NEW YORK CITY — It’s two hours before tip off as the New York Knicks prepare to host the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden, and as matchups go, it doesn’t get much bigger than LeBron James and the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers visiting the World’s Most Famous Arena.
And then Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis takes to the court to warm up. The crowd is still filing into MSG, but a few pause to lightly applaud as Porzingis trots out.
As Porzingis begins to run through his pregame drills, it’s immediately clear that something isn’t right. He’s wearing a gray short-sleeved sweatshirt with the Knicks’ logo on the front, but he is tugging at it awkwardly and insistently, repeatedly pulling it toward his waist. No matter how hard he tries, the shirt just doesn’t fit.
When Porzingis reaches the corner of the court he spots a friend and exchanges a handshake. The friend notes his sartorial issues and wonders if Porzingis could find a shirt in a larger size.
“It’s a triple-XL” Porzingis says, with a shrug. “It’s ridiculous.”
Porzingis is used to not quite fitting. After being roundly booed on Draft night in 2015 when the Knicks selected the Latvian prospect No. 4 overall, Porzingis turned in a rookie campaign where he finished as the Kia NBA Rookie of the Year runner-up, averaging 14.3 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game. Midway through that premiere season, Kevin Durant compared Porzingis to a basketball unicorn. It’s hardly a common descriptor, yet everyone immediately understood exactly what KD meant: Porzingis is a rare and beautiful creature which we were not sure actually existed until he magically arrived in Manhattan.
“We’ve never seen someone like him,” says guard Brandon Jennings, whose Knicks host the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day (Noon ET, ESPN). “He doesn’t remind me of anybody else. He’s unique and he’s his own player. We’ve never seen a guy who is 7-foot-3, who can handle the ball and do the things he can do.
“I mean, he’s 7-foot-3, man,” Jennings reiterates, shaking his head.
To put that size into some sort of context, consider this: Along with the Detroit Pistons’ Boban Marjanovic, Porzingis is one of the two tallest players in the NBA. Marjanovic is your prototypical hulking big man, making up for glacial speed with an ability to block shots and control the paint. Porzingis has guard-like ball-handling skills and the quickness to defend multiple positions.
Sure, Porzingis can play in the paint — per NBA.com/Stats, Porzingis is the best rim protector in the NBA –yet he doesn’t even log the majority of his minutes at the five for the Knicks. He makes complex plays looks simple, like this lefty drive to the rim that he finished with a double-pump switch to his right hand.
Plenty of guards have trouble finishing a shot like that. Seven-footers? They aren’t even supposed to think about taking them in the first place. Yet Porzingis does them routinely. Oh, and he’s 21 years old.
So the future is bright, and it’s telling, and perhaps perfect, that Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has said this season that he has no plans to switch Porzingis to center full time, while Porzingis is actually averaging more 3-point attempts per 36 minutes this season (5.6) than he did last season (4.3). Turns out, Porzingis may be the perfect expression of the modern, position-less NBA, where players aren’t automatically slotted into a position because of their height, and instead are used in ways that their skills can best be exploited.
Porzingis has drawn comparisons to Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki, both of whom are 7-footers who boast an ability to create their shot with a delicate touch. While Nowitzki is on the downside of a career curve that brought him an MVP award, an NBA title and a Finals MVP, he sees plenty of potential in Porzingis.
“I am a huge fan of his game,” he recently told reporters. “Obviously the sky is the limit for him. He’s got the deep ball. He’s got the in-between game. He is working on his postups. He is the real deal.”
“We knew in Spain that [Porzingis] got something,” says Knicks rookie center Willy Hernangomez, who played alongside Porzingis two seasons ago for Sevilla in Spain’s ACB. “You can see him in practice and the games, he’s got something special. The good thing is that people think right now he’s very good, but he can play better. He knows that if he really works hard to really push himself 100 percent every day.”
This season, as Porzingis 2.0 has started to be displayed, he is seeing in kind what happens when a player shows the NBA how good he can be: NBA teams are adjusting to him.
During a recent game against the Golden State Warriors, the Knicks entered without Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, both out nursing injuries. If the Warriors weren’t already keying on Porzingis, things intensified moments before game time when someone brought Draymond Green’s attention a Porzingis quote where he said he was “ready” to play against Green, one of the league’s top defenders. (“I like the dog that he has, I like that you want to see me again, but keep that to yourself,” Green said following the game. “Don’t let everybody know that you’re going after me.”)
Porzingis shot 4-for-13 from the field. But it speaks to the mindset that has brought him along thus far that following the game he looked at the night as a learning experience.
“Obviously, Draymond wasn’t helping off of me too much,” Porzingis said, “and I wasn’t getting those open 3s that I usually do, and I wasn’t able to do a lot of the stuff that I usually do, so games like this I gotta watch film and prepare next time for defenses, I guess. If I keep playing this way where I score the ball and so on, the defenses are only going to get better. So I have to be ready for that. I guess that’s how ‘Melo feels every night.”
This all neatly explains why the present of the Knicks (Anthony) and their future (Porzingis) are not only able to coexist but actually need each other: In KP, Anthony has a capable scorer he can find when he gets doubled; Anthony draws double teams, opening the floor for Porzingis. The presence of each makes basketball simpler for the other one. Porzingis 2.0 has caught glimpses of life without another scorer alongside him, and it isn’t always a shooting utopia.
“[Anthony’s absence] makes a difference, and D-Rose as well,” says Porzingis. “They’re both aggressive, attacking always, and drawing the defense in. So a lot of times the attention is on them more than on me, and I’m able to get wide open looks and move more without the ball. So it makes a big difference [having them healthy].”
In the meantime, the Knicks are soaking it all in as Porzingis averages 19.9 ppg and 7.6 rpg, all while setting social media on fire nightly with a mix of Vines, screenshots and unicorn emojis.
Where the Kristaps Porzingis experience will eventually end is uncertain, but one thing is certain: Thus far it’s been an incredible ride.
Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive hereor follow him on Twitter.
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