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Porzingis giving Knicks fans something to believe in

Despite some growing pains, the rookie is making believers out of those who were unsure about New York's Draft selection

POSTED: Nov 29, 2015 9:08 AM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker


Through his first 17 games, Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.

As improbable as it may be, a 20-year-old 7-foot-3 Latvian kid with a buzz cut and a hip-hop musical about an 18th century U.S. Treasury secretary are the two hottest subjects in NYC this fall.

But while HAMILTON sells out night after night after night on Broadway, slaying critics and wowing fans, it doesn't have to deal with facing 10-time All-Stars who've studied a scouting report.

On this night, Kristaps Porzingis takes a seat in front of his locker with a thud. For a guy who has been on an almost unstoppable upward trajectory, this was just not his night.

It's one day after Thanksgiving, and nearly 40 minutes after the New York Knicks took an 'L' in a home game against the Miami Heat. Porzingis was mostly stymied, both by foul trouble and a matchup against Chris Bosh. Porzingis finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and five fouls in just 23 minutes. When he's almost ready to face the media, Porzingis reaches into his locker and grabs a 12 oz. bottle of sports drink; in his enormous hands, it looks as though he's sipping from a thimble.

"In some ways I know I let my team down," Porzingis says quietly. "I just gotta be smarter with the fouls, not commit those stupid fouls."

It speaks to Porzingis' terrific start that a rookie posting 11 points and eight boards is considered an off night. But here in the shadows of Broadway, one subpar night doesn't cancel the run.

GameTime: Kristaps Porzingis

Vince Cellini, Dennis Scott and Sekou Smith give there thoughts on Kristaps Porzingis and his recent success with Knicks.

Through his first 17 games, Porzingis is averaging 13.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. His 1.9 blocks per game put him in the NBA's top 10 in the category, and he's accumulated a rather impressive highlight reel of dunks, spin moves and jumpers, especially for someone his size.

And for a Knicks fan base that has been desperate for a reason to believe, they finally found someone they can trust. Even if they did shower him with boos the first time they met.

Kristaps was basically born into basketball in the Latvian coastal town of Liepaja. His parents both played the game, as well as his two older brothers, Martins and Janis. Janis, who is 13 years older than Kristaps, had a long career playing professionally for clubs across Europe.

"I would work out in the summer in stadiums, doing track and field, and every now and then, Kris would come with me," says Janis, who now lives with Kristaps in New York. "He was a slow, skinny kid who was growing. So for him that was really good to do. He was 12 years old -- the point was that he had to work, and that was extra hard, and he did it.

I think what's allowing Kris to be successful is that he hasn't tried to do some specific thing every night.

– Knicks' coach Derek Fisher on Kristaps Porzingis

"He was my height now (6-foot-7) when he was, like, 14. To be honest with you, we were all guessing how tall he would be, and I think my guess was the best one, and it was 6-foot-10. And we were all wrong!" Janis says with a laugh.

Kristaps began his professional basketball career as a 16-year-old in Spain, and after flirting with entering the 2014 NBA Draft, he finally made the leap in time for the 2015 Draft. Even though there was a relatively thorough body of work available on the internet, Porzingis was considered a great unknown by many Knicks fans, who have perhaps become conditioned to expect the worst after years where they haven't been in contention for anything other than a playoff berth.

When NBA commissioner Adam Silver summoned Porzingis as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Brooklyn crowd reacted with a roar that quickly morphed into horrified howls. We saw reaction shots of fans SMH-ing and OMG-ing, worried that the Knicks had wasted their highest draft choice since they grabbed Patrick Ewing in 1985 on a then 19-year-old averaging just 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in the Spanish ACB.

Porzingis wasn't sure what his NBA future held -- "I mean, I can't read the future," he admits, surely disappointing some Knicks fans who believe in his omniscience -- but Pozingis says he knew he could rely on the skills that had carried him to that point: "For me, I knew every time I step on the floor, just try to do my best, whatever the coach asks me to, and just bring that energy to the team as a rookie."

