2017 Summer League

After Phil Jackson's departure, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek sees Kristaps Porzingis as critical piece of franchise

Entering his third season, Latvian expected to carry more responsibility on the court

Fran Blinebury

ORLANDO — The last time a word from a team executive came out of the Knicks front office, Phil Jackson was saying he’d listen to trade offers for Kristaps Porzingis.

Of course, at that time Jackson still was a Knicks executive.

Now, for the first time since Jackson’s departure on June 28, coach Jeff Hornacek said he expects the 21-year-old power forward to be a part of the team for the 2017-18 season.

“That’s my assumption as coach,” Hornacek said Sunday after watching the Knicks fall to 0-2 at the Orlando Summer League with a 103-78 loss to the Pistons. “I think we’re gonna have all our guys back.

“We want to have all our guys back. I think it was out there that Phil would listen to things. He wouldn’t have been out shopping K.P. We love KP and what he does. I don’t see him going anywhere.”

The fourth pick in the 2015 draft has averaged 16.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots in his first two NBA seasons. But he got cross ways with then-team president Jackson when he no-showed for his exit view at the end of a desultory 31-51 season that left the Knicks 12th in the Eastern Conference and nowhere close to the playoffs.

“KP, that’s just what he felt at the moment,” Hornacek said. “Now it’s good. Let’s go. You know, guys make decisions to do whatever and I’m sure when he comes back we’ll talk. If you’re going to be more the leader on the team, those things are lessons and it’s not that big a deal.

“We’ve been in touch with him. He’s busy out there working on his game. We know he is. It’s probably too big a deal what’s going on. He’ll be back, ready to play.”

While his numbers mostly went up a tick in 2016-17, there was a general sense that the 7-3 Latvian did not make the progress that was expected by the organization.

“First year you’re trying to get your feet when you get thrown out there,” Hornacek said. “The second year, now you feel more comfortable and take a few steps forward. Then the third year you’re really confident. You’ve been in the league for a couple of years. You know guys’ tendencies more. You know how guys guard you. The game just starts to slow down for you. When the game starts to slow down for you, that’s when you take big strides.”

Unlike the departed Jackson, Hornacek believes Porzingis is ready to carry the load as a No. 1 option on the team.

“That’s his next step and growth as a player — be able to handle some of that,’’ Hornacek said. “He’s going to have to take that next step of just taking over. He’s probably ready for that.’’

The head coach said he did not see a need to specifically work on developing a better relationship with the player presumed to be the centerpiece for the future.

“We try to get good relationships with all our guys, not just the star guys,” he said. “We’re always talking to these guys every day. We seem them every day. We travel with them. I think as a group we’re trying to do more things as a team, kind of family type stuff. We’ll try to grow on that.”

It’s been reported that Porzingis has reached out to the Knicks first round pick, Frank Ntilikina, a 6-5 French point guard, in the days since the draft.

“I think all those guys talk,” said Hornacek. “They talk all summer (about) what’s going on. As coaches, we’re texting with these guys, talking to them. So even though they’re gone three-four months, especially the European guys, they’re talking to each other.”

Through the bonanza of signings and the hundreds of millions handed out around the league in contracts through the first few days of the free agency period, the Knicks have been quiet.

“We knew it probably wouldn’t happen right away with guys,” Hornacek said. “We didn’t have enough money for all these big guys, the top players, to get into our fold. I think at this point we’re waiting to see if somebody’s fallen through and we can get them. It’s still open.”

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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