NEW YORK — The playbook for going against Kristaps Porzingis used to be simple. Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was the first to deploy it, when he decided last year to slot the 6'4" Marcus Smart onto the 7'3" Porzingis, but it goes back even further. Then-Golden State Warriors head coach Don Nelson employed it to bother Dirk Nowitzki and upset the Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. He instructed the 6'8" Stephen Jackson to get into the body of the seven-foot Dirk Nowitzki.
It worked for Nelson and Jackson, and it worked last season for the Knicks' foes.
"It was something I had never experienced before," Porzingis said of Smart's defense recently. "[Smart] was getting into my knees, playing hard defense and I wasn't really ready for it.
The blueprint for slowing Porzingis, drawn by Nelson and updated by Stevens, was set. For all the tantalizing promise, nice numbers and unicorn label, Porzingis spent his first two NBA seasons mostly camped out on the perimeter and waiting for others to generate open looks.
That, it's safe to say, is no longer the case.
Through six games Porzingis is averaging 29.3 points per contest, the league's third-best mark and up from last year's 18.1. He's scored 30 or more points in all but one of those outings, including a 38-point explosion (a career high) Monday night against the Denver Nuggets in a 116-110 win that inched the New York Knicks up to 3-3 and had the Madison Square Garden Crowd serenading him with chants of "M-V-P."
"My boy's a beast," Knicks guard Courtney Lee told reporters following Monday's win.
"He's grown into himself; he's so much more comfortable out on the floor," an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "He's a truly special talent."
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But the talent? That was always there, if just a bit dormant. The difference so far this season is Porzingis appears ready and able to fulfill it all.
It starts with his improved strength. Porzingis spent the summer away from the Knicks (maybe that's the key!), lifting weights and posting videos of himself doing so back home in Latvia. He wanted the power to punish opponents who tried defending him with smaller players.
"He doesn't get pushed off his spots anymore," Knicks forward Lance Thomas, who often guards Porzingis during practices, told Bleacher Report. "That's the biggest difference for him this year. He can get to where he wants to—a scoring position—before catching the ball. And he has such a high release point once he gets it there there's nothing a defender can do."
The new muscle, coupled with added comfort, has transformed Porzingis into an overpowering offensive weapon. He now welcomes switches and overzealous wings. He'll patiently back them down, then turn and unleash a feathery jumper right over the top. Five percent more of his looks are coming from between four and 14 feet, and he's burying a blistering 53 percent of those looks, a number better than 83 percent of the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
"I think my strength is helping my game a lot, just having my balance on all those shots, even though a lot of these shots are contested," Porzingis told reporters Monday night. "I'm just more comfortable in the post … with guards trying to get at my legs."
But it's more than that. His skills have grown—his turnaround jumper has morphed from streaky to smooth—but he's also seamlessly adapted to his new role in the Knicks' post-Carmelo world. It's tricky, being a No. 1 option. You need to be aggressive and efficient, and savvy but not cautious.
It's here Porzingis has thrived. He's upped his usage rate by nearly 10 percent, while simultaneously slashing his turnover rate. According to Cleaning the Glass, he ranks in the top 5 percent in both categories.
Porzingis, despite being a 22-year-old in his first season as his team's primary option, is threading the needle that defines franchise stars: He's carrying the load and doing so efficiently. That's something that can be said of maybe 15 players in the league.
This is not to say Porzingis has been perfect. He struggled immensely against Celtics defensive dynamo Al Horford and Boston's swarming defense last week when he scored 12 points on just 3-of-14 shooting. Part of that was because Horford is one of the few players with enough strength and savvy to push Porzingis off his spots. But the Knicks' poor spacing—all of Porzingis' minutes this season have come alongside a second big man, according to Basketball Reference—didn't help either.
Also, while the ball doesn't quite stick in his hands, he hasn't yet learned how to leverage defenses keyed in on him into open looks for his teammates. His assist rate, compared to how often he has the ball, ranks in the worst percentile in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass.
"But that level of court awareness is often the last thing to come," said the Eastern Conference scout. Also, focusing on his limitations would be akin to finding problems within a rainbow.
In Porzingis, the Knicks have a shot-blocking, rim-running, three-point launching, fade-away-shooting, alley-oop finishing ace, the type of stud some teams spend years tanking for. He's been given the opportunity to lead the squad this year, and so far he's proving he's worthy of such a role.
Is it early? Yeah. But six games into their new era, it looks like the Knicks have the type of player who could erase decades of misery and mistakes.