What we may be learning in this entertaining first month of basketball for the Knicks this season is the Basketball Gods may truly exist.
And they may have finally smiled on this franchise.
Remember Phil Jackson referenced them in February, after a loss to the Cavaliers at The Garden, when he tweeted, “Today’s game vs Cavs gave bb gods heartburn.”
Then, at the end of last season, Derek Fisher dared to grin in the face of outrage after his team won a pair of games down the stretch — Game 80 in Orlando and 81 in Atlanta — that went from meaningless to meaningful. “I’m sure people are upset with us tonight,” said Fisher, who consistently dismissed the idea of tanking.
It was said at the time that even when they win, the Knicks lose.
Why? Well, when the season ended, the Knicks (17-65) were one win better than the Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66), who lost their final 12 games. And in May, the latter team won the NBA Draft Lottery, while the Knicks actually dropped to the fourth overall pick.
On my show on ESPN Radio (Noon-3 p.m. weekdays on 98.7 FM), I called it “major disappointment.” Many believed it to be a devastating result of an already devastating season.
Six months later, however, dare we consider karma? That fourth pick turned into Kristaps Porzingis, who was booed on draft night. A father was caught on camera encouraging his adolescent son to cry as they took a selfie. The Knicks were mocked for passing on the likes of Justise Winslow or Emmanuel Mudiay for the relatively unknown skinny Latvian, who was immediately compared to Frederic Weis.
“My job is to change those boos to claps,” Porzingis vowed among the guffaws.
The laughter quickly died down during the NBA Summer League. After training camp opened, Porzingis had become a bit of a dynamo; an intriguing prospect to watch. By the time the season began, he was a fan-favorite at The Garden.
A week ago, they were chanting his name: POR-ZING-IS! POR-ZING-IS! POR-ZING-IS!
And now, just 14 games in, his nickname from the people on social media is “GODZINGIS.”
Any former NBA player who has seen him play — from Magic Johnson to Charles Barkley to Patrick Ewing — and even current players — from LeBron James to Kobe Bryant to Dirk Nowitzki — immediately recognize the star-quality potential in this kid.
Speaking of Nowitzki, whom Porzingis is routinely compared to, let’s peek at the numbers:
Dirk Nowitzki’s first 14 games (1998-99):
18.9 Mins, 6.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.7 BLK, 0.9 AST, 31.6% FG, 23.5% 3PT
Kristaps Porzingis’ first 14 games:
26.1 Mins, 13.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.5 BLK, 0.8 AST, 42.7% FG, 30.8% 3PT
There is something undeniably special about him. He has rare size, at 7-foot-3, coupled with the body control and athleticism of a small forward and a feathery shooting touch, plus the IQ that puts him in the most important Phil Jackson category there is for players: He’s a “learner.”
Porzingis has adapted quickly to the NBA game, he’s adjusted to the physicality and officiating, while also still methodically building on each performance. He started out showing a few nice moves and decent range. He then proved he can be an effective rebounder, by recording 11 double-doubles in the first 14 games. He spent a week attacking rims with highlight-film put-back dunks. He then had 29 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the Hornets before getting into foul trouble and having a fairly sub-par game (7 points, 6 rebounds in 26 minutes) in Oklahoma City only to bounce back with an epic 24-point, 14-rebound, 7-block performance in Houston.
The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that Porzingis is the first rookie to put up 24-14-7 in an NBA game since Tim Duncan in 1998. He’s also only the second player in the last 30 years to go 24-14-7 with two three-pointers.
What makes KP really special, however, is his precocious perspective: “It’s easy to do this for one game. The hard part is doing it every night.”
That is usually the part of the Knicks Post Game Show on MSG Network when the camera comes back to us at the desk and Al Trautwig‘s jaw drops to the floor as he reminds us, “He’s 20 years old!“
Our studio partner, former NBA All-Star Wally Szczerbiak, insists the kid has barely scratched the surface of his potential.
Charles Smith, the former Knick, predicted to me last week that Porzingis would be a Top-10 player in the NBA within the next three years.
And while all of this is exciting for any Knicks fan to fathom, the part that is loved the most is that he’s home-grown. There is something about the guy you drafted developing into a franchise player. And if you like a little synergy with numbers, here’s a little useless stats for you:
Willis Reed’s rookie season was 1965-66.
Patrick Ewing’s rookie season was 1985-86.
Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie season is 2015-16.
Did you catch it?
So as we now settle in this winter to enjoy the development of Porzingis and debate if he can put together enough of a season to be the Knicks’ first Rookie of the Year since 1987-88 (Mark Jackson), let’s not forget to remember how that skinny Latvian kid wound up here with the Knicks.
It all started in the final days of the worst season in franchise history, when Fisher refused to lose on purpose for the sake of lottery balls.
And the Basketball Gods took it from there.