Kristaps Porzingis Growing Into A Superstar Before Our Very Eyes

New York Knicks fowrard Kristaps Porzingis excelled as a fantasy basketball prospect during his rookie seaosn. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
New York Knicks fowrard Kristaps Porzingis excelled as a fantasy basketball prospect during his rookie seaosn. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite the usual chaos surrounding the New York Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis is growing into an NBA superstar before our very eyes.

Growth is not a term often associated with the New York Knicks franchise. Neither, for that matter, are terms like “development” or “potential.” It’s not exactly hopeful experience to follow the New York Knicks. The word hope would imply a sense of optimism about the future.

When it comes to the Knicks, that has rarely been the case.

Such is life as a Knicks fan. Year after year, you’re presented an aging, injury-prone roster with little to no hope of progression. Young assets are typically limited, and–at least in the minds of the front office–ill-equipped to fulfill the expectations of a largely veteran team.

Draft picks are often abandoned well in advance. And of the precocious neophytes actually selected, most are moved before they can even begin to actualize their potential. Any who remain are typically too limited to seriously contribute.

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What’s left is an old, uninspired group. A collection of past-their-prime veterans flanked by a handful young, borderline rotation-level players who play a unexciting, incohesive brand of basketball.

Short of a few fleeting runs led by Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010 and the Jeremy Lin-inspired Linsanity in 2012, every Knicks team has followed that model. Year in and year out, the Knicks are who we expect them to be, if not worse.

And without that potential for more … without that hope … there’s little joy in following the team.

Kristaps Porzingis changed everything.

Be it his intention or not, Phil Jackson provided Knicks fans with their first real, genuine ray of hope when he drafted Porzingis in June 2016. He landed a true talent with limitless potential.

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Someone we could watch develop. Someone we could watch grow into a superstar before our very eyes — an experience this franchise hasn’t had in nearly 30 years.

And over the last two weeks, we’re seeing that potential become a reality.

The first thing of note about Porzingis is the numbers. For all that talent he showcased last season, much of it came in flashes. He often struggled to crack the 20-point mark on a nightly basis.

This is, of course, understandable for someone so young, yet frustrating nonetheless. He’s now done so in six of their last nine, including a career-high 35 in Wednesday’s breakout effort over Detroit. Porzingis is averaging 20.2 points per game for the season.

Since failing to record a field goal against Houston on Nov. 2, he’s averaged 22.7 points and 7.4 rebounds.

His effective field goal percentage of 56.4 percent ranks behind only Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant among players scoring more than 20 points per game.

Before missing two free throw attempts in Sunday’s win over Atlanta, Porzingis was the first player 21 or younger to average 20 points per game on 49 percent shooting, 40 percent from three, and 79 percent from the line. 

Yes, his rebounds have decreased from 7.3 to 7.2 per game. Down as well is his rebound rate from 13.9 percent to 12.2 percent. Yet that drop can be largely attributed to his increase in field goal attempts from 12.3 to 14.9 per game and three-point attempts from 3.4 to 5.3 per game.

He’s a larger part of the offense even without the ball in his hands, thus removing him from rebounding opportunities.

His real plus-minus, while by no means the be-all-end-all of statistics, ranks 15th in the league, topped only by the names of the game’s elite.

Far more impressive than the numbers, however, is the growth he’s exhibited in his game. It’s not the numbers so much as it is how he’s getting them.

You can see it by the nature of his movement on the court. His post moves are notably decisive … his shooting stroke assuredly smooth. He catches the ball on the block with poise, and comes out of his post moves for the shot with a masterly sense of composure.

For such a raw, limitless talent, there’s a level of polish to his game rarely seen in someone so young. Whether imitating Dirk Nowitzki‘s patented one-legged fadeaway or debuting his crossover step-back jumper, his moves are extremely advanced for a 21-year-old. 

While Porzingis spent much of last season battling for post position, he’s now learned to take what the defense is giving him. His combination of height and range allows him to get a shot off from anywhere, and he’s beginning to take advantage of that.

Those same post moves that he was forcing from eight feet last season are just as effective from 12-to-15 feet, especially when you can shoot over everyone.

Rather than waste time backing guys down, Porzingis is getting into his sequences right away. It’s allowed him to avoid traps and doubles and remain a step ahead of his defender, as well as to maintain the quick tempo of Jeff Hornacek‘s offense. 

What is especially impressive this season is that there is no fear in his game, nor any sense of hesitation. He’ll just as easily risk embarrassment to block a dunk as he will posterize someone himself, and that’s important.

That willingness to fail in one specific moment is indicative of his greater understanding of the game. Even at such a young age, he can accept the backlash. He’ll try and fail on a block attempt the same way he’ll try and fail on a game winning shot. It’s a cliche sentiment, yes.

But that doesn’t diminish it’s importance. We see players–scrubs and stars alike–routinely step aside to allow a dunk. The fact that Porzingis has maintained that fearlessness despite his rising stardom is as encouraging a sign as anything we’ve seen in his ongoing development.

That type of confidence and willingness to fail extends to all facets of the sport, not just highlight blocks and game winning shots.

Of course, there are times that aggressiveness can cost him. His tendency to lunge at shooters has opened the door for ball movement that the Knicks don’t have the defensive discipline to rotate to and recover from.

His proclivity to leave his feet on block attempts has resulted in plenty of open shots on the interior. And there are still many instances where his fearless nature can result in foul trouble that this Knicks team can’t afford him getting in. These are all fixable issues.

And he’s worked to fix them over the last two weeks. What’s important is that the fearlessness remains. Thus far, that’s what we’ve seen.

Yet what stands out most in all this growth process is that he’s shown it amidst the sea of chaos that is New York. Which, if the last 20 years are any indication, is something he’ll have to deal with for much of his career.

All of those same issues discussed above still plague this current Knicks team. As our own Ti Windisch laid out last week, the Knicks are the one team NBA Twitter got right. Outside of Porzingis, they are who we thought they were.

Much of the roster consists of guys either past their prime or fading out of it. The younger members of the team are both limited and inexperienced. The roster is as disjointed as ever, no matter what system they’re asked to run.

And of course, as with any Knicks season, the team is clouded in off-court controversy.

Derrick Rose‘s sexual assault trial garnered much of the attention leading into the season. Phil Jackson’s remark regarding LeBron James and Maverick Carter has now occupied that mantel the last week or so.

And even when the discussion does refocus itself to the basketball court, we can’t escape the never-ending debate over the triangle offense.

Yet through it all, nothing has fazed Kristaps Porzingis. He has continued to develop his game, looking more poised and more dominant with each performance. And done well to ignore the outside noise.

While fans and media folks alike yearn for an increased focus on Porzingis in the offense, he has not once caused a stir.

This is still Carmelo’s team, even if just in spirit. Porzingis understands that, and is quick to defer to Carmelo as The Guy, both on the court and with the media. That matters, especially for a team so constantly consumed in controversy.

While many believe Porzingis will soon surpass Carmelo, which he has already in many respects, this will still remain “Carmelo’s team” for the foreseeable future.

The fact that Porzingis has shown a willingness to accept that, despite his rising stardom, shows just how mature he already is. It has earned him a great deal of respect from Carmelo, and shows how well he understands the growth process of an NBA superstar.

He’s not rushing his growth towards superstardom, even if his on-court performance says otherwise.

Most nights, it does.

Not every game will look like Wednesday’s 35-point outburst against Detroit. There will be more than a few bumps in the road as we watch Porzingis continue to develop, as there are with every budding superstar.

Yet what the last few weeks have shown us is that this process has come a lot faster than we expected.

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Amidst those glimpses of brilliance last season, we dreamt of watching Porzingis grow into a consistent contributor, then to a borderline All-Star, before becoming a true superstar in this league.

After these last two weeks, there’s every reason to believe that process has picked up its pace. He’s already a 20 point-per-game scorer — a number that should only increase as the Knicks move more towards a pick-and-roll oriented offense and away from the dreaded triangle.

Jeff Hornacek has made a concerted effort to get Porzingis the ball in scoring situations, and his attempts per game will thus increase from 15 or 16 towards 18 or 19 as the season moves forward.

The Knicks are a noticeably better team when he’s shooting more, and a large part of their 5-4 record over the last nine games is the increased focus on Porzingis in the offense.

Yes, there are areas he needs improvement, especially defensively. But that takes nothing away from the growth he’s exhibited thus far.

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There is finally a sense of hope with the Knicks. There is potential, and despite the usual chaos surrounding the team, there is a whole lot of optimism. Kristaps Porzingis is growing into a superstar much faster than we ever could have expected. And boy is it fun to watch.