Can New York Knicks fans learn to embrace an unproven product like Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis?
By Bryan Pol
Many a Knick fan remembers the night vividly.
May 20, 2015, the evening by which the New York Knicks would discover whether or not they would receive the franchise’s second number one pick, thirty years after landing the coveted top spot to acquire the overall consensus draw in Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing.
For months, as pieces like J. R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tyson Chandler, and A’mare Stoudemire were dealt away to embrace The Season of the Tank, Knickerbocker fans salivated over the notion of either Karl Anthony-Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, or even Emmanuel Mudiay in blue and orange, co-starring alongside Carmelo Anthony to lead the Knicks back to some semblance of relevance in a weak and watered-down Eastern Conference.
By tanking as drastically as they had, although perhaps not as thoroughly as they should have (more on that later), the Knicks and their fans would roll with each loss knowing the 2015-2016 season could garner heavy promise.
Then this happened.
Items of note from the reveal of the NBA’s 2015 Lottery:
- General manager Steve Mills, NOT Phil Jackson, would be representing the Knicks to oversee the pick.
- The collective groan over the Knicks’ fate of not receiving the top pick, let alone the second or even the third. The Knicks would get the fourth pick, and the franchise and its fanbase would be forced to settle for less than a player of franchise cornerstone quality.
- Revisiting the agony of the Knicks finishing one measly game above the Minnesota Timberwolves, who eventually landed the top pick because New York finished the season “with pride” by beating Orlando and Atlanta in the regular season’s final week.
In short, the Knicks, for some unfounded reason, failed to embrace The Tank, allowing the ping pong balls to favor the likes of Minnesota, the Lakers, and the Sixers, a team who knows plenty about Tanksanity and what it means to torture a fanbase in pursuit of building a franchise through the draft on an annual basis.
Then came two months of agonizing wait.
Worse yet were what fans were forced to witness in Cleveland: Smith and Shumpert, reportedly dealt away by Jackson in light of character issues, were integral in supporting LeBron’s return to the NBA Finals in Cleveland. Had it not been for Kelly Olynyk’s “bush league” move to dislocate Kevin Love’s shoulder in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, Knicks’ fans faced the rather vivid possibility of seeing two castoffs, one, Smith, a true degenerate, lift the Larry O’Brien trophy before their beloved Melo. Thankfully, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala spared fans of such morbidity.
In the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, Towns became the consensus number one pick. Consequently, Okafor faltered in the NCAA Tournament (in light of paltry defending and putrid foul shooting), while the likes of Tyus Jones, Amile Jefferson, Grayson Allen, and Justise Winslow, whose draft stock spiked, colluded to lead Duke to its fifth title under Coach K. The Lakers were reportedly high on Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, arguably the draft’s best point guard, and the Sixers may have been content to draft an unknown in Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis, allowing Okafor, a superb and polished post player who could potentially shine in Jackson’s triangle offense, to fall to the Knicks at number four.
Despite these scenarios, the Knicks could even talk themselves into Mudiay, a Russell Westbrook-like, score-first point guard by way of Congo and the Chinese Basketball League (Mudiay forewent his freshman year at Southern Methodist University to play, albeit sparingly due to ankle issues, with the Guangdong Southern Tigers).
On the Monday before the draft, Phil Jackson requested a private workout with Porzingis, and suddenly, the proverbial writing was etched about the wall, in crude, bright, neon ink.
The Knicks were going to draft a foreign international.
A quick history of how players of Porzingis’s ilk have fared with the Knicks:
- With the fifteenth pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, New York selected Frederic Weis, failing to heed the desires of the fanbase to bring in St. John’s star Ron Artest. The latter would notoriously change his name to Meta World Peace and lead the brawl in a 2004 at The Palace at Auburn Hills with the Pacers, amounting to the league’s longest suspension (86 games). While the Knicks avoided catastrophe, Weis never signed with the team or even played in the NBA, although he was the centerpiece in an incident the French media dubbed “le dunk de la mort,” “the dunk of death,” in which Weis was posterized by Vince Carter in 2000 Summer Olympics.
- In 2002, the Knicks drafted Brazilian import Nene Hilario seventh overall, immediately trading him away to the Nuggets for Antonio McDyess, who subsequently broke his knee cap and never quite starred for New York the way he had in Denver.
- In 2003, the Knicks selected Polish “star” Maciej Lampe in the second round, signing him to a three-year, $2.9 million deal. Like Weis, Lampe never played with the team. He was instead traded away as part of a blockbuster deal to acquire Stephon Marbury, the poster boy of the dreaded Isaiah Thomas era.
