New York Knicks

Out with the old and in with the new:  the New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis is the new show on display at Madison Square Garden.

By Bryan Pol

The young man hailing from Liepāja, Latvia was supposed to be a project for Phil Jackson’s Knicks.

Taken fourth overall in the draft, the twenty year old formerly of Baloncesto Sevilla was intended to be an asset off head coach Derek Fisher’s bench, allegedly light years behind the likes of Karl Anthony-Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Jahlil Okafor, all of whom were drafted above him.

He was supposed to be Carmelo Anthony’s wingman and second banana, albeit in the fourth of fifth year of the former Syracuse star’s mega million dollar contract, a player in desperate need of grooming and cultivating.

Now, Kristaps Porzingis, the 7 foot 3 rookie sensation who is now projecting well ahead of schedule, is the reason Knick diehards and NBA fans alike are tuning in to witness the beauty and splendor of his game.

Although he is leading New York in scoring at 23.2 points per game, Melo is subservient to Porzingis, at least in terms of watchability, performance, and penchant for making the highlight reel on what is seemingly a nightly basis.

The team is no longer Melo’s.

Or, rather, the reason fans tune into Knick games is no longer to see him play.

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It is to see what feat Kristaps Porzingis accomplishes next to add to his folklore and legend.

According to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, who reports regularly on financial and marketing trends in the world of sports, NBA outlets everywhere have sold out of Porzingis jerseys.  And not just in the New York’s greater metropolitan area:  his jerseys are out of stock nationwide.

Fourteen games into the season, the Knicks are perched at 8-6, tied for first in the Atlantic Division, currently in possession of the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, having won four in a row.  They have posted a 5-2 record on the road, tied for second best in the league with the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves.  Only the undefeated Golden State Warriors, the league’s best team and defending champions, have fared better away from home. The Knicks’ promising start has much to do with Porzingis’s resurgence, a performance that has drawn high regards and praise from Dirk Nowitzki, an international sensation to whom many compare Porzingis.

“He is long. He is athletic. He is tough. He’s got a touch. He can put it on the floor. He is for real,” Nowitzki told ESPN’s Marc Stein. “Sky’s the limit [for Porzingis].”

With his 29 points and 11 rebounds on Tuesday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Porzingis became the first Knick rookie to accumulate such numbers in points and boards since Patrick Ewing in 1985. His efforts helped beat Charlotte 102-94 at the Garden.

Two games later, with his 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 blocks in a 107-102 victory against the Houston Rockets on the road, Porzingis became only the second player since Shaquille O’Neal (in 1993—he matched the feat twice that year, his rookie campaign) to accrue such numbers in points, rebounds, and boards at age 20.

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The most astonishing aspect of Porzingis’s tendency to end up on the highlight reel is the variety of ways in which he is adding to his resume. One night, Porzingis is seen performing a vicious putback dunk against the Raptors, one of many that made the highlight reel in the course of a week’s time. The next game, he is abusing the highly touted Frank Kaminsky with a quasi-Dream Shake in the post for the score, causing Walt Frazier to gawk over his “shaking and faking” on the baseline.

Kristaps Porzingis Hits Frank Kaminsky with the ‘Dream Shake,’…Kristaps Porzingis hits Frank Kaminsky with the “Dream Shake.”

Posted by Bleacher Report on Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Two nights later, he is taking notice of a mismatch by which James Harden is attempting to close him off in the lane, resulting in a Kareem-esque skyhook off the glass for two.

His repertoire, by which Porzingis can be featured posting up against nearly every front court position or hoisting up shots from the perimeter (he was 2-for-3 from deep against Houston), is most certainly a byproduct of an already remarkable basketball IQ that is growing with more and more experience at the NBA level.

On Friday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder amassed 21 offensive rebounds to the Knicks’ 6, blanking Porzingis in a category in which he normally dominates (on the season, he is averaging 2.9 boards off the offensive glass—his total of 41 are the fifth most in the NBA).  No matter.  The Latvian ace was able to adjust the next night and contribute elsewhere in the boxscore despite a quiet night against OKC.

The best part?  Porzingis’s feats are not only relegated to the offensive side of the floor.

Alongside the likes of Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and even Lou Almundson, Porzingis and the Knicks are allowing only 97.9 points per game, amongst the top ten in the league. Furthermore, New York has been tremendous defending the perimeter. On Friday, the Thunder, without Kevin Durant, shot 3-for-29 from behind the arc.  Heading into the Thunder game, the Knicks held opponents to 30.3 percent on 3-point attempts, the second-lowest field goal percentage league-wide.

The only concern for Knick fans and experts alike:  is this too much, too early for Porzingis?

Last season in La Liga and the Eurocup with Baloncesto Sevilla, Porzingis played 1072 minutes over 50 games, averaging 21.4 minutes per game.

With New York, Porzingis is averaging 26.14 minutes per game, thought to be all that was expected of him if he were coming off the bench.

Instead, Porzingis has started all fourteen games, and played a career-high of 36 on Saturday night. With six career double-doubles, Porzingis is averaging 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but per 36 minutes, more in line with what was expected of him against Houston, Porzingis would be averaging 18.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per contest, numbers enticing not only to Derek Fisher, but fans pining for Porzingis to play and contribute more.

Given his relatively frail frame, which has yet to develop and mature at so young an age, thirty-six minutes a night is far too much to ask, no matter what it means for the Knicks in the standings.   New York must be thinking long-term with Zinger, and the burden of starter minutes is way too arduous.  Even at their best, New York is still looking up at the Eastern Conference’s best, and while Porzingis makes the Knicks more dynamic, if not dangerous, come playoff time, New York cannot push its newest star too much, even if Carmelo Anthony is not getting any younger.

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Early returns suggest Phil Jackson struck it rich this offseason, more so given Porzingis’s rise, Jerian Grant’s push for a starting role, and Tim Hardaway, traded away for the former Irish star, playing zero minutes on Saturday night for Atlanta.

The Knicks, with eight total wins, are nearly halfway toward matching last year’s output (17), and are projecting for 44 wins, a great deal higher than experts prognosticated at season’s onset.

Fans, despite their anguish in July, can rest their hopes on Porzingis’s trending upward and putting New York back in the postseason for the first time in three years.  They just cannot expect too much, too early.

For the Knicks and their fanbase, however, the future is looking quite brilliant, and Kristaps Porzingis is standing tall against all competition and even taller against his greatest detractors.

I am an English teacher, music and film aficionado, husband, father of two delightful boys, writer, sports fanatic, former Long Islander, and follower of Christ. Based on my Long Island upbringing, I was groomed as a Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks fan, and picked up Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, and Tottenham Hotspur football fandom along the way.