On what was supposed to be the happiest day of his young life, Kristaps Porzingis used his gigantic, gangly, Latvian legs to make his way up to the Barclays Center podium, where in his resplendent maroon suit and newly acquired draft cap, he shook Adam Silver's hand in front of the collective NBA World. He was officially a New York Knickerbocker.
However, even though his childhood dream had been realized, it had to be a bittersweet day for the 19-year-old. His soon-to-be fellow New Yorkers booed, screamed and cried (while simultaneously taking a selfie) at Phil Jackson's choice. The noted talking head that is Stephen A. Smith famously furiously ranted on ESPN (while he was on vacation, no less) in response to the pick, claiming that Knicks fans had been, "Hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok and flat out deceived," by Jackson.
Of course, this train of thought -- while incredibly popular at the time -- was completely flawed. Anyone from Stephen A.'s camp was of the opinion that just like any large European, he would be 3-5 years away from contributing anything at the NBA level. Of course, just about everyone from this viewpoint had never watched Porzingis play, proving that for the billionth time, you should not attempt to form an opinion if you know nothing about the subject. After all, would you walk into Gordon Ramsay's kitchen and tell him his food is disgusting if your taste buds don't work? Of course not. Not only because of the flawless logic I just explained, but because he might do this to you:
Anyone who actually watched Porzingis's European career would've been astounded by his natural gifts and talent, just like I was. The first time I YouTube scouted Porzingis, my initial reaction was, "WOW! This guy's 7'3'', has the athleticism of a wing and shoots threes!? Holy cow!"
Although I have driven the Porzingis bandwagon since day one, I don't think anyone could've possibly expected Porzingis's rise through the NBA ranks to be this rapid. The big question mark surrounding Porzingis's NBA potential was whether or not he could match the physical nature of the association. He put those doubts do bed last season, showing off incredible toughness (that he may or may not have developed in 'Latvian Crips', according to the great Michael Rapaport) that allowed him to go toe-to-toe with the league's largest low post brutes, despite his thin frame.
With the physicality of the NBA not affecting his game, Porzingis was a standout in one of the strongest rookie classes in recent memory. He racked up 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, per game, in just 28 minutes each night. Pretty good for a guy who was originally rejected by his fan base, right? Throughout the season, he showed off the frightening athleticism, defensive instincts, versatility and shooting range that made him such an attractive prospect for the Knicks' front office.
After his impressive rookie campaign, Porzingis walked into this season with expectations galore. It's easy to forget, but Porzingis only acquired the right to drink three months ago, he's nearly two whole years younger than Buddy Hield. It would've been easy for the Zinger to crumble under the pressure, just like a regular 21 year old would, but that's just not who he is. With the mental fortitude of a veteran, Kristaps trained throughout the offseason, even working out with Russell Westbrook, improving his game every day.
Over the opening 17 games of this season, all of that hard work is showing through. Porzingis has improved in just about every aspect of his game. He has bumped his scoring into the 20s, boosted his field goal percentage by nearly 7%, increased his three-point accuracy to 40% from 33.3%, while taking over two more per game and has lowered his scarily high turnover percentage. Critics will point out that his rebounding rate has dropped by around 3%, but the team as a whole is rebounding at almost exactly the same rate as last season, meaning that Porzingis's poor rebounding numbers aren't affecting the team.
Porzingis has well and truly made the leap to a new dimension and is on the verge of becoming a star-level player. But with his body, athleticism, work ethic, maturity and pure talent, to go along with the ability he has shown in-game, he should already be that star, even if he is only a quarter of the way through his second season. The problem is that Jeff Hornacek is holding Kristaps back and therefore the entire team back.
The primary way Hornacek is doing this is by simply not running enough of the offense through him. Porzingis is a multi-dimensional unicorn who can score and create better shots for others in a variety of different ways, but Hornacek has limited his team's success by restricting his touches. Porzingis averages 60.4 touches per game, according to NBA.com, which is a pretty healthy mark for a star player, especially considering that Carmelo Anthony only touches the ball 57.9 times per night in comparison. But when factoring in that NBA offenses these days tend to have bigs operate at the top of the key to open up an offensive set and have those same bigs initiate the offense with dribble hand-offs and side-to-side ball movement, it's far too low. Big men like, Marc Gasol, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin all average above 70 touches each game, a number that towers over Porzingis's.
Recently Hornacek and his Knicks have worked to get Porzingis more of the ball, something that neatly correlates with the team's upswing in form. In fact, the Latvian's touches per game almost perfectly correlate with success. In wins, Porzingis averages 65 touches per game, whereas in losses, that number drops to 58.
Other than just giving him more of the ball, Hornacek needs to look at unleashing his unicorn at center. When the Knicks line Porzingis up at the five, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, they are nearly unstoppable offensively. When these lineups have been played this season, the Knicks score at an absurd rate of 130.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAwowy.com. Defenses around the league struggle to deal with the Melo-Zinger combo on a regular basis, but when New York employ lineups with super-spacing, defenses part like the Red Sea:
Defenses just can't deal with five three-point shooters on the floor at one time, especially when one of those shooters is Team USA's all-time leading points scorer and another is a 7'3'' beast who can explode to the bucket at any time as a pick-and-roll man. When the Knicks do go to a Porzingis pick-and-roll with this lineup, defenses are immediately forced into a pick-your-poison scenario. If they help on the Porzingis rim-roll, they can stop the initial action, but risk leaving a bomber open from beyond the arc. If they don't help, they risk getting dunked on:
With a traditional center on the court, these pick-and-rolls become a lot easier to defend, as the floor spacing isn't nearly threatening enough to not help Porzingis's roll, especially when a guy like Joakim Noah is in the game. These groupings have become the Knicks' versions of the vaunted 'Death Lineup'. Only, the Knicks barely use their game-changers and they have already lost the same amount of contests the Warriors did all of last season.
The big question around these Knicks' lineups is if they can defend at a high enough rate. According to NBAwowy.com, when Melo and Porzingis spend time at the four and five together, the defense concedes 116 points per 100 possessions. While that mark is horrific, it still gives these combinations a net rating of plus-14.8, a points differential that is larger than the league leading Warriors. However, these lineups should be theoretically better defensively. The smaller size allows for switching across the perimeter, which can cut-off circulation for a lot of pick-and-rolls and drives for opponents.
On top of that, contrary to popular belief, Porzingis is a far better rim-protector than Joakim Noah, at least, at this stage in their respective careers. Noah is lacking athleticism after his multiple body breakdowns and is no longer the ferocious defensive terror he was a couple of seasons ago, while Porzingis uses absolutely all of his gigantic frame to bother shots everywhere. The numbers back this up too. From 6 feet and in, Porzingis causes his assignments to shoot a remarkable 14.4% below their average, whereas, when shooting against Noah, opponents make their attempts at a rate 4.9% higher than their average at the rim.
Jeff Hornacek has all the evidence and complimentary pieces he needs to turn Kristaps Porzingis into the superstar he can be. By allowing Porzingis a fairer share of the ball and tinkering with his lineups in a way that makes it impossible to defend the big man, Hornacek can make sure all those boos at the Barclays Center back on draft day of 2015, will never be heard again.
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