- In 2008, the Knicks drafted Italian stud Danilo Gallinari with the number six pick. He was a major cog of coach Mike D’Antoni’s high octane offense, averaging as much as 15.1 PPG in 2009-2010, proving lethal from downtown, even shooting at a .381 clip from three-point range, the highest mark of his career. The next season, despite what magic he produced as the Knicks’ second scoring option to the recently acquired A’mare Stoudermire, Gallinari was traded to Denver to make way for the Melo era in New York.
- Timofey Mozgov, an undrafted free agent, was signed by the Knicks in 2010 to a three-year, $9.7 million deal. Also part of the Melo trade, Mozgov was infamously posterized by Blake Griffin in a November game in 2010.
Nerves dictated, even overwhelmed, the Knicks’ fanbase leading up to this year’s draft, and lo and behold, the Knicks drafted Porzingis, welcoming a wave of raucous boos.
The decision lead to arguably the Vine of the year in the NBA (fast forward to 0:13 for that good stuff).
Twitter manifested itself into a firestorm.
The next day, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith delivered an epic, scathing rant, seemingly while on vacation.
Within moments of Porzingis’s named being announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, forty-two years of anguish bubbled to the surface.
Melo spurning the Chicago Bulls to sign a five-year extension was supposed to be revered.
The Knicks dealing players (Chandler, Smith, and Shumpert) and shedding contracts (Stoudemire and the disappointment that was Andrea Bargnani, another foreign international who failed miserably) were meant to be signs of positive tidings (although not telling enough to bring in Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, or Greg Monroe in this offseason’s free agency period).
But the Knicks took a chance on a raw, unproven, 19 year old, lanky prospect whom Grantland’s Danny Chau regarded as “a young Robin trying on Batman’s utility belt — the tools are there, and they’re incredible. They just don’t fit yet, and you can’t be too sure that they ever will.” Knick fans wanted a Batman, a Superman, and were instead given a Robin, a mere sidekick who pales in comparison to Towns, Okafor, Russell, and Mudiay, at least on the surface.
When the dust settled, and Knick fans absorbed thought pieces on what Porzingis was as a player (the aforementioned Grantland piece, part of a three-portion series, is excellent, all of which can be found here, here, and here), many individuals, even Hall of Famer James Worthy, saw the promise in what Porzingis was, is, and could be.
Imagine a more agile Dirk Nowitzki, a graceful seven-footer who can bury shots inside and out. His wingspan is impressive, his plus-perimeter ability is tough to defend, and he can adjust on the fly, as he did against Okafor in a recent Summer League contest in Vegas. He is smart, desperate to learn, able to defend, and keen on proving his doubters wrong. “He is a top pick for a reason,” Okafor noted after matching up with Porzingis for the first time, clearly frustrated in what the Latvian was able to do to shut the Duke product down despite a brutal first half.
After being drafted, Porzingis displayed maturity and aplomb, stating, “I’m not concerned about that [being booed on draft night]. I know I need to get stronger, but, for me, I just know that I take a good example from the Europeans that played and had great careers in the NBA, and I’m going to be one of them.”
Given the Knicks’ acquisitions of Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn, and Derrick Williams in free agency, and the space taken up by Melo at the 3 or 4 position, Porzingis will not be expected to carry the franchise right away, let alone be a star. At most, he will be expected to play twenty to twenty-five minutes a night and spark the Knick offense off the bench, and can learn from a wise coach in Derek Fisher and an even wiser president of operations in the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, if the latter is willing to put in the time to develop a relative star in the making.
Porzingis, a fun and gracious player to follow on Instagram, is toiling to learn the American culture, albeit foolishly from allegedly watching World Star Hip Hop videos, and was even the lightning rod of attention that spawned this YouTube gem:
Despite topics from the sublime to the ridiculous regarding Porzingis, the Latvian product by way of Euroclub Baloncesto Sevilla has the fabric of a cult hero in the making, although Knick fans may be slow to gravitate toward him initially. In that regard, Carmelo Anthony, who was reportedly unnerved by the pick, understands Porzingis will take time to develop, and may not fully blossom until even the final year of Melo’s current contract with New York.
Porzingiz’s rise will demand patience from Knick fans, and despite the fallout of having few picks in the near future to build around, thanks to the picks traded away in the Melo and Bargnani deals, New York finds themselves in a far more desirable position than their crosstown rivals the Brooklyn Nets, and are even players in the 2016 free agency bonanza that could, Lord willing, bring a star like Kevin Durant to the Garden.
But while the Knicks and their fans lie in wait, they must feel ecstatic knowing what the future holds for the young Kristaps Porzingis, especially given his extremely promising Vegas League showing and his strong desire to play in New York.
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