In news that should shock nobody that has watched the Knicks import a mysterious, spangly Latvian prodigy and unleash him on the NBA, Kristaps Porzingis is the future of New York basketball. There was reason to believe “The Unicorn” wouldn’t quite be NBA-ready upon his arrival, but reason doesn’t stand up to a 7’3” guy crossing over and burying a fadeaway a la Kobe Bryant. He earned Carmelo Anthony’s graces early on, and the entire league’s shortly after. There’s no telling where the ceiling is with Porzingis, nor what it looks like, but we can try and get a wider lens of his ever-growing game from Year 1 to Year 2.
The scariest part of Porzingis’s development is that we’ve yet to see him fully unleashed in the Knicks’ offense. In Denver, fellow sophomore big Nikola Jokic is the focal point of one of the league’s top scoring machines. But New York still treats Porzingis as part of the system, instead of making him the system.
This is fine when you have Anthony and want to bring a young player along slowly, but Porzingis has been the first sub out most of the year and will go possessions at a time without seeing the ball while leading bench units, which doesn’t seem beneficial. Typically, the Knicks have Porzingis in scattered pick-and-pops, run the occasional set for him (usually a short curl or a pin-down for a jumper) and like to feed him in the post.
Whatever New York has asked of him, Porzingis has taken it in stride. His usage rate has remained consistent from last year, but his minutes and efficiency have increased. One question early in his rookie year was how dangerous his deep ball could be. Well, a third of his shots come from three, and he’s knocking down 37.9 percent of them. On top of that, he’s quickened his release. The first clip is from his rookie year, the second from last month:
Catch Porzingis pregame and you’ll see him working on those quick-trigger jumpers. He’s sped up a lot of things in order to keep pace with the NBA. Porzingis showed flashes of a deadly post arsenal last season, but he’s making decisions and moves quicker, tightened everything up and thrown in extra little shimmies and jabs. Compare these two clips:
In the first, rookie Porzingis took a beat before beginning his move: a fake spin right into a spinning jumper the other way. In the second, Porzingis immediately went to work on Giannis Antetokounmpo with a hard dribble to his right, a quick shimmy in the opposite direction, then the fade.
KP is far from perfect in the post — his statistics there are actually down and he still can’t nudge guys at all — but those little differences are part of the process. Knicks fans often scoff at the bevy of post-up possessions thrown Porzingis’ way, especially when they see him miss three turnarounds in a row and how well he thrives in other areas. But defenses have already begun combating Porzingis screens by switching, and sooner or later he’s going to have to make smaller defenders pay. He’s not doing that off the dribble.
One place we haven’t seen Porzingis make defenses pay is with his passing. Among players who average 30 minutes a night, his assist rate falls in the bottom 10 of the league.
Part of this comes back to the Knicks’ offense system and how Porzingis is used as a complementary piece. New York isn’t much of a passing team, either, ranking 23rd in assist rate. When Porzingis gets the ball it’s usually to score or keep it moving for somebody else to create. He seems to be capable, is willing to make the extra pass and even throws some gems, but he needs to get better. Being more aware of help defenses and where his teammates are is one way.
Porzingis shot the ball instead of passing it in both of these screenshots:
As a whole, his offense is coming along quite nicely. Defense has been a trickier road to navigate. It is only Year 2, playing defense in the NBA is hard and he isn’t getting much help, but Porzingis hasn’t really improved there. He’s even slipped in an area: fouling.
Porzingis is averaging 0.6 more fouls per 36 minutes compared to last year and fouls out of games more than anybody in the league. The numbers aren’t being dragged down by an early-season blip, either.
In January, Porzingis averaged 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes, though he was fighting injuries throughout the month. These mostly come from bad reaching and going for blocks when he should have stayed vertical. Problems like that go away in time. Porzingis is smart and mostly knows where to be.
Good news is when he’s in position and defending the rim, he’s a Manhattan skyscraper. Opponents are shooting 42.4 percent when attacking Porzingis at the basket, a touch better than Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green, per NBA.com’s tracking data. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Porzingis did similarly well last year, and he hasn’t gotten any shorter.
Where Porzingis struggles is in space, guarding smaller 4s. It plagued him last year and he’s making the same mistakes. He’ll close out too aggressively, either committing a foul or running himself out of the play. Guys will slip behind him, leave him in the dust off the ball and get him jumping on pump fakes. He guard shooters too close despite being seven-freaking-foot-three.
The difficult but necessary solution would be for Porzingis to watch the film and be a little smarter guarding these types of players. If he sticks to the floor, gives himself some room to defend the drive and doesn’t reach, there’s no reason he can’t be decent against most opponents.
The easier solution is moving him to the center position, which is a move many have been asking for given that’s where Porzingis will dominate down the line. The arguments for this have made the rounds: he’d be the spearhead of a five-out offense that can rain threes, skate by slower centers and be much more comfortable defensively as a full-time paint protector.
But although he’d wreak havoc and the Knicks should absolutely give him more minutes there, this shouldn’t be the only line of thinking. Putting someone with this much talent this early in his development into a box isn’t smart. Nobody knows what Porzingis will look like at 27, so it’s best to keep an open mind, and perhaps more importantly, make sure he makes it to 27.
Porzingis missed 10 games last year and has already missed eight this season. Asking him to be the lead rebounder and rim protector for 30 minutes a night could be harmful.
Beyond health, it’s a tough ask. Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic are simultaneously the offensive load-bearers and last lines of defense for their respective clubs. Their teams can’t stop anybody. DeMarcus Cousins has been in this role for years and can’t get the Kings to the postseason. This isn’t completely the fault of these stars, but making Porzingis a center isn’t a shortcut to success. The Knicks are getting outscored by two points per 100 possessions when he plays the 5, per NBAWowy.com, and finding the right power forward for him will be a chore in the future. Draymond Greens don’t grow on trees.
Whichever way the Knicks go with his development, they knocked it out of the park with Porzingis. In the short-term, they can build on his talents by addressing some of the more manageable concerns, like getting him to look for the pass more and make less mistakes defending outside the paint. In the long-term, Carmelo has to leave sometime, and then the keys to the team belong to Porzingis.
In the meantime…damn, this kid is fun to watch.
By David Vertsberger