Just 15 games into his career, New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis has already surpassed all reasonable rookie-year expectations.
Widely considered a project requiring a few years of development, Porzingis is a positive force on the court right now. The 7'3" 20-year-old is averaging 13.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 26.9 minutes per game.
The Knicks have performed significantly better on both sides of the ball with Porzingis in the game than when he's been out. Per NBA.com, New York is scoring 4.7 points more per 100 possessions and allowing 6.2 points fewer per 100 possessions with Porzingis on the floor.
They're shooting better, rebounding better, passing better and preventing opponents from doing the same when Porzingis is in the game. It's clear he's not just along for the ride in New York's 8-7 start but actively part of making it happen.
But it should also be noted that the Knicks are doing a surprisingly good job of putting him in position to succeed.
1. Surround him with the best possible personnel.
The biggest thing Knicks head coach Derek Fisher is doing to help Porzingis is putting him on the floor with the best possible teammates. Take a look at the chart below, which shows how many minutes Porzingis has played alongside the Knicks' best offensive player (Carmelo Anthony), best defensive player (Robin Lopez) and most effective secondary weapon (Arron Afflalo), per NBA.com:
|Teammate||Minutes With||Overall Minutes|
(*Note: Afflalo missed the first eight games of the season due to injury. Porzingis' "Overall Minutes" total in the Afflalo row reflects his number of minutes played in games where Afflalo has been healthy.)
Porzingis has played 94 percent of his minutes with Anthony on the floor, 79 percent of his minutes with Lopez on the floor and 86 percent of his minutes with Afflalo since the latter returned from injury. Playing with those three players removes an enormous amount of pressure for Porzingis on both ends of the floor.
Defenses always devote extra attention to Anthony, which helps Porzingis find his shots in the flow of the offense. With Anthony on the floor, defenses can't key on Porzingis.
“Once we’re on the floor, we can exchange positions, we just feel each other. We play off each other," Porzingis said, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. "The way he plays, it’s easy. He’s the leader on the court, guiding everybody, where to be on the floor space out. It’s really easy to play with him because he creates for others, makes the game easier.”
Anthony, too, has taken note of their effortless chemistry, per Berman:
I don’t think we thought that jell and chemistry we have so far would be there. We all thought all this would take some time to figure out. I never played with sort of a stretch 4. It makes the game a little more easier. It’s easier to figure that out. If you have a stretch 4, a guy who can play the wing, knowing where he’s at, knowing what he can do, that makes the game easier, makes the chemistry process much easier. I was always kind of the stretch 4.
Meanwhile, it's not just playing with 'Melo that's paying dividends. Afflalo provides a secondary scoring threat to help divert attention from the giant Latvian manchild behind the three-point line. Afflalo also offers much more resistance defensively at the perimeter point of attack than fill-in starter Sasha Vujacic, which has helped keep opponents out of the lane and Kristaps out of foul trouble.
Porzingis' length and surprising lateral mobility are better utilized (for now) as a secondary big. When Lopez is around to bang with bruisers inside, Porzingis can defend pick-and-roll ball-handlers and roam the paint for weak-side-help blocks. Still, the Knicks have already begun using Porzingis at center in Lopez-less lineups more often of late.
2. Get him the ball in a favorable position.
Porzingis has not often been asked to create his own shot. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he's been assisted on 61.0 percent of his two-point baskets and every single one of his three-pointers. That sounds easy, but it's important. Potentially assisted shots carry a higher conversion rate than self-created ones.
Of Porzingis' 11.7 shot attempts per game, 4.7 of them have been catch-and-shoot, per NBA.com's SportVU tracking data. He's not converting a great percentage, but it's encouraging to see the Knicks working to get him better quality looks.
What's also relevant is where he is getting the ball.
Per NBA.com's SportVU tracking data, Porzingis is averaging 35.4 frontcourt touches per game. About 27 percent of those touches, 9.4 per game, are categorized as elbow (or what triangle teams typically call the pinch post), post or paint touches, while an additional 2.8 per game have come from offensive rebounds. That means he's getting the ball in a position where he can use his height to his advantage quite often.
The Knicks are also allowing Porzingis to occasionally operate outside the triangle offense and doing so in a way that kick-starts their half-court set. How? By having Porzingis set drag screens in delayed transition to hunt for early shot-clock opportunities:
Despite his struggles with consistency, Porzingis is a legitimate threat as a shooter. Helping off him, even to guard Anthony as he comes around the screen, could be deadly. His three-point percentage isn't at a high level just yet, but the stroke is smooth and repeatable.
Scott Roth, a former Mavericks coach who was with the team when Dirk Nowitzki got his start in 1999, told ESPN, "[Porzingis'] shooting stroke is as pure as any big to come into the NBA...as good as Dirk's."
Sure enough, that's bearing itself out more of late: He's nailed 66.7 percent of his threes over the last four games after hitting only 21.9 percent over the first 11 contests.
3. Give him freedom to roam and make mistakes.
The Knicks have also allowed Porzingis to try to go get the ball himself.
Like most triangle-offense-oriented teams, these Knicks love to chase after offensive rebounds. According to data tracked by Nylon Calculus, their offensive rebound chase percentage (the percentage of available offensive rebounds “contested”) ranks in the top third of the NBA this season.
New York has allowed Porzingis to chase offensive boards at will, which is how he's wound up with all those highlight tip-dunks:
Porzingis ranks third on the team in chase percentage, behind only Lopez and Kyle O'Quinn, who has fallen almost entirely out of the rotation. While Porzingis and Lopez crash the boards, everybody else is getting back on defense.
Porzingis chases 22.2 percent of those offensive rebounds, per the Nylon Calculus numbers (which are gleaned from the NBA's SportVU tracking technology), while Lopez is at 26.7 percent. Other than O'Quinn, nobody else on the team is above Anthony's 8.2 percent mark.
Additionally liberating for Porzingis is his playing time is not in question; and for the most part, neither is when he's going to play.
With a few exceptions, Porzingis has generally played the first six minutes of the first quarter, then sits for the rest of the first and the start of the second. He'll enter with six or seven minutes to go in the second and play the rest of the half. That system typically repeats in the second half.
That kind of certainty goes a long way for a young player's development.
By putting Porzingis in position to succeed, the Knicks have gotten excellent early results, not only from him but also in the win-loss column. As he grows into his body and his jump shot, he should only get better and more effective on both sides of the ball.
You can see his offensive contributions growing game by game, but it's really his growth on defense that could change the future direction of the franchise. If Porzingis can develop into a player who can play most (rather than some) of his minutes without a Lopez-like center on the floor next to him, that would free the Knicks up to do many more creative things with their lineups.
He's not quite there yet, but each game brings flashes of the player to come. It's perfectly understandable to get excited.