A unicorn is the odd one out. Could that be Kristaps Porzingis heading into this critical New York Knicks season?When then-Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant baptized Kristaps Porzingis as the NBA’s “unicorn” in January, it was meant as a compliment. But as the 2016-17 season draws near, one thing is certain: the unicorn’s role on this re-tooled Knicks roster remains unclear.
“He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line,” Durant said of the Knicks’ forward to ESPN. “That’s rare. And block shots—that’s like a unicorn in this league.”
Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony are the only two starters remaining from last season’s Knicks team that posted a 32-50 record.
Anthony’s role as captain is simple — lead this group, now featuring Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah, and Brandon Jennings, to its first post-season appearance since 2013. Porzingis, entering his sophomore campaign, will have to be especially malleable on offense as the young gun running alongside four proven veterans.
And even more so with Jeff Hornacek as the new head coach in town.
“You don’t see a guy 7-3 that can do multiple things,” Hornacek said in his introductory press conference. “In our offense, you could see him in some high pick-and-rolls out of the sets we have, fading for 3s. At 7-3, I still believe you can get him on the post and if a team want to try and play him with a small guy and get up into him, then we can throw him down there and take advantage of his height in there.”
Porzingis averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. Hornacek has already outlined how KP can build on past success and thrive in his offense next year.
The high pick-and-roll
The Miami Heat was one of the most effective teams in running the pick-and-roll last season.
Screen-and-rolls accounted for at least one-fifth of total possessions for each of Hassan Whiteside (20.8%), Chris Bosh (24.4%), and Amar’e Stoudemire (27.3%). Those guys were efficient after receiving the ball, shooting 70%, 46.7%, and 67.2% respectively on those opportunities.
Porzingis was efficient in screen-and-roll situations last season, boasting a 58.7 effective field goal (eFG) percentage, a number adjusted for the value of the three ball. It is likely that he will see a spike in the amount of pick-and-roll opportunities he has this year — those possessions accounted for just 13.7% of his rookie offense.
Pick-and-pop and spot-up
Jeff Hornacek has echoed the need for added shooters on the roster. Being able to space the floor is as valuable an asset a power forward can have in today’s NBA. Porzingis has proven his ability to knock down perimeter jumpers.
He just needs to do so consistently.
The soon-to-be sophomore seven-footer shot 33.3% from behind the arc last season and 37.4% on wide open threes, at least six feet from the nearest defender.
That’s not bad, but it’s a far cry from a dead-eye shooter.
Porzingis could stand to improve his three-point shot for next season.
“I still believe you can get him on the post.”
Becoming a viable post threat is another step Porzingis can take to thrive in Hornacek’s offense, a system he said will incorporate elements of the Triangle.
Post-up opportunities accounted for 168, or 15%, or Porzingis’ possessions last season. Of those 168 possessions, the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man scored on 53 (40.5%). For context, Anthony scored on 43% of his post-up opportunities, Brook Lopez scored on 50.6%, and LaMarcus Aldridge scored on 48.5%.
“Everybody wants to see me play better in the post,” Porzingis said on The Stashed’s “33rd and 7th with Anthony Donahue” podcast. “That’s one thing that’s going to help us in the triangle. So I’m adding moves to my post game, I’m really working on staying low, I’m working on my strength overall, especially my legs. That’s going to help me defensively as well.”
With Noah, known more for his hustle and effort than his back-to-the-basket prowess, starting at center, court space clears for Porzingis (and Anthony) to work on the low or high block.
Versatility is equally as valuable an asset for a power forward as spacing the floor. It’s how Draymond Green can be an elite NBA four despite his lack of a clearly defined specialty, and how Boris Diaw can carve a role as one of the league’s most skilled big men without the gaudy stats to back him up.
Porzingis began adding another element to his offensive repertoire this summer: the ability to put the ball on the ground and create his own shot.
Kristaps Porzingis with Knicks assistant Josh Longstaff incorporating a crossover dribble into a pull-up jump shot. pic.twitter.com/fKtlmJkfd7
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) June 15, 2016
With two new primary ball-handlers (Rose and Jennings) alongside Carmelo Anthony, it is unclear how many opportunities Porzingis will have to show his newfound skills. The rookie encountered isolation opportunities in only 6.1% of his possessions last season.
But it definitely doesn’t hurt to have them.
New York kicks off the preseason on Oct. 4 at Houston before seeing both the Celtics and the Nets twice, with a date with Washington sandwiched in-between. Until then, fans can only speculate as to how effective Porzingis will be on this new-look Knicks roster.
Kristian Winfield covers the New York Knicks for Elite Sports NY. You can start the conversation on Twitter @Krisplashed.