Porzingis Stands Out As A Superstar-In-Waiting, But Hernangomez, Ntilikina, And Others Have Long Way To Go

By John Schmeelk
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On Tuesday, we took a look at the Knicks at the 20-game mark and how they are competing this season.

With 25 percent of the season in the books, it’s also important to look at the homegrown players and how they’re progressing.

Kristaps Porzingis Has Blossomed

After a torrid start, Porzingis’ shooting has cooled down a bit, but his overall numbers remain stellar. He is averaging 27 points per game, and shooting 46.4 percent from the floor, 39.8 percent from 3-point land, and 84.1 percent from the free-throw line.

It’s the best shooting of his career despite an astronomical 34-percent usage rate. He also leads the league in blocked shots at 2.2 per game. He looks like a true star and the best player on a good team.

Kristaps Porzingis

The Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis shoots the ball against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 30, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

There have been some red flags, however. Over his last seven games, Porzingis is shooting just 38 percent from the field. He has been taking some forced shots and is just beginning to learn how to pass out of double teams, something that should be expected given that he is learning how to be the team’s top scoring option.

It’s proving to be very important for Porzingis to catch the ball closer to the rim when he posts up. According to Basketball Reference, Porzingis is shooting nearly 54 percent on shots between 10 and 16 feet but just 36 percent on shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line.

When he catches the ball inside 15 feet it is much easier to simply turn and shoot or toss up a fadeaway over defenders. Those contested shots become exponentially harder the further away he is from the basket. The closer he starts to the basket the fewer dribbles it takes for him to get to the rim. It’s still very difficult for him to put the ball on the floor from 18-plus feet out and get all the way to the rim without help arriving.

Porzingis is still getting open 3s off the pick and pop, and he is still getting to the line seven times a game, and he is protecting the rim better than he ever has. He has missed two games with nagging injuries, but better to be cautious than to fight through them early in the season. There is little to complain about with this kid.

Willy Hernangomez Has Not Blossomed

After being called one of the young cornerstones of the franchise before the season, Hernangomez was outplayed by Kyle O’Quinn in training camp and the preseason and hasn’t regained his spot in the rotation. He played in mostly garbage time until the last three games, when Enes Kanter couldn’t play due to his back injury.

Wally Hernangomez and Enes Kanter

Wally Hernangomez, left, and Enes Kanter (credit: Getty Images)

Unfortunately for Hernangomez, whether in short stints or more expanded playing time, he has not improved much on the weakness that has kept him on the bench: defense. He does not have the foot speed to guard pick and rolls and doesn’t intimidate at the rim. He still has a nice touch around the basket and rebounds well, but so far that hasn’t been enough to get him on the floor. It’s also clear his extended time on the bench has him slightly out of rhythm offensively.

There are serious questions as to whether Hernangomez will fit next to Porzingis long term, given his defensive deficiencies. Those questions haven’t come close to being answered, but a fair-minded person would have to be leaning towards “no.” He failed to take advantage of Kanter’s injury and will likely head back to the bench with him when Joakim Noah is back at full speed.

Frank Ntilikina

After a strong stretch, Ntilikina has been struggling. Over his last six games the team has been outscored by 54 points with him on the floor. He is averaging just 4.5 points per game on 33-percent shooting. More distressing has been his lack of impact as a defender and a distributor. In those six games he had only one steal and eight assists against 11 turnovers. He hasn’t played with as much energy. Perhaps the illness that forced him to sit in the fourth quarter against the Clippers has lingered a bit, or he just finds himself in a rookie funk.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek has been doing the rookie no favors on the offensive end, often pairing him with O’Quinn and Lance Thomas, giving him no one to run the pick and roll with. Instead, they take the ball out of Ntilikina’s hands and often let others run the offense through bigs in the high post.

Frank Ntilikina

Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina calls out a play against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 27, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Ntilikina has a lot to learn, but he needs to play with more offensive-oriented players to take advantage of his playmaking. He will not learn to be more aggressive in the pick and roll unless he is running it more. One other thing Ntilikina has stopped doing as a passer is throwing the ball ahead in transition. Too often he walks the ball up the court instead of trying to find a quicker and easier shot.

Despite these lingering issues, there is no reason to be overly concerned about his long-term future.

Damyean Dotson

Dotson has played very limited minutes in short bursts, but when he has been asked to play he has done well. He is a good catch-and-shoot player off screens and kick-outs. He defends extremely hard and doesn’t looked overwhelmed by NBA competition. He could play real productive minutes right now if the Knicks needed him to, and might make a potential Courtney Lee trade at the deadline more plausible.

Ron Baker

Sometimes universally panned contracts end up fooling everyone and working out. That has not been the case, at least so far, with Baker. He dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries early in the season, and has since played more meaningful minutes for the Westchester Knicks of the G-League than he has for the team that plays at the Garden. It will probably take some injuries for him to crawl back to the city.

Aside from Porzingis, it has not been a great start for the Knicks’ homegrown talent. Dotson looks like he can play, but he is blocked by Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Lee. Hernagomez has three other centers to contend with. After a fast start, Ntilikina has struggled the last two weeks. These guys have to begin to show some improvement with more opportunity if the Knicks’ future is going to be as bright as people think it can be.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk