Kristaps Porzingis Already Challenging Carmelo Anthony As Knicks' Best Player

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Kristaps Porzingis Already Challenging Carmelo Anthony As Knicks' Best Player
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Kristaps Porzingis is the best NBA rookie not named Karl-Anthony Towns. He's also the best New York Knicks player not named Carmelo Anthony.

Or, wait—is he actually the Knicks' best player, period?

This might feel like a loaded, if irrational, question to pose less than 50 games into Porzingis' career. But from a big-picture perspective, he's the Knicks' most indispensable talent.

It's too soon to call Carmelo Anthony a No. 2 option—but that transition sure is inevitable and shockingly imminent.

Superstar Tendencies

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Though Porzingis isn't yet considered a superstar, he is, in many ways, playing like one.

Porzingis has been good enough, for long enough, to make the debate legitimate. He has started every game, owns the highest rookie player efficiency rating in Knicks franchise history and is one of two players this season who has buried at least 10 total three-pointers while clearing 17 points, nine rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes.

His company?

Anthony Davis.

But Porzingis hasn't yet paired his offensive potential with efficiency. His true shooting percentage falls below the league average, and he's having trouble creating truly easy opportunities around the basket. His slight frame works against him when he posts up, which is why he's actually shooting a better percentage from mid-range than from inside the paint.

Still, the threat of Porzingis' offensive reach is real. He's getting more comfortable attacking off the dribble and already merges slick footwork with size to expose defenders:

Putback slams have become his calling card, but Porzingis has improved so much elsewhere that those viral highlights sell him short.

Head coach Derek Fisher vacillates between using him as a featured option and an off-ball threat. His release is quick and fluid enough for spot-up duty, and he's gradually learning how to function as a playmaker both out of double-teams and off screens:

The Knicks have yet to consistently rely on Porzingis for crunch-time contributions, but additional touches should come as he develops. In the meantime, he's shooting 50 percent (6-of-12) during the final five minutes of games New York trails by five points or less, whereas Anthony is hitting just over 39 percent (11-of-28) of his looks.

Porzingis is notably self-assured for a 20-year-old rookie carrying the weight of a franchise's future on his shoulders. Irregular late-game usage and fickle experiences at the rim impact neither his psyche nor approach when it matters most:

It's this confidence, perpetual evolution and general production that put Porzingis in the same offensive class as his superstar running mate.

Challenging Melo

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Porzingis, as a complete player, is already rivaling Anthony in stature.

As the Knicks' de facto point guard, Anthony's role is vastly different. His usage rate is, predictably, much higher than Porzingis', and he's tasked with doing more on the offensive side. And that's not going to change.

It's Melo who gives the Knicks an above-average offensive identity. They score like a top-seven machine when he's in the lineup, and the only other forwards averaging 20 points per 36 minutes with an assist rate north of 20 are Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Even with a substantial edge over Porzingis in volume, Anthony remains the more efficient scorer in isolation plays, spot-up situations and post-ups. He's also destroying the rookie in offensive box plus-minus.

But Porzingis never could have hoped to stack up against Anthony metric-for-metric. He has the individual numbers and burgeoning skill set to hold his own, but Anthony's offensive resume is Hall of Fame-caliber.

So, it's on the defensive end that Porzingis' case receives its biggest boon. He is one of two Knicks who have played 500-plus minutes and are posting a positive defensive box plus-minus (Robin Lopez), and New York actively funnels ball-handlers toward him—to a fault, mind you.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Despite a spindly 7'3" frame, Porzingis has already solidified himself as a stout defender.

"While this idea has generally worked—New York ranks inside the NBA's top-10 in both rim protection and 3-point percentage defense—there has been one noticeable issue with that strategy of late," the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring wrote. "The Knicks' wing defenders have come to rely on it far too often."

Opponents are nevertheless shooting 46.2 percent against Porzingis at the rim on 7.1 tries per game. Renowned rim protector Tim Duncan, by comparison, is facing the same number of shots while allowing a 46.7 percent success rate.

Rival offenses are actually shooting better against the Knicks with Porzingis on the floor but not by much, and the rookie is facing more skilled players as a starter. New York's second unit is also sneaky-stingy; it ranks in the top 10 of defensive efficiency, according HoopsStats.com.

Teams are getting fewer looks per 36 minutes inside the restricted area when Porzingis plays, and that's just as important. He is already a default deterrent who manipulates shot selections and uses his length to deflect passes or pounce on ball-handlers:

Anthony has never been recognized as that star who can profoundly impact the game on both ends, even after reinventing his commitment to defense this season. And that only strengthens Porzingis' case.

Closer Than You Think

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press
The Anthony-Porzingis debate is not the no-brainer it probably should be.

Right now, Anthony leads the Knicks in PER, BPM and win shares; Porzingis ranks second or third in each category. Anthony has the highest net rating of all healthy Knicks; Porzingis is a close second.

Both see their own net ratings plummet without the other. And both improve the net ratings for seven of the other eight most-played Knicks: 

Though it's an inexact science, Porzingis elevates his teammates' net ratings by a total of 49.3 points per 100 possessions. Anthony increases them by a combined 57.5.

The distance between these two isn't what it should be. It's smaller and narrowing by the game, because Porzingis is that good, as Durant aptly alluded to, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

So is this "unicorn" the Knicks' best player? Is he better than Anthony?

Not now. Not this fast. He doesn't need to be. He doesn't even need to be relatively close.

And yet, Porzingis is very close—so surprisingly, ridiculously ahead of schedule that he's already on the verge of being more indispensable than anyone else and better than everyone else.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited, and they are accurate leading into games on Jan. 27. 

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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