Heading into the season, Carmelo Anthony recalled his own entrance to the NBA as a 19-year-old, and noted that Porzingis probably had a rougher road in front of him than even he realized: "I kind of feel bad for him, because there's so much pressure on him at this point, and this guy hasn't played not even one minute in the NBA... I don't think he knows what he's about to get himself into. So I've got to kind of be that wall for him."

Porzingins Makes Impact With Knicks

Jared Greenberg and Steve Smith discuss the early impact Kristaps Porzingis is having on the Knicks.

But thus far, Porzingis has proven himself to be a capable Robin to Carmelo's Batman, repeatedly putting up impressive performances -- a double-double against the Spurs; 29 and 11 against the Charlotte Hornets; 24 and 14 against Houston. He's started every game, his jersey has sold out, and fans in Gotham who were resigned to a rebuild are suddenly whispering about a possible return to the postseason for the first time in three years.

Porzingis' quick transition may be aided by the fact that he's basically been watching the NBA since birth. The NBA's international appeal may have been kickstarted by the Dream Team in 1992, but by the time Porzingis was reaching adolescence a decade later, the NBA was well established across Europe.

"We were all -- me, my other brother and Kris -- we were all fans of the NBA, even though we were in Europe," says Janis. "Because we knew the best of the best were in the NBA. The athleticism, the speed and everything, you can't match that. In Europe, in some ways guys may play a little more team basketball and so on, but that's just because you just have to figure out how to win if you can't jump over somebody. We really enjoyed the athleticism."

Clearly, Porzingis hasn't had any problems leaping over his competition, which has also eased his NBA entrance. At 7-foot-3, he is almost always the tallest player on the court, although he almost never plays the center position. As a power forward with swingman skills, part of what makes Porzingis so exciting is the promise he shows, and how he thus far has found success while largely existing on athleticism, hustle and dirty work. He's shown flashes of offensive ability, but he's earning playing time based on things like rebounding and blocked shots, the kind of skills you can't really teach, that are instead largely a product of desire.

"I think what's allowing Kris to be successful is that he hasn't tried to do some specific thing every night," Knicks coach Derek Fisher said recently. "He has to be in the post or he has to shoot 3s... he's just playing the game. His best offense has been offensive rebounding and running the floor. I think he should continue to focus on those things. His post game will develop over time more than it being something he has to focus on. He has a really good feel for the game."

Of course, what makes the game so difficult is that it is always changing. After 20 points and 14 boards in Miami a few days earlier, Porzingis had this relative turkey of a game against the same Heat squad. As he digests the loss, Porzingis says he realizes that the key to long-term achievement in the NBA is consistency, and maintaining production for the long term.

NBA Rooks: An Impressive Debut

Behind the scenes with New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis as he made his NBA debut on Wednesday night in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

"I have my routine," says Porzingis, "I have things I go through. I visualize before the game and try to prepare myself every time, the same. There will be days when you don't make shots, but just bringing the same energy, bringing the same mentality to the floor, every time.

"There are things I can do even though you scout me. Like, my jump shot is very hard to block, but guys can do a good job and contest the shot. But inside the Triangle, there are ways where you can deny the ball and you have to go to other options, and I think we're starting to see that."

Thus far, Porzingis has apparently mostly avoided the trappings of celebrity in the Big Apple -- a nickname, a famous girlfriend, derisive mentions in Page 6, a hashtag. In many ways, Porzingis is the perfect millennial superstar for a shrunken globe. Sure he was born roughly 4,000 miles from the nearest NBA franchise, but he was raised in a world that, at least for him, was always interconnected, where any NBA highlight or play was just a click or a swipe away. He is active on social media, and clearly understands basketball fashion and culture -- he says he listens to Drake and Future before games, and has worn Kobe 9 highs on the court since they dropped last year. While Latvian is his native language, Porzingis is also fluent in English and Spanish, and toggles seamlessly between both during interviews after Knicks games.

The season and his career are young, but Porzingis has given Knicks fans, at long last, something to believe in.

And, at least for now, New York City is all in on Porzingis.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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