The first time the New York Knicks‘ 7-foot-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis learned that a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself had been placed in the arrivals terminal at Riga International Airport in Latvia was when a fan tagged him in an Instagram post.
“It looked like it was the real me,’’ Porzingis told MSGNetworks.com with a chuckle. “When I saw it, I did say, ‘That’s a good looking man.’’’
Aesthetics aside, there’s no debating that Porzingis has looked exceptional on the court this season. If he continues the improvement he’s shown in just his second season, Porzingis might have an entire airport named for him.
Porzingis’s popularity in one of Europe’s smallest nations and America’s largest city is soaring after he scored a career-high 35 points in Wednesday night’s 105-102 win over the Detroit Pistons at The Garden.
“Brilliant,’’ Carmelo Anthony said of Porzingis. “His confidence was through the roof.’’
That confidence is helping a player, whose skill set is unlike any other in NBA history, flirting with stardom.
Last season, he became the first rookie ever to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks and 75 three-pointers made. He’s on pace to shatter those numbers.
“He’s dangerous, for a second-year player that doesn’t really know the game like that,’’ Derrick Rose said. “And for him to be 7-3 and move the way he moves is crazy. A unique player.’’
Perhaps more impressive than his basketball ability has been Porzingis’s maturity in handling his dual role as Latvia’s basketball rock star and the future of the Knicks. And at 21, he’s still growing into his body and his fledgling stardom.
Porzingis, who wears No. 6, is proud of his Latvian heritage.
Ask him which country won the first European Championship and he’ll tell you, “Latvia, 1935.”
Ask him what he’s doing Friday and he’ll tell you he’s celebrating Latvian Independence Day (the nation is 98 today).
Ask him what he’s doing this summer and you really see the twinkle in his eye.
“I love the way they receive me back home,’’ Porzingis said. “The support is unbelievable. And I know next summer [if] I play with the national team, it’s going to explode. I look forward to next summer, going back home again and receiving all that love from the people.’’
Porzingis, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and four steals in the Knicks 119-112 loss to the Washington Wizards Thursday night, is getting more and more love from Knicks fans with every outing.
Most Americans knew little of him heading into last year’s draft. They saw a tall, somewhat skinny 7-footer who was listed at 220 pounds – with ankle weights. He’s up to 240. His shooting, mobility and strength are better, which has allowed coach Jeff Hornacek to play him at the ‘5’ on occasion.
Porzingis is averaging 20.3 points on 49.2-percent shooting from the floor, 40-percent from behind the arc and 6.8 rebounds. As a rookie, he averaged 14.3 points on 42.1-percent shooting, 33-percent from behind the arc and 5.5 rebounds.
Rising numbers. Rising star.
“He’s growing day-by-day, and not just in size, but his ability to play,” Hornacek said after the Detroit win. “You see the whole package (tonight). I thought he was great.”
Porzingis scored his 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting, while grabbing seven rebounds, dishing out three assists, blocking one shot and making one steal.
When the MSG crowd saw on GardenVision that Porzingis had posted a career-high, they broke into a chant of, “MVP!”
“Too early,’’ Porzingis joked after the game. “It’s a New York crowd. They did the same thing last year when I had that 29-point game [his previous career-high] versus Charlotte. All the support we got gave me so much energy.’’
These are energized times in Latvia because of Porzingis’s success. US troops and YMCA personnel brought the game of basketball to Latvia in the 1920s, after World War I. The sport quickly caught on. Porzingis is rekindