By John Schmeelk
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Kristaps Porzingis is going to be an All-Star, and he might make one of the three All-NBA teams. This is a breakout year for the Knicks big man, and fans should be encouraged by his increased scoring average and improved rim protection despite being elevated to alpha-dog status. They should also be concerned about his cratering efficiency.
After Porzingis played 10 games this year, I wrote about how his shooting from midrange was unsustainable and would soon come crashing back down to earth. At that point in the season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, he was shooting a ridiculous 64 percent on shots from 10 to 16 feet. Those shots made up 27 percent of his attempts overall. Despite protestations from overly optimistic and naïve fans, that number was never going to stay that high unless Porzingis, in his third NBA season and at just 22 years old, was one of the best midrange scorers in the history of the sport. (He’s not.)
So where do those numbers sit now? Those shots now make up 28.4 percent of his attempts, and he is converting just 46 percent of those shots. It is a sure sign of his overall declining shooting. In his first 11 games this season, Porzingis scored 30-plus points eight times and shot better than 50 percent from the field seven times. But in the 21 games since then, he has scored 30 points just three times and shot above 50 percent once. Once! He shot exactly 50 percent just three times.
In December, Porzingis shot just 41 percent from the field and took two fewer free throws per game. The common reasons given range from him wearing down physically, to teams throwing different looks at him, to him not getting foul calls when he is hit on the arm shooting over smaller players. All three (especially the last one) might have a limited effect, but the biggest part of the blame should be placed on coach Jeff Hornacek for using him incorrectly.
Why is Porzingis a unicorn? It starts with the fact that he is 7-foot-3, but that’s not where it ends. His frame gives him the ability to shoot over smaller players with his sweet touch, but only utilizing that part of his game is doing him a disservice. What makes Porzingis so special is his size combined with his athleticism and skill level with the ball.
With the way he has used Porzingis this year, it looks like Hornacek is trying to turn him into LaMarcus Aldridge. Porzingis makes his living on low-percentage, contested, turnaround and fadeaway jump shots in post-up situations. The post-up, especially against smaller players, should be a weapon for Porzingis. It’s his best way to create his own shot, but Hornacek has made a terrible mistake by falling in love with it and making it Porzingis’ primary way of getting points.
The Knicks rarely do anything to help Porzingis get open or easy shots. They just dump him the ball in the post and ask him to try to isolate and score, and that usually turns into a contested, midrange jumper, the least efficient shot in basketball. This season, Porzingis is only getting 16 percent of his shots within 3 feet of the hoop, and 24 percent of his shots from behind the 3-point line. Both numbers are 4 to 5 percentage points lower than his average from his first two seasons. Those are the two most efficient shots in the sport, and Porzingis is getting a lower percentage of them than he ever has before.
Why? Hornacek is not taking advantage of Porzingis’ athleticism and mobility, which is what separates him from the bigger players who often guard him. When Porzingis screens for a ball handler, it puts the defense in a very difficult position. Porzingis can roll to the basket, flare out for a 3-pointer or spot up for a midrange jump shot. If teams focus on him, it opens up the lane for the Knicks’ guard handling the ball. It’s extremely hard to cover, yet the Knicks rarely use Porzingis as a screener.
If teams switch the play, you get Porzingis in a post mismatch with a guard. If Porzingis gets position inside of 14 feet from the basket, he will either score or get double-teamed and find the open man. Porzingis needs to do better at getting closer position against smaller players when teams do make those switches. Catching it 18 feet away against a guard almost nullifies the mismatch.
The Knicks could also use screens off the ball to free up Porzingis for more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Big men rarely like to fight through picks, and those types of plays should result in plenty of open catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Instead, the Knicks run post-ups more frequently than every team in the NBA except for one: the San Antonio Spurs. That’s why half of Porzingis’ shots come when a defender is within 4 feet of him. Porzingis also is a much more efficient player when he catches and shoots on shots that are assisted. When he doesn’t hold the ball or dribble too much, the advanced numbers indicate he is a far less efficient player, yet the coach doesn’t maximize his opportunities in those situations.
In fairness to Hornacek, the Knicks’ point guard situation is not ideal. He has two veterans who are better suited for backup roles and a 19-year-old who is still learning the position. That being said, Frank Ntilikina is the team’s best passer, and he has shown the ability to find Porzingis when given the opportunity. Ntilikina, however, still plays with the bench unit far more than he does with Porzingis. When Ntilikina does play, he’s too often tasked with handing the ball off to a big man who activates the offense.
Unless the Knicks change how they use Porzingis, his shooting numbers aren’t going to get any better. It’s on the coach, his teammates and Porzingis to start getting higher-percentage shots. If he doesn’t, he’ll just be another volume scorer on offense, something the team hoped it moved on from when Carmelo Anthony was traded in September.
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