By John Schmeelk
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On Wednesday night, Kristaps Porzingis was literally a tenth of a second away from having his first great end-of-game moments for the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony was right when he said after the game that Porzingis’ fingers were just a little too long. Maybe he should go get a manicure. If Porzingis didn’t have to bend down below his waist to catch the pass, he would have gotten it off in time. The fact that a man his size can make that catch, turn and take an under-control shot speaks to his unique skill. Even though the shot came late, it confirmed something that Knicks fans are starting to believe: They might have found someone special.
When the Knicks selected the 7-foot-3 Latvian with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft there was a huge swath of Knicks fans that were very upset with the pick. It was heartbreaking that the Knicks finished out of the top three, though now there are probably few that would not take Porzingis over D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor. (Karl-Anthony Towns is still the crown jewel of the draft.) Once at four, most Knicks fans wanted “safer” players, as though predicting what kind of man or player any 18-year-old is going to become is a safe proposition.
Justise Winslow was a surefire two-way wing who helped Duke win a national title. Emmanuel Mudiay was the next Chauncey Billups, or even John Wall. Willie Cauley-Stein was a generational defensive big man. All three of those players will be fine NBA players in their own rights, but do any have the tantalizing potential of Porzingis? Comparing Porzingis to anyone in the league is almost impossible since his size and skill level have never really been paired before.
The fear that most Knicks fans had about Porzingis was that he was just going to be a tall guy who played basketball. He would be gangly and uncoordinated. He would be soft and unable to bang with NBA players. He would stand behind the three-point line, hoist triples and act as though he was allergic to the paint. He would loathe playing defense and be too soft to rebound.
The opposite has been true. He bangs. He rebounds. He might be the best interior defender on the team. He has a high basketball IQ. He is unselfish, sometimes to a fault. He runs hard in transition and is so aggressive that he gets himself into foul trouble. He has thunderous put-back jams that routinely make highlight reels from around the league. He is a basketball player who happens to be 7-foot-3. Ironically, the one thing he hasn’t done well so far this season is shoot. He grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds on Wednesday night and recorded two blocks for the fourth time in the last six games.
Even as a rookie, Porzingis is already one of the most important players on the team. The Knicks are nearly at 10 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court as opposed to off, the second best ratio on the team. The team also plays its best defense when Porzingis is on the floor, with a defensive rating of 95.3, by far the best number on the team of any individual player who plays significant minutes. He is a defensive force as a 20-year-old who still hasn’t learned not to foul.
You can feel the Knicks fans’ excitement, but they are also trying to be reasonable because of past disappointments. They’re afraid to fully commit because they don’t want to get burned. It has happened before. Others are all in. For those fans comparing Porzingis to Towns, they should slow their roll. By all means, enjoy the spontaneity and excitement of his praying mantis-like put-back dunks, but give him time to develop. He still has a lot of learning and development to do, and it might very well be another three years before he is an All-Star-caliber player. He is only 20 years old, is possibly still growing and has never played anything close to an NBA season. He might hit a hit rookie wall at some point this year.
He might also never develop into a player who you can isolate, dump the ball to and expect points. He might never become someone who scores 25 points per game. He is a work in progress, and we are only seeing the beginning of his journey. The early returns, however, are extremely promising.
The potential is there for him to be a player who can stretch the floor, post up, finish, defend the pick and roll, protect the rim and be a good locker-room guy. Those types of players don’t come around very often, but if Porzingis is as hard of a worker as has been portrayed, he has a real chance to be one of them. The Knicks might have their franchise player for the next 15 years, and it is time for the fan base to simply enjoy the ride.
– The Knicks welcome in another playoff team to the Garden when they play the Cavs on Friday night. They had a chance to beat LeBron when they played in Cleveland earlier in the year, and having Arron Afflalo playing as another person who can guard James can only help. Lance Thomas is also slowly becoming Fisher’s go-to small forward defender. If he can stay with more mobile forwards and continue to hit the open shot, he might turn into a very valuable part of the rotation. The Knicks would be wise to get Anthony off of James as much as possible.
– Friday night is a very good opportunity for the Knicks to assert some sort of home-court advantage. The fans are into the team right now, but with such tough opponents coming into the Garden the Knicks have struggled to win there. Beating the Cavs at home would be a step in the right direction.