Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis appeared wise beyond his 19 years at the Las Vegas Summer League.
For starters, Porzingis, who averaged 10.5 points and 1.8 blocks on 48.0 percent shooting, had three swats guarding Jahlil Okafor, who is around 40 pounds heavier at 270, in a Knicks win over the Sixers. Porzingis also demonstrated an early command of the triangle offense and showed a smiling, friendly approach with the tough New York media.
Porzingis, whose nickname is "Zinger" in Europe, was such a crowd favorite that some fans screamed enthusiastically for him to shoot as soon as he caught the ball.
He also flashed an experienced hand off the court, explaining different types of foie gras and steak tartare in an interview with Bleacher Report one night at 35 Steaks + Martinis restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel. Porzingis, who has traveled throughout Europe for hoops and speaks three languages (Latvian, Spanish and English), is much more seasoned than a regular teenager. He also has a step ahead for living in the States with his longtime appreciation for American culture, from hip-hop music to T.G.I. Friday's, his favorite restaurant in Seville, Spain, where he played professionally from 2011 to 2015.
"I think the only time where I was really kind of stressed was where he was going to land in the draft," said one of Porzingis' two older brothers, Janis, a former European player who now serves as his agent for ASM Sports. "He's ready to play in the capital of the world. At first, I wasn't that sure how he would adjust with all the media, but he's a tough guy. He's so cool and calm. Once he learns the [Knicks'] system, he's going to be way more aggressive. Now, he's trying to fit in."
While in Vegas, Porzingis spoke with B/R over dinner about his transition from draft-night boos to the bright lights of Vegas and New York City; his interaction with Carmelo Anthony and special meeting with Kevin Garnett; his hip-hop and pingpong interests off of the court; and much more. The conversation is presented below in his words and edited for clarity and length.
Porzingis on His New York Reception and Being a Knick
I knew there were going to be boos if the Knicks drafted me. That's how New York fans are. I know if I play hard and show that I want to be a Knick, I know the fans will accept me. I really wanted to get drafted by the Knicks, and it was a dream come true. I wasn't even hearing the boos that night. I was just having a special moment with my family, hugging them.
The night of the draft was pretty crazy. I was thinking, Maybe I can go No. 3, even No. 2. So you're a little nervous the whole time. Two or three minutes before No. 4, my agent, Andy Miller, turned to me and said, "The Knicks are taking you." In that moment, I couldn't believe it. First I was like, "I want to hear my name." When I heard it, it was an amazing feeling. Adam Silver even pronounced my name right.
On the stage, Adam just said, "Congrats. Welcome to New York. We're happy to have you. Welcome to the family." That's a dream for everybody, and to go that high and be a Knick, that's a really special moment for me.
Carmelo Anthony reached out to me after I got drafted. He said, "Congrats, welcome to the team." I didn't have his number, so I texted back, "Who's this?" And then a few minutes later, he said, "This is Melo" with his No. 7 as the "l." I met him actually when I came for my Knicks tryout for the first time. We've talked a couple of times since then.
Melo is a superstar, so he'll be great for me. I'll be open a lot of times just because he draws so much attention. And off the court, it will be great for me to be around him to see how he carries himself, and with the fans, how he dresses, how professional he is with the media and how hard he works in the gym. So it will be a great experience for me to learn from him.
New York City is crazy; there are people everywhere. New York is the best city in the world, I think. You have everything there. It's just a little hard to get from one place to another. But I love to drive, and my dream car is a Mercedes-Benz. We will see if I get it. Sometimes my brother will drive so I can just chill and sit in the back and watch film.
On the Vegas Scene and Handling Attention
Janis and I walked the Vegas Strip, and there are so many random people. Some were drunk, and some were giving me nightclub passes. Vegas is actually the first city I went to when I came to the U.S. last summer, when I trained at Impact Basketball gym with Joe Abunassar. My first night in Vegas, after my airline baggage got lost, I had my first filet mignon at Caesars Palace, and it's now one of my favorite foods because it's healthy.
For me, Vegas is about working out, and it's fun for me to work out. They say Sin City, but I just work out and play in the summer league. When I do walk out on the street, it's been crazy because when I was playing in Seville, which is not a big basketball city, not a lot of people knew me. But now I love the attention. I'm just having fun with the fans, taking pictures, just joking around. Everybody wants to know how tall I am. Sometimes I just joke around and say, "Eight feet."
I like being tall because people recognize me. But there's still people after a picture who are like, "What's your name? Where do you play? Do you play basketball?" I'm like, "Come on, man." They just want to take pictures because I'm tall. One thing about being tall that's not cool is that everybody sees you always. Whatever you do, you can't hide. It's something I had to get used to, but it's fun because random people want to talk to you.
I would say 99 percent of the fans in Vegas have been positive. Fans are really nice when I see them, but then on social media it's a little worse. I don't read everything, but there are still fans who are like, "You're going to be a bust."
Actually Kevin, Garnett gave me advice about that this week. He came up to me after one of our practices when the Timberwolves were walking in.
He knew me a little bit from my interviews. He said, "Take that negative and turn it into energy." He was telling me, "Just don't listen to the outside and work as hard as you can." I really love KG, and it was great having him tell me that advice.
On Some of His NBA Favorites
I watched a lot of KG's videos growing up with Janis. We watched how KG made his moves in the post and a lot of his dunks. KG is a beast. He's somebody I looked up to.
We also watched a lot of Anthony Davis and Dirk Nowitzki. Anthony is a freak athlete, and I just love watching him dunking the ball and running the floor. I love how he attacks and does his moves. He's really aggressive, and I like that. And Dirk, it's just how he gets that little space and gets his shot off with his one-legged fadeaway. It's unguardable, and it's something I want to learn.
I think with time, I will learn where I can attack and where I will have good position. But I'm feeling more confident and comfortable every time the team plays together. I actually love the triangle because it's how I play—pick-and-pop, make plays for others and have my shot. The better you know the triangle, the better you will make better plays. We're all still learning.
While the game is pretty fast like the ACB league in Spain, it's more physical than in Europe, especially because I've been playing the 5. But it's mostly the same basketball. The first coach I had in Seville was American, Scott Roth, and we were playing this kind of defense in the ACB league. I would say like 60, 70 percent of what we do now is similar to the stuff we did with Scott and Audie Norris, my other American coach who also taught me the bank shot. I shoot it all the time now.
In Europe, we called it "blue" on defense when a point guard steps on the side and then the big helps down, like icing a pick-and-roll to the sideline. Here, it's "push." And in a middle pick-and-roll, here it's "weak" because you force the opponent to his weak hand. Just different names, but the same stuff.
On Adjusting to American Culture
The adjustment has been easier because I had American teammates in Spain, and I listened to hip-hop my whole life. I listen to a lot of Drake and Meek Mill before games. So I pretty much know the culture, and my English is pretty good. But handshakes are different. It's the hug and then back with your hand. It's pretty cool.
The Latvian rap group Transleiteris actually made a song about me. People listen to it, and it's gotten a lot of views. They even had a radio interview in New York with Gio and Jones. They're just making fun of Latvian language. It's more of a parody than a real song. What happened is this other Latvian rap group Olas made a song about NHL player Zemgus Girgensons. In the music video, they wore T-shirts that said, in English translation, "a lot of money." So the Transleiteris saw that my contract is going to be bigger with the Knicks, so they wore T-shirts that said, in English translation, "even more money."
Damian Lillard is actually a good rapper. Maybe in Latvian one day I'll rap a little bit, but definitely not in English. I like freestyle battles. I love the show Sway in the Morning.
My new interest is pingpong. We have a table at the Knicks' practice facility, and after I finish my workout, Janis is already ready with the paddle. We play every day in New York. Sometimes it's funny because whenever we're playing a long time and he gets a tough point, he gets excited like crazy, and I hate that. I get so competitive and we trash talk. He only beat me one time, but I won't let him beat me anymore.
Janis is a little tough on me, but that's how older brothers are. He just wants me to be good and succeed. My other brother, Martins, who also played professionally in Europe, will be coming to the States soon with my mother, Ingrida, and father, Talis. They'll be here for about three to four months, and I'm excited to have my mother's home cooking. She's amazing. She even makes homemade desserts.
On the NBA Grind and Life Beyond the Court
I'm most excited to see what the travel is going to be like in the NBA. It's going to be tough, from what I hear, just flying around all the time, being on planes, flying in late, the next day having a game. The thing is I can sleep on planes. Janis has a lot of pictures of me sleeping on planes.
It's going to be a tough season, but that's why you've got to take good care of your body, make sure you eat good, you recover. I'm young, but I want to make sure I take care of myself in the beginning so I can have a long, successful career. After Vegas, I'll go home to Latvia for a few days, and then I'll come back to New York and start a training program and diet plan. The Knicks have no weight goal yet, but I'll be eating a lot and lifting hard to try to get as strong as I can for the season.
Off the court, I've started to realize how much there is behind basketball, whether it's interacting with the fans or social media. Now I have a lot of followers after the draft, so I'm trying to be as active as I can.
I'm even learning a lot about social media from comedian Kevin Hart. I've learned from him because of how hard he works—he's filming or doing a performance all the time—and the kinds of first-person videos he posts. I actually went to see him perform in New York with the team before leaving to Vegas.
For next summer, I want to have a camp for kids in Latvia. It's such a small country, and I want to give back there because now I'm the face of Latvian basketball. I actually love working with kids. I went to the Knicks' kids camp recently, and I had fun just being around them.
Overall, it's a great opportunity being in New York, and if we can make something good happen and make it to the playoffs, that will be great for me personally, for the team and for the city. We have Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, just a great organization all around, and I think the level of play will grow on the court. I'm just happy to be a Knick.