Critical Times Ahead For Porzingis

TRAIL BLAZERS 110, KNICKS 95

In his first experience as “the guy” — his own words — Kristaps Porzingis learned something we already knew:¬†“There’s still so much to learn,” he said.

Porzingis finished with a decent stat line of 18 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in 37 minutes in the loss at Portland, where the Knicks played without Carmelo Anthony (sore knee) and Derrick Rose (sore foot). On this West Coast trip so far, which ends Saturday night in San Antonio (8 PM, MSG), Porzingis is averaging 20 points, 9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 33.6 minutes per game.

But while the numbers paint a pretty picture, reality is more of a rough sketch of where Porzingis is at this point in his career.

“Honestly,” he said after the game. “I’m thinking about getting back in the gym right now.”

Quite frankly, he needs to rediscover the gym-rat mentality he had when he arrived after the 2015 NBA Draft — remember he marveled at the idea that NBA players have 24/7 access to the practice facility — and put aside the celebrity status he quickly gained as the NBA’s unicorn player.

Before we get to how important these final 10 games of the season are for Porzingis, personally, let’s look ahead to just how critical this offseason is that awaits him.

Let’s begin with the obvious: he needs to get with Dirk Nowitzki. Jeff Hornacek and Rick Carlisle have already discussed it and Dirk has expressed a great interest in getting together with his protege. It would be great for Porzingis to also spend time with Dirk’s famed teacher Holger Geschwindner, and put KP through some of the same drills and instill a similar pregame and offseason routine that turned Dirk from a skinny, physically overwhelmed 20-year-old to an MVP, NBA champion and first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Nowitzki has played both the four and five spots during his career with Dallas, but his best years were when he played with a defensive-minded center (Tyson Chandler, Erick Dampier). Porzingis has already shown an ability to be a terrific help defender as a shot-blocker and rim-protector, but what Nowitzki hasn’t had to deal with until later in his career is defending small lineups with three-point shooters at the four spot. Porzingis struggles when he’s pulled away from the painted area.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07: Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks and Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks greet each other before the opening tipoff at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2015 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

His running mate, rookie Willy Hernangomez has had a good second half of the season but has struggled to deal with physical bigs. Hernangomez is listed at 6-foot-10, but plays a relatively “short” 6-foot-10 at times and needs to get stronger to even be considered a poor man’s Marc Gasol (there are hints of Gasol’s game in a lot of what Willy does).

With the NBA’s announcement of Joakim Noah‘s 20-game suspension for using a banned substance, Hernangomez and Porzingis go into next season as the likely starting frontcourt duo.

By the way, many of you want to focus on Noah and this aggravating news, but right now if you ask me, the franchise needs to put a greater focus on what lies ahead rather than mistakes of the past.

That leads me to the other reason why this offseason is so important to Porzingis: the draft.

The Knicks will have a lottery pick and right now they hold the 5th spot in the lottery, tied with Sacramento, which gives them a 22.1% chance for a Top-3 pick and a 6.5% chance at winning the top pick. Either would provide the Knicks with an incredible opportunity at landing another franchise-changing talent to pair with Porzingis and advance the cause in this rebuild.

Lonzo Ball? De’Aaron Fox? Malik Monk? Markelle Fultz?

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 24: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats and Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins compete for a lose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at FedExForum on March 24, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
MEMPHIS, TN – MARCH 24: De’Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats and Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins compete for a lose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament South Regional at FedExForum on March 24, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Four guards who seem like can’t-miss prospects that could wind up in orange-and-blue next season. As I’ve said many times this season, the Knicks need to find for Porzingis what Mark Jackson was for Patrick Ewing.

And that’s not saying Porzingis is Ewing. In fact, we might learn he is more of a Robin than a Batman. He might be a perfect complement to a great guard that they land in this year’s draft. Maybe he isn’t “the guy,” but that doesn’t mean these last 10 games shouldn’t be overlooked.

So, yes, we need to watch KP these last few weeks with a critical eye and also with some patience. He’s grown up in an environment of hero ball and isolation offense, with the examples of Rose, a former MVP, and Melo, a perennial all-star and future Hall of Famer. So Porzingis sometimes tries too hard to be a 1-on-1 player when he should just try to find his offense within the system. His skill set is such that 20 and 10 should come without much effort.

“Right now, it’s more helpful and beneficial if someone can make a play or set a good screen for him,” Hornacek noted after the game in Portland. “Let him come off that way.”

What Hornacek means is that KP needs to take it slow and set a foundation as someone who can score within a team concept. That will make him better in the future when his game is developed to where he can dominate individual matchups.

Makes sense, but that takes some humility for a young player who already has been heralded throughout the league as a headliner without the headlining talent.

Bottom line: KP needs to get back in the gym and get back to being that determined gym rat set to prove he wasn’t just “some soft European” taken with the 4th overall pick that made some kid cry.

After the game in Portland, it sounds like he’s ready to do just that.