Much of the talk around New York Knicks rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis has centered on how he can potentially be a game-changing player on offense, and rightfully so. A 7'3" sharpshooter with Nowitzki-esque range and an early-career Kevin Love-like willingness to crash the offensive boards, Porzingis will likely prove a rare breed of offensive talent as his career moves along.
But it's his surprising prowess on the other end of the floor that could change the trajectory of his career, and of the Knicks as a team.
Rail-thin at the time he was drafted, Porzingis was widely expected to struggle on the defensive interior. The Knicks slotted him next to Robin Lopez in their starting lineup seemingly for that very reason. Lopez's presence inside would give KP cover in case his man bullied his way to the rim. Through the early part of the year, Porzingis rarely saw the floor without Lopez right there next to him.
But more and more of late, head coach Derek Fisher has taken to using Porzingis as the lone big man on the court, despite the fact that his roster is heavy on bigs and relatively light on wings.
"It was definitely a thought in terms of maybe eventually being able to [play center]," Fisher said. "And especially when we constructed our roster, there probably weren't going to be a lot of minutes at the center spot because of the guys that we do have. I think as we've grown and evolved, and the way teams are playing, we've been able to do it some.
"I think it will be good for us, but it's probably not a finished product at this point. But I do think Kris' ability to change shots, block shots and play bigger than what his frame looks like is going to allow us to do it a little bit more."
Fisher might have been talking in the future tense about using Porzingis at center more often, but the truth is that he's already begun to do so. Take a look at the following splits, via the stats site NBAWOWY:
|Date||MPG at Center|
|Oct. 28 - Nov. 20||2.46|
|Nov. 21 - Dec. 12||6.50|
Porzingis' time at center has grown by more than four minutes per night over the last three weeks—ever since he posted a seven-block game against the Houston Rockets back on Nov. 21. He's registered two more games of at least six blocks since then, meaning Patrick Ewing is now the only Knick since the 1985-86 season with more six-plus-block games in a season than Porzingis.
In Wednesday night's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Porzingis logged his most extensive time at center yet—15 minutes' worth. He started his block party early on while playing next to Lopez, swatting Andrew Wiggins twice in the first minute-and-a-half of the game, but he continued right on blocking everything in sight even as he patrolled the paint by his lonesome.
By the end of the first half, he had six blocks in all. By the end of the night, he had seven, as he closed out the game by blocking a three-point attempt by Karl-Anthony Towns.
Porzingis knows his size and length are incredible assets, and he's going to use them to challenge guys at the rim, even if it means he winds up on the wrong end of some highlights.
"There will be and-1s over me and stuff like that just because I'm trying to help and protect the rim," he said. "But I'm trying to block as many shots as I can."
As he gains a reputation as a shot-swatter, players may begin to pull up short and try to loft shots over him, and then the temptation will be there to leap out and block that type of shot rather than just hang back and alter it with his massive wingspan. Luckily for the Knicks, Porzingis is already prepared for that eventual reality, whether it comes or not.
"You don't have to block every shot," Porzingis said. "You've got to make them think you're going to block every shot. That's the main thing. You want to make him think about it twice, hesitate a little bit, and that's what makes him miss."
Through the early part of New York's season, he's actually already done a pretty good job of that. According to SportVU player tracking data provided by NBA.com, opposing players were making 47.2 percent of their shots against Porzingis near the basket heading into Wednesday's game against Minnesota, on par with players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and teammate Robin Lopez.
Once the Wolves game factors in, that number will likely drop into the low 40s, moving him ever closer to the top 10 in the league for players who challenge at least five shots per game at the basket.
Already, that ability to both block and alter shots is paying dividends for the Knicks.
The statistics site Nylon Calculus has a metric called Position Adjusted Points Saved, which measures the number of points, relative to positional expectation, a player "saves" his team defensively by challenging shots at the rim. Headed into Wednesday's game, Porzingis ranked 23rd out of 121 qualifying big men (those playing at least 15 minutes per game) in that metric, putting him ahead of players like Lopez, Roy Hibbert and Al Horford.
He's not been a perfect rim protector, of course. Just last week, DeMarcus Cousins dislodged Porzingis in the post on multiple possessions for easy baskets. And he's been occasionally susceptible to pump fakes from smart players who already know he's looking for the highlight block whenever he can get it. But considering how quickly Porzingis has already overcome other deficiencies in his game, those weaknesses don't seem likely to last all that long.
It's clear a move to center means the Knicks will have to reorient their post-heavy offense around a big who lets it fly from deep, but if what we've seen thus far on the less glamorous side of the floor continues, the rookie will help shape this team's defensive identity well into the future.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.