By John Schmeelk
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As the FIBA EuroBasket tournament comes to a conclusion this weekend, there has been almost nothing but good news for the three Knicks in it over the past few weeks.
The tournament provided a good look at Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas against the best competition you’ll see outside of the NBA. All three are still healthy, most importantly.
To put it plainly, Porzingis, playing for Latvia, was sensational offensively. He was third in the tournament in scoring at 23.6 points per game, shooting 53 percent from the field. He flashed all of his typical unicorn skills. He hit 3s (37.5 percent from there), thrived as a shooter and cutter in the pick-and-roll, took slower centers off the dribble, had some follow dunks, blocked some shots and showed his typically smooth midrange jumper.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of his performance was that he was able to maintain his efficiency despite being relied upon by his team for a higher volume of scoring. It looks like he is ready to be assume a greater role as a scorer this season with the Knicks and could get his average above 20 points per game.
If coach Jeff Hornacek revives his Phoenix Suns style of offense, it should look similar to the way Latvia played in EuroBasket. The floor got spread, and the team ran a lot of pick-and-rolls, with Porzingis as the screener in a lot of them. If the Knicks unleash Porzingis this way, he could be in line for a big offensive season.
The other encouraging part of watching Porzingis was seeing how he has grown physically. He looks noticeably thicker in the upper body, which should allow him to play more effectively at center in the NBA and survive the nightly pounding that sent him to the bench too often last season.
That’s not to say there weren’t areas of concern. Porzingis still managed to get himself into foul trouble, which was the result of some defensive mistakes. He also only averaged 5.9 rebounds per game, something that could prevent him from playing center more in the NBA. Those are similar issues that we saw last year with the Knicks.
Offensively, there is also the unanswered question of whether or not he has developed a go-to move. Until Porzingis figures out a way to score consistently one on one, he will not be able to be a true top-tier player. He showed a pivot to a midrange jumper, but that’s nothing a physical defender couldn’t deal with. There’s nothing Porzingis has shown so far that makes you think he can take advantage of some of the mismatches he was given last year when opposing teams put small players on him to crowd him.
Figuring that out is the final piece of the equation for Porzingis. He is already a matchup nightmare for slower and bigger centers who don’t want to come out to contest the 3-pointer and also can’t stay with him off the dribble. It’s one of the reasons getting him to play center more often is so important.
He needs to figure out a way to dominate when teams put a 6-foot-8 small forward on him and plays him chest to chest. The only consistent answer to that is to develop the strength and moves to take a defender like that into the post and score consistently over him. He needs to be able to more effectively use his length to dominate smaller guys.
Porzingis wasn’t asked to do that much at EuroBasket, so perhaps he does have that answer and just hasn’t unveiled it yet. It might be the most important thing to watch for during Knicks preseason games. If he can figure out how to dominate on the block against smaller players with a go-to move, he will be unstoppable offensively.
Hernangomez shined early in the tournament before Pau and Marc Gasol took most of the big-men minutes for Spain once they got into the elimination rounds. With two games still pending, he has averaged 16 minutes per contest, scoring nine points and grabbing seven rebounds. He was very efficient, shooting 52 percent from the field.
Hernangomez showed his typical good footwork in the post and was his normal standout self on the boards. He also flashed some of his weakness, struggling on defense against the pick-and-roll and rarely shooting far away from the basket. If he wants to take the next step as an NBA player and start next to Porzingis, those things need to get better.
Kuzminskas was Lithuania’s second-leading scorer (behind fellow NBAer Jonas Valanciunas) at 15.3 points per game. He flashed an all-around game (and a couple of dunks in the vicinity of Porzingis and Hernagomez) that should carry over well as a role player off the Knicks’ bench. He’s a solid member of New York’s rotation.
Training camp begins Sept. 26, as the Knicks bring their young team together to try to slowly turn the franchise around. The progress of their European contingent will be a big part of it.
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