By John Schmeelk
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Two nights ago, Kristaps Porzingis had one of the many “welcome to the NBA” moments that all rookies have over the course of their first season.
He took on Golden State’s Draymond Green, one of the most unique and versatile players in the league and got schooled. Porzingis got in early foul trouble, was too slow to stay in front of Green and was not strong enough to score on him.
It’s the life of a rookie, and nothing Knicks fans should worry about.
The wonderful thing about Porzingis in his rookie year is his unique combination of versatile skills that are almost unheard of from NBA veterans, let alone 20-year-old rookies. Offensively, he has shown the ability to catch and shoot, score in the post, be the screener in the pick-and-roll, pass to cutting teammates and finish going toward the basket.
Defensively, he is an excellent rim protector, can show or even switch onto guards on pick-and-roll defense and has shown defensive instincts far beyond his years.
Off the court, he has a maturity beyond his years, works extremely hard and has even shown the ability to get healthy. There’s literally almost nothing he has not shown he is capable of doing at one point in time this year.
Porzingis’ next step needs to be specialization. That’s not to say he should unlearn some of the things that have made him so unique and valuable as a rookie, but rather focus on a couple of things that need to be his bread and butter that he can rely on every game.
There have been some stories written over the past week, especially when Carmelo Anthony was out, expressing disappointment Porzingis wasn’t able to step up and score a little bit more when the team needed it. That’s something Porzingis isn’t ready for yet.
At this point in Porzingis’ career, he isn’t someone you can dump the ball to and expect to get points. At 7-foot-3, he isn’t fast enough to take opponents off the dribble, navigate traffic in the paint and get to the rim. He also isn’t strong enough to anchor in the post, keep his balance and get quality shots off inside of 10 feet. Those are how players can isolate and score. He will never be able to get from the 3-point line to the rim off the dribble without help getting in his way.
He’s 7’3, and that’s not going to change. As he gets stronger, he should be able to operate better in the post, especially since he has already begun adding different post moves to his repertoire like the Hakeem shake and a hook shot. That won’t happen until next year, or even the year after, when he adds more weight and strength. Once he does, he should be able to isolate and score in the post.
At this point in his rookie year, the most consistent part of Porzingis’ game is his ability to catch and shoot. The Knicks, for some reason, do not utilize that ability nearly enough. You can get consistent catch-and-shoot shots three ways:
1. Drive and kick: The Knicks don’t have nearly enough players to get into the lane, draw attention and kick to shooters. Porzingis should be getting tons of looks this way, as his man helps on penetrating guards. The problem? The Knicks have no penetrating guards.
2. Pick-and-pop: The Knicks run pick-and-roll sets less frequently than most teams in the league. They also don’t have guards, other than Jerian Grant, that can use those screens and get to the basket. Why we don’t see more Porzingis-Anthony pick-and-roll/pop sets I’ll never know. Porzingis would get open looks all day long.
3. Off-ball screens: Even though Porzingis isn’t athletic enough to take guys off the dribble on the perimeter 20 feet away, he should be able to use his superior quickness at 7’3 to get open jump shots. He is willing to move off the ball, and the big men guarding him don’t often want to stray from the paint. If coach Derek Fisher would run some plays to set some picks for Porzingis off the ball, he would be able to catch and shoot. Even if the defender stays with him, Porzingis is tall enough to shoot over him. This is how he got a lot of his looks playing in Spain last year, and he has shown a fairly consistent mid-range jump shot this season.
It’s all part of the progression for Porzingis. He will develop go-to moves offensively and become a player you can isolate and get points from. He just isn’t there yet. However, he is still light years beyond where anyone thought he would be in his rookie year. His first 82 games will be a learning experience, so Porzingis understands what he needs to work on in the offseason to take that next step.
What Knicks fans have to love is that there is absolutely no doubt he will work as hard as anyone to get where he needs to go. But it isn’t going to happen overnight, and that’s fine. Knicks fans should still enjoy the 7’3 Latvian Swiss Army knife that is a jack of all trades, even if he still isn’t a master of one.
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