learn form him. I would love to have him around and keep playing alongside him. But it is what it is. It’s a business. If it ends, well ... I don’t know, it’s out of my hands. I’m really thankful for these couple of years I’ve been with him, just seeing how he works during the summer. It proves he wants to win and he wants to be great. I’m sure he’ll make the right decision for himself.”
Porzingis has channeled his energy away from the turbulence of New York and toward an offseason fitness program he thinks will help raise his game. That’s why he is staying home, rather than New York, this summer.
The program centers on strength-building, especially lower body, and skill development. Porzingis realizes the need to tighten a body that was too lean. He’s excited by the progress so far and hopes to see results starting later this month when he plays for his national team.
“Been working three times a day, lifting weights, running on the track, swimming, basketball, all kinds of stuff,” he said. “Just trying to get myself stronger for next season. It’s going to be a big year for me. I’m so excited, putting in so much work. I can’t wait play again and have it show on the court.”
I want to improve the mental side. I’m actually amazed by Conor McGregor. I’ve been watching so many of his videos, trash talking, how mentally strong he is. I’ve been really interested in that kind of stuff.
Porzingis sees this summer as a way to trigger growth and a chance to evolve as a player. He followed up a strong rookie season by averaging 18.1 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game last season and this season, he hopes to become a smarter shooter and tougher player around the rim.
“My game is inside and out. I want to keep it that way so I worked a lot on my shooting, and my post game, which I know I can get better at. A lot of time was spent and will be spent in the weight room. I want to be able to take contact and be ready for all kinds of situations. All that coming together will help me come together as a player.
“I’m still 22 and still really young but I’m trying to learn as much as I can on the court, and trying to learn as much as I can off the court as well. I want to improve the mental side. I’m actually amazed by Conor McGregor. I’ve been watching so many of his videos, trash talking, how mentally strong he is. I’ve been really interested in that kind of stuff.”
Participating this week in Africa conducting clinics and playing in the exhibition game is a welcome break from training, he said; he and his family also celebrated his birthday by going on safari.
“This is an opportunity to come here and make the NBA grow and change the environment for me this summer. I thought it would be a lot of fun. I’m real excited to be here.”
That doesn’t sound like a player who’s discouraged and looking to leave the franchise in a few years; rather, Porzingis wants reasons to embrace what the franchise is doing. And that’s up to the Knicks.
“Look, I was so happy when I got drafted by New York. I was never worried about the big stage or anything like that. I’ve always enjoyed that. I can envision (a championship someday) and see it. But we’re still a long way from there. As we get better, if we can all see that goal at the end and work towards it, anything can happen.”
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