Can Knicks Make Kristaps Porzingis a True Superstar? 'Now We Get to See'

Yaron WeitzmanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: (EDITORS NOTE: Multiple exposures were combined in camera to produce this image.) Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks celebrate during a game against the Detroit Pistons on March 27, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

TARRYTOWN, N.Y.— With Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks finally agreeing to move on from their troubled marriage, an era of Knicks basketball has come to an end. This, no doubt, was part of the impetus for trading Anthony.

The Knicks know it's time to direct their focus to the future and initiate the process of constructing a contender around their 22-year-old unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. 

This is why this upcoming Knicks season is such a pivotal one. Every decision moving forward—from trades, to signings, to schemes—should be made with Porzingis and his growth in mind. The goal is to win a championship, or at least to compete for one in entertaining fashion. For that, you need superstars, the rarest of NBA commodities.

This is why the Knicks should treat Porzingis—who may not be a star yet, but who's also one of only a handful of young players in the league who could one day become one—like a winning lotto ticket.

As one Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report: "Now we get to see if Porzingis is really that good."

This means the onus is on the Knicks to create an atmosphere that fosters his growth. So how are they doing thus far?

Let's go with eh.

The good news: Phil Jackson is no longer in charge, which means they're ahead of where they were this time last year. No more geometry, no more fortune cookie tweets. Instead, organizational clarity and transparency seems to be the priority for the new regime.

"Whatever issues there were last year, we'll make sure those aren't part of who we are moving forward and make sure that our players understand exactly what we expect from them," Knicks president Steve Mills said Monday during the team's media day, "and that we understand what they expect from us, as management, and make sure we have a good environment moving forward."

Sep 25, 2017; Greenburgh, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) speaks to the media on media day at MSG Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

And this isn't to suggest Porzingis is beyond the silliness that took place around Madison Square Garden last season. He reportedly skipped out on his exit meeting in April due to his frustration with Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek, according to reporter Peter Vecsey. In an account that has since being confirmed to Bleacher Report, Hornacek asked Porzingis' best friend on the team, Willy Hernangomez, to tell Porzingis to "stop playing like a p---y." 

"KP and I have a good relationship, I'm not going to comment on any reports that say otherwise," Hornacek told reporters on Friday when asked about the report. "We texted with him all summer. We followed him through EuroBasket. We're very happy with his conditioning, the way he played out there, the way he took on the role of leader for that Latvian team."

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 29: Head Coach Jeff Hornacek of the New York Knicks talks with Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on October 29, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Porzingis, on Monday during his first press conference since the missed exit meeting, was singing a similar tune:

"I'm coming into this season with a fresh mind. It's a new season. I want to leave what happened ... in the past," he said Monday. "The past is the past. I don't want to talk about that no more. I want to talk about this season. I'm just excited to be here."

Not entirely convincing, but it's also worth noting Porzingis only flew back from Latvia this weekend, meaning he pushed returning to the team as long as possible.  

More concerning, though, is the way the Knicks seem to be collecting centers as if they're rare coins. They already had Hernangomez, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn on the roster. Bringing in Enes Kanter from the Thunder in the Carmelo trade gives the Knicks four centers plus Porzingis, meaning they have four more than the majority of teams playing in today's small-ball, pace-and-space league. 

"I'm not uncomfortable at the 4," Porzingis said Monday.

Perhaps, but playing him there all the time would be a mistake. How many teams can get away with slotting a 35.7 percent three-point shooter who can also protect the paint into the center position?

"He can play both positions, but he's built to play the 5," said an NBA coach. "Putting him there makes your team extremely hard to guard, and it's not like anyone posts up anymore, so you don't have to worry about strength."

Porzingis last year only allowed opponents to hit 44.2 percent of their shots against him at the rim, the seventh-best mark in the league among players allowing at least four such shots per game (via NBA.com). Translation: He's one of the NBA's top rim protectors, meaning he should be spending the majority of his time on defense manning the paint.

Not only would that be best for the Knicks, and help them plug some of the defensive leaks that led to them surrendering a ghastly 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the NBA's sixth-worst mark, but it would also help keep Porzingis on the floor. The 3.7 fouls he committed per game last season were the second-most in the NBA. Part of that, no doubt, was because 79 percent of his minutes (per Basketball Reference) came at the 4, where he had to chase smaller and quicker players out on the perimeter. 

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks blocks a shot by Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden on February 12, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Elsa/Getty Images

Playing the 5 would also free up Porzingis on the offensive end, where he'll now have to make the leap from secondary scorer to focal point. The skills are clearly there, but he's struggled in the past when opponents (such as the Boston Celtics with Marcus Smart) have guarded him with shorter and quicker defenders. This is far from a red flag—it took Dirk Nowitzki, who Porzingis worked out with this summer, years to learn how to counter this tactic—but the more the Knicks can put Porzingis in optimal positions, the more likely he is to soar. 

Making the leap from secondary scorer to focal point isn't an easy transition. "You have to get your points, and do so efficiently, and make your teammates better," said a Western Conference scout. An example of what the role entails: 4.1 of Anthony's shot attempts per game last season came with seven seconds or fewer on the shot clock (via NBA.com.). That burden will now fall on Porzingis. 

So will the need to be the first in and last out. To set the tone defensively. And to carry the team when it's the second night of a road back-to-back and everyone's moving a step slow.

"Honestly, [Anthony] took a lot of pressure off of everybody," Porzingis said Monday. "We all understand that. He was always the No. 1 focal point for the other team. ... And now I'm going to be one of those guys that other teams are going to focus on. That's one of the things that are a little more difficult for me. ... He drew so much attention, and now there's going to be more attention on me. I have to be ready for it. It's going to be different."

That it will be. Different, though, can be a good thing. If handled properly.

          

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.