By John Schmeelk
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The most important question that surrounded the Knicks heading into this season has been answered.
Kristaps Porzingis is, indeed, a true franchise player.
He’s more than a unicorn now. He’s the guy the Knicks have been waiting for since Patrick Ewing.
It is very early in the season and things can change, but the first six games have gone as well as possible. Porzingis was expected to get better, but he has done more than that. He has taken a league-rattling jump from a good NBA player to a potential first-team All-NBA player. If the Knicks were good enough and Porzingis kept his torrid play going, he would get MVP votes.
The numbers are undeniable. He’s the third-leading scorer in the league at 29.3 points per game. He has scored at least 30 in five of the team’s first six games, something no other Knick has ever done. He has already eclipsed the number of 30-point games he had in his first two seasons combined.
Despite the increased volume, his efficiency has shot through the roof. He is shooting a career-best 48 percent from the field, including 36 percent from behind the arc. He is getting to the free-throw line (where he is shooting 81 percent) seven times a game, nearly twice his average from last season.
His 8.3 rebounds per game is a career high. He is at just under two blocks per game and has been an effective rim protector. He is committing fewer fouls per game than last season and, as head coach Jeff Hornacek pointed out after the win over Denver on Monday night, not many are foolish unnecessary ones.
Porzongis’ impact, however, goes far beyond the numbers. He is doing it against opponents’ best defenders. He is demanding the ball late in games when the team needs a bucket and is scoring. He is blocking shots. When asked about what he thought of his stat line after his career-high 38-point effort on Monday night, Porzingis said he needed to grab more than five defensive rebounds. He is the team’s leader and is part of its new unselfish modus operandi.
Porzingis clearly understands the game better mentally. He adjusts to who is guarding him, faces up and uses his quickness against bigger defenders while backing down and shooting over smaller players. He is making tough, contested shots or getting to the line on isolation plays. He’s showing he can, in fact, do a little of everything.
The improvement is owed to the work Porzingis did in the offseason. Last season, he was incapable of dominating the way he is now because he wasn’t strong enough. He would post-up smaller players, but couldn’t create space using contact and shoot over them. He would get knocked off balance and miss his shots. That doesn’t happen anymore because he is more powerful.
Porzingis has gone full Dirk Nowitzki. He is catching the ball in the post and hitting mid-range shot after shot over defenders who can’t do anything about it. He is simply too tall and long for defenders to have any meaningful impact against him. Defenders are getting into his body on shots, but he is making them anyway. As he continues to dominate more foul calls will come on those types of plays and he’ll become even more efficient.
Porzingis understands that if he is going to be a good isolation scorer, it is going to be on mid-range shots. Even though they are frowned upon in today’s NBA as inefficient it is where Porzingis will have to live in one-on-one situations. He is too big and slow to consistently drive all the way to the rim from the perimeter because help will get there too quickly and lead to offensive fouls. That said, he still gets into tough situations taking shots going towards the rim, where he has been least effective.
The best news for Porzingis and the Knicks is that he hasn’t had to isolate to get all his points. He is good at scoring in the flow of the offense. He gets his open 3-point attempts off pick and pops and down screens. He gets to the rim on cuts off the ball, rolling after setting a screen and crashing the offensive boards. He gets quick looks in the post off cross screens. Hornacek has set up the offense to get him catches and touches where he can score quickly without having to beat his man or a double team.
The Knicks have only played six games and bad things can still happen. His numbers could dip and the first half-dozen games could prove to be more of a hot streak than a sign of what he will do consistently. But it just doesn’t feel like it will play out that way. It’s possible Porzingis might wither under the pounding of an 82-game season and struggle to maintain his added weight and strength. We saw a fast start to the season last season before he started struggling mightily after Christmas. Injuries that force him to the bench could also factor into the equation. The talent, however, is no longer a question.
The Knicks have their new franchise player. It is unimaginable to think that Phil Jackson tried to trade Porzingis last summer because he skipped an exit meeting. It was a fireable offense.
Porzingis has made the leap. He is a true superstar and he is a New York Knick. This is no trick. Porzingis is a treat. It is the era of the unicorn.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk