Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Nothing mystical about Kristaps Porzingis' rise to stardom

Week 8: Basketball 'unicorn' has game, raw potential to back a future MVP run

New York Knicks guard Jarrett Jack still has work days when he can’t believe his own eyes.

Even after all of the practices, games, bus and plane rides, he does a double-take when he catches Kristaps Porzingis out of the corner of his eye.

“That’s a whole lot of dude,” Jack said with a laugh as Porzingis and teammate Enes Kanter made their way from the court towards the team bus after a morning shootaround last month in Atlanta. “In a room fall of giants, a league filled with giants, you can’t do nothing but shake your head at a dude like that. It doesn’t make sense for anybody to stretch out like that. I wish I could explain it.”

In Jack’s defense, he’s like the rest of us, trying to make sense of the dimensions and talents of a player remain hard to comprehend.

* Kia MVP Ladder (Dec. 1): LeBron defies Father Time

Porzingis has seemingly unlimited potential. You don’t get nicknamed the “unicorn” by Kevin Durant — who himself is a perplexing blend of length, athleticism and floor-stretching ball skills that defy conventional wisdom — without showing flashes of true brilliance.

And make no mistake, with the cloud of the Carmelo Anthony-Phil Jackson drama finally lifted, he is the future Knicks fans have been waiting on forever. He is a talent tasked with leading the franchise back to the elite level their die-hards believe is their right.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek praised his star for the way he prepared himself for the opportunity and his breakout start to the season, making clear that his improvement is about more than just increased opportunities with Anthony out of the picture.

Porzingis is averaging 7.3 points more per game than he did last season while taking five more shots per game and nearly three more free throws per game — all while playing basically the same number of minutes (32). He’s averaging career bests in points (25.4), field goal percentage (.465), 3-point percentage (.411) and free throw percentage (.841).

“Just because you get more opportunities it doesn’t mean you’re going to be perform,” Hornacek said. “The hard work he put in this summer, working on his strength, working on his game, working on being the main guy on a team like he did in EuroBasket, all that stuff lends itself to confidence, being comfortable out there when you are taking more shots. Not getting tired, we’re asking him to play bigger minutes, and you have to have that energy for all 34 or 35 minutes or whatever he plays. And that’s a credit to him that he worked really hard in the offseason to get to that point.”

That said, the future is exactly where the focus should be right now for Porzingis, who made his return from a two-game injury absence (ankle) with 18 points in a win over Memphis Wednesday.

Sure, he looked like he was ready to storm to the top of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder in the first month of the season. He was in the midst of the best scoring start to a season in franchise history and the praise and hyperbole was flowing in from every direction, from current and past players in awe of a 22-year-old with so much game and still so much room to improve.

When former Knicks center and 2011-12 Kia Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler suggested that Porzingis had the goods to be the best player in the game, just eight games into this season, the Latvian giant agreed.

“I believe so, too,” Porzingis said to reporters, his confidence matching his super-sized ambition, “and that’s something I’m going to work towards.”

“He’s got way more skills than I realized. … He’s going to be an All-Star, a MVP candidate and all that stuff. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Jarrett Jack, on teammate Kristaps Porzingis

It won’t happen this season, not with favorites like James Harden, LeBron James, Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry (as well as fellow young stars like Giannis Antentokounmpo and Joel Embiid) all in the primes of their careers. And not with Porzingis coming back to earth a bit after that magnificent start to the season. After averaging 30 points through his first 10 games this season, Porzingis is averaging 18.9 on .395 shooting in his last seven.

The dream, it turns out, takes more than just flashes of the spectacular.

But his point guard, Jack, is convinced that Porzingis is in the formative stages of a career that will see him make annual runs at that top spot for years to come.

“He’s got way more skills than I realized,” Jack said. “From afar, I thought he was like the pick and pop four man, the kind we’ve gotten used to seeing in recent years. But he has so many more intangibles to his game, being able to play in these little tight areas. It’s not just paint points or 3-pointers, his in-between game is what’s really, really impressed me. And then just remembering that he’s 7-3 and possess those perimeter ball skills and those athletic moments, you’re kind of just taken aback when you remember he’s what 22 or whatever, come on man … that’s craziness.

“This guy is going to be around for a long time. He’s going to be an All-Star, a MVP candidate and all that stuff. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s got everything you need to be all that and more.”

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The top five in the Week 8 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.6 points, 9.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds

Who knew that the addition of another ball-dominant point guard would bring out the best in both Harden and Chris Paul, who has been absolutely magnificent since returning to the lineup? Rockets GM Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni can go ahead and stand up. Because the Rockets are an absolute machine right now, winners of a Western Conference-best eight straight games after prevailing in Utah Thursday night. Harden (29 points, five rebounds and three assists against the Jazz) has to feel good knowing that whatever he doesn’t handle on a given night, Paul (18 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds) will be there to pick him up. It’s a luxury he simply has not had during his time in Houston. If this nine-game sample of the two of them in action is any indication, the Rockets might be better prepared to challenge the Golden State Warriors for Western Conference supremacy than initially thought.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 28.2 points, 8.6 assists, 8.0 rebounds

Yes, it’s easy to take LeBron for granted after all these years of watching him operate at a level few others have been able to during his 15 seasons (and counting) in the league. But that’s not what is going on right now — not while his Cavaliers refuse to lose behind to his exhausting efforts on the regular. If anything, the appreciation for his brilliance are shining brighter than ever, especially when examining outings like the one he had against the Memphis Grizzlies (34 points and 12 assists) and Sacramento Kings (32 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) that pushed the Cavaliers’ win streak to 13 games. LeBron has shattered enough dreams around the league to know that he’s appreciated by the ticket-buying public that turns out everywhere he goes. Sure, he’ll catch a healthy dose of hate tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (7 ET, NBA League Pass) when the Cavaliers try to set the franchise record for consecutive wins against the Pacers. But that’s a sign of respect from yet another franchise and city that hasn’t been able to get around him the past decade.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 23.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.1 rebounds

Kyrie’s MVP buzz has subsided a bit since the Celtics’ win streak came to an end and his old team and teammate (LeBron James) snatched that momentum. But his MVP-caliber season is rolling along. He continues to turn in one masterful performance after another, giving the Celtics what they need when they need it to keep their lead in the standings. He’s averaging 28.3 points on 57.6 percent shooting over his last 10 games as Boston finished its recent home stand 4-1 record. They face the Spurs tonight in San Antonio (9:30 ET, ESPN), missing Kawhi Leonard’s season debut for the Spurs by a few nights. It’s the first game of a three-game road trip that will see them visit Detroit (Sunday) and Chicago (Monday) before returning home to host Denver and Utah next week.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 29.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists

Antetokounmpo celebrated his 23rd birthday in style, dropping 25 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a win over the Detroit Pistons. And that came on the heels of a 40-point, nine-rebound, four-assist effort in a loss to Boston. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30 points on 52.7 percent shooting over his past five games and the Bucks have won four of those five. In other words, “The Greek Freak” is back to doing things only he and perhaps one or two other players in the league can do on a consistent basis. And he’s the only 23-year-old doing them. The Bucks have shoved their way back up the ranks in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, too, shaking off a couple of rough patches from last month where they lost four straight during one stretch and three of four in another. Antetokounmpo and the Bucks could use a nice holiday rush to end the calendar year.

5. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Season stats: 25.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists

KD collected his third career 30-point triple-double — and his first in a Warriors uniform — in Wednesday’s win in Charlotte. It’s symbolic that in came in Stephen Curry’s hometown in the first game of several Curry will miss with that sore ankle he sprained against New Orleans Monday (Draymond Green was missing from the lineup as well). How Durant performs in Curry’s absence will no doubt stoke the the conversation about where both players would fit in the overall landscape if they weren’t playing together, even if it makes little sense to ponder such things since they’re sticking together for the foreseeable future. And if you needed a refresher course in what made Durant the reigning Finals MVP, then you need a timeout anyway. Now if Steve Kerr can just get Durant and Co. to keep their cool and avoid any more ejections

The next five:

6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

9. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more …:

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans; Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Next up?

An Inside Look at Jimmy Butler from a Western Conference scout:

“The Timberwolves are a hard team to figure out right now. They’ve been up and down and struggled down the stretch of some close games, which is something that Jimmy was supposed help fix. But I don’t put it all on him. In fact, he’s had the biggest adjustment to make of those three guys (Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins) and he’s done a nice job. His comfort with Thibs [coach Tom Thibodeau] and the way he runs his show certainly helps. But for those three guys to try and sort out who gets their touches when and where they like them is rough. It’s something that players have to work through themselves.

“Where Jimmy has really stepped up, from what I’ve seen, is on the defensive end. He’s taking the challenge night after night to be the guy that steps in there and battles the best perimeter player on the other side. That requires an energy and focus a lot of guys who have reached his level of success either don’t have the energy for or simply won’t do. But he’s always been more of a blue-collar star as opposed to one of these guys who came into the league anointed or feeling like he was entitled to be where he is now. So when I see him trying to make the right play at the end of the game, as opposed to taking hero shots, is a good thing. He’s leading by example and showing those young guys what kind of sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, which I know is something he got crushed for not doing in Chicago. It’s going to be interesting to see if and how things change come All-Star time when I guarantee you all three of those guys believe they are worthy of a spot, but we all know it’s going to be extremely difficult to see that happen. It’s a different pecking order with Butler, Towns and Wiggins compared to what they dealt with when Zach LaVine was the third guy in that mix. It’s worth keeping an eye on.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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