By Jason Keidel
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As we approach Thanksgiving, the only holiday without a trace of religious or political allegiance, the theme is one we can all get with: gratitude.
And on the wholly American holiday, Knicks fans are feeling great gratitude for a foreign import.
Kristaps Porzingis, the long, lanky player who was flanked by way more boos than smiles the day he was drafted, has already become something of a local sensation, the basketball iteration of the “Dark Knight.” He’s tall enough to play center, has the range to play power forward, and the overall skills to play small forward.
When the Knicks drafted another European player, images of Frederic Weis came to mind. Weis, of course, was not only an epic, first-round bust, but was also the victim of the most monstrous dunk in the history of organized basketball. About 15 years ago, Vince Carter leaped, scissor-kicked, and jammed over the 7-footer, thus putting the professional epitaph on the Frenchman. It even has a handle, “le dunk de la mort.” (The dunk of death.)
We don’t have to worry about that with Porzingis, who’s already done more in 15 games than any recent rookie the franchise has drafted. Of course, the nerves of Knicks fans are so raw that any light is blinding. But you don’t need 82 games to see that this young man can ball. And this is coming from yours truly, the resident Knicks Hater, who sees nothing but shadows inside Madison Square Garden.
Porzingis is looking like a revelation, the steal of the draft, if not its best player. After Weis, Kenny Walker, John Thomas, Mardy Collins, Donnell Harvey, Michael Sweetney and Jordan HIll, you’re due for some good fortune. It’s not like you haven’t paid for it.
Phil Jackson was given $60 million to, well, draft good players. After last year’s biblical disaster of 17-65, the worst in franchise history — which is saying a lot on the heels of Isiah Thomas — it was time for the Zen Master to unearth some hardwood gold.
If last season was Jackson’s way of flushing the basketball waste down the toilet, lighting the fire that cleared the way for new flora, then he’s a man with a plan and you’ll look back on 2014 with reassurance.
Just remember, the Knicks are 8-7, which is hardly commensurate to the drooling, local refrain. To hear the media and the masses, you’d assume the Knicks were the Warriors, about to start 16-0, the first such mark in NBA history. And as with most overnight sensations, teams will go to school on Porzingis, and find a way to look less silly before his skill set.
But you have cause to smile. Even in a poor shooting performance Monday night, he left the arena with 20 points and 14 rebounds. This is the kind of player that can turn the tanker in another direction. It alters the way everyone thinks, from the fans to the front office. There’s a reason to finally follow the team, incentive to surround him with talent, and to break up those picket lines calling for Jim Dolan’s vocational head.
Just consider these gems from NBA.com: Porzingis has taken the first shot in five of the Knicks’ last seven games, which speaks to his blossoming leadership role. The Knicks were pining for their longest winning streak since 2013, which speaks to the momentum he’s brought to this forlorn franchise. And the Knicks went 424 minutes without facing a 10-point deficit, until the the second quarter against the Heat, which speaks to the infectious mojo he’s playing with. The Knicks almost never feel they’re out of a game with him in it.
Is Jackson a genius? Did he downplay Porzingis to give him a less bumpy path to stardom? Did he know that his kid, who averaged about nine points in Latvia, would hit the Big Apple like King Kong?
Jackson has that kind of mystique. If anyone deserves another look, he does, despite last season’s shipwreck. He’s never been a team-builder. Then again, he hadn’t coached in the NBA, until he did. And then he built an unmatched resume, a stack of trophies so high you need a crane to peer over them.
The Knicks can get spanked by Miami and still you smile. They can win 35 games, and still you see the arc. Porzingis can have his shot swatted, and still he hits a 3-pointer on the next possession.
Maybe it pains you to pronounce his name, but it’s clearly fun to watch his game. He’s real, Knicks fans. Enjoy.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel