Through the last near two decades of New York Knicks ignominy, it has become hard to appreciate any Knicks player for what they are, as the fanbase is so dejected and the media so hungry for success that players are often anointed prodigy status well before they have earned it.
With Kristaps Porzingis, the flashes have been evident right from day one.
Committed fans might remember that his very first Summer League game had him matched up against then Rookie of the Year favorite Jahlil Okafor. Porzingis got burned on back to back possessions by Okafor in the post and it seemed as if all the worst pre-draft stereotyping prophecies were being fulfilled. He was too skinny, weak and perhaps worst of all passive.
But an interesting thing happened the next time down the court, KP stuck to Okafor like glue. In fact, Okafor couldn’t even receive an entry pass KP was fronting him so hard. He denied him the ball over and over again until Okafor was visibly frustrated.
Eventually, when Okafor did receive the ball, KP rejected him not once but twice at the rim.
You could see KP size up his opponent in real time, adjust his defensive strategy and execute.
I remember texting my brother shortly thereafter “I think we got the guy”. The text required no further explanation; every fan of a franchise in the down years knows what it means to be looking for “the guy”.
Such has been the promise of Porzingis ever since that first Summer League game, that he could, on both ends of the court, be “the guy”. The Knicks opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the 19th of October all but confirmed that Porzingis had turned that promise into a complete game. His follow up in the Knicks home opener on the 21st against the Detroit Pistons erased any shadow of remaining doubt. KP dominated in his minutes on both ends of the floor, despite lacking contributions by many of his teammates.
Knicks past and present were perhaps never more eloquently demonstrated as by this torch passing from master to student.
On the 19th KP finished with a very nice line: 31 points on 25 shots, all while being the primary focus of the bristling Thunder defense. He also had 12 rebounds, a block, and one extremely pretty assist.
His follow up against the Pistons was even more impressive: 33 points on just 20 shots, 5 rebounds, a block, a steal and 2 more assists.
It was clear from the jump that he had changed his offensive game significantly in the offseason in a handful of very impactful ways. Porzingis has long held a reputation as a shooter due to his willingness to let fly from downtown but he has struggled to create meaningful or efficient one on one offense. That was not the case during his first two games. Porzingis looked comfortable taking his opponents off the dribble, drawing fouls and operating against smaller defenders in the post. A lot of this was against Paul George and Stanley Johnson too, not exactly slouches in the defensive department.
Last season Porzingis very rarely took the ball to the hoop against prepared defenses and didn’t draw many fouls, preferring to pull up into a midrange 2.
In these first 2 games, Porzingis was determined to create offense going towards the basket, which will be the key to producing a sustainable, efficient offense.
Some of the moves he pulled drew high praise from the announcers. Kristaps looked smooth and under control, in a manner that was almost never the case last year. Look at him take George off the dribble here.
In addition to the quality of the looks his drives generated, Porzingis also drew a healthy amount of fouls from his overmatched defenders. He took 9 free throws in game 1 and 10 in game 2, both more than double his average (3.8) from last season. He was under control through contact, often going up and under or double clutching to finish through the contact off the glass.
It was, in a word, beautiful.
And perhaps most importantly, Porzingis dominated against single coverage in the post. Phil Jackson took a lot of heat last season for harping on KP’s lackluster post play, but the truth of the matter is that improving in the post was a necessity if he was to become an efficient high volume scorer. While yes, Porzingis’ skill and shooting range at 7’3” are what makes him unique and he shouldn’t play like Shaquille O’Neal, he only opens up those skills by first dominating smaller, faster wings sent to defend him.
In the past relatively diminutive but feisty players like Marcus Smart or Stanley Johnson have troubled him:
But no more.
KP was ready and able to exploit the mismatch. He showed complete confidence and control shooting over the top or backing down the smaller Johnson.
Opponents will no longer be able to hide their less mobile bigs from Porzingis on defense because he will score on every possession against guards or wings. As a result, KP will draw opposing big men out of the paint and open the floor right up for the rest of the Knicks offense. Not only that but opposing bigs —less agile than KP— will be forced into a terrible decision:
Closeout hard and risk KP putting the ball on the floor and going to the rim or give him breathing room and let him shoot an uncontested jumper.
Either choice is death, all unlocked by his increased comfort in the post against mismatches.
Now the question will be consistency. Porzingis has himself noted that the defining trait of a star player isn’t that they can produce gaudy lines like the ones he just did, but rather their ability to produce on a night in night out basis. Put in perspective, KP had only scored 30 or more points three times in his entire NBA career before now. He has done it in both of his first two games in emphatic fashion and no one will be surprised if he follows up with another 30 against Boston on October 24th.
Becoming the primary offensive option as well as anchoring a defense is a lot to ask of any player let alone a 22-year-old but this season KP seems game for the challenge. Porzingis has stated that his personal goals for the year are making the All-Star Team as well as winning Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year. While the latter is out of reach through no fault of his own, currently Porzingis is putting up 32 PPG with a True Shooting Percentage of 60% - All-NBA caliber work.
At rates anywhere close to this All-Star recognition and MIP are no mere fantasies for Porzingis anymore, they are inevitabilities.
So even with the frustrations about Frank and Willy’s playing time and the Knicks sitting at 0-2, fans should rest easy and say a little prayer in thanks.
The Mecca has finally found “The Guy”.