Despite the fact that New York Knicks power forward Kristaps Porzingis has exceeded all rational expectations and can only be described as "ahead of schedule," it is important to remember that he is still a 20-year-old rookie barely a quarter of the way through his debut NBA season.
There are times where he'll simply struggle to find his way, as all rookies do—as he did on Wednesday night with just four points on 2-of-8 shooting against the Utah Jazz.
That's why the Knicks are doing everything they can to put him in the best possible position to succeed.
How exactly have they done that?
"We didn't try to make him something before he started playing," head coach Derek Fisher said earlier this week. "We wanted to try to find a role that fits him at the point where he is in his career, rather than putting the entire franchise on his shoulders and saying, 'Go win some games for us.'"
Fisher has been afforded that luxury largely because of the presence of Carmelo Anthony, who's still largely responsible for Knicks wins and losses—at least for now while Porzingis is still a neophyte.
Though there are schematic factors in New York's effort to put Porzingis in a position to succeed, the biggest part of it has been Fisher's ability to use the rookie in "Porzingis-friendly" lineups.
"I think he's developing slowly into a guy that you can have on the floor to anchor a unit," Fisher said before a Dec. 7 contest against the Dallas Mavericks. "I haven't been in a hurry to do that in terms of having him on the court where he's the primary guy that has to carry the team, but it's not because of something that I decided in advance. It just kind of worked out that way."
Ahead of Wednesday's matchup vs. Utah, Porzingis had played only 49 minutes without Carmelo on the floor (most of those minutes came when Carmelo missed a contest against the Houston Rockets due to illness).
With Porzingis and Anthony on the floor together, the Knicks have performed well, and often. The duo is the team's most-used two-man combination, per NBA.com. When they've shared the floor, New York has outscored opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark just north of the Cleveland Cavaliers' pace-adjusted scoring margin on the season.
What's more, both Anthony and Porzingis have fared better with the other on the floor than when they've played with other teammates. Take a look at Anthony's shooting splits and per-48 minutes scoring margin with and without Porzingis, entering Wednesday's contest via NBA.com:
|Porzingis?||FG %||3PT %||Per-48|
With Porzingis on the floor, Anthony shoots better from the restricted area, from the back half of the paint, from mid-range, on corner threes and on above-the-break threes.
Similarly, Porzingis has fared better with his shot from mid-range (43.5 to 38.5 percent) and beyond the arc (37.5 to 20.0 percent) with Anthony in the game. And Porzingis realizes just how much Anthony opens up the court for him.
"Whenever he gets hot, that draws so much attention that other guys can be wide open," Porzingis said.
Take, for example, this three-pointer. At first glance, it's just a very big man knocking down a very deep three. But pay close attention to Thaddeus Young (No. 30 in black).
See that little lunge back toward a cutting Anthony that Young made? It lasted barely half a second, but that was all Porzingis needed to lock and load his increasingly feathery jumper (Wednesday's poor shooting performance notwithstanding; KP had hit 51.7 percent of his threes over the previous 11 games).
If that's anyone else but Anthony cutting through the paint, Young's not paying quite as much attention. Porzingis wouldn't be quite as open and the shot doesn't stand quite as good a chance of ripping through the nylon.
Over the last few games, Anthony's screens for Porzingis are noticeably sturdier. While Melo usually slips his on- and off-ball screens for other teammates, he's holding steady and making good contact with opponents when screening for Porzingis.
Here's an example:
Both players are conscious of this fact.
"He's a very smart player," Porzingis said. "Obviously, he knows that when he's setting a screen, he knows that the guy is not going to help off him. So him setting a good screen for me or whoever, we're going to be wide open. He knows that."
Anthony also knows exactly how much this helps Porzingis.
"That's just me figuring the game out, out there, trying to make the game easy for myself and easy for him out there, too," Anthony said. "He's still learning. He's still learning the game of basketball. I want to help him out so if I can help him make the game easier for himself, I want to do that."
It's worth noting that Anthony, per SportVU player tracking data provided by NBA.com, has tossed more passes in Porzingis' direction than any other teammate's save Jose Calderon. Anthony's passes have also generally been slightly smarter and more bountiful this season.
Per SportVU data, Anthony has passed the ball on 61 percent of his touches this season, the exact same rate as last year. However, those passes have generated assist opportunities 18.5 percent of the time this season. That number was only 16.4 percent last year and 15.7 percent the year before.
Of course, that doesn't mean Anthony is seeing every available pass. Particularly late in games, the ball has still tended to stick to his hands. In New York's loss to the Mavericks, he looked directly at a wide-open Porzingis behind the arc—but decided to continue on toward the rim. Anthony was eventually called for an offensive foul:
Since Anthony arrived in New York over four and a half years ago, the Knicks have been searching for a proper secondary scorer to pair with him. They've tried out Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith, among others, but none have stuck. The Knicks obviously hope Porzingis can be that guy, and Anthony thinks he's getting there.
"The opportunity is there," Anthony said after that Dec. 4 win over the Nets. "These past couple games it has been there, with Arron stepping up and KP playing the way he's been playing. We need that. But I'm not putting too much pressure on them to try to take the burden off of me."
Ideally, Porzingis and Anthony will take pressure off each other. As Anthony ages (he'll turn 32 in May, 2016) and Porzingis comes into his own, Anthony will likely slide into the secondary scorer/spot-up shooter role that suited him so well on Team USA.
Fisher isn't letting himself get carried away, but he does have a vision for how they'll work together.
"What I hope to envision is that the things that they do well out on the court will continue to be strong suits. Carmelo draws a lot of attention. He makes things easier for the guys around him," Fisher said. "They do seem to have a rapport and a chemistry that will develop more over time as they play together. I think Kris has earned a level of respect, that for a veteran guy like Melo, he'll continue to invest time and develop that relationship with him."
Given how well Porzingis has played and the fact that Anthony is now exiting his prime, there will surely be—and indeed, already have been, in some sectors of the Knicks fan base—calls for the Knicks to trade Anthony and build the team around Porzingis. But while building the team around Porzingis would indeed be wise, the Knicks do need to be mindful of how a potential Anthony trade could adversely affect the development of what they hope will be their next homegrown star.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
All statistics are current prior to games played Dec. 7 and courtesy of NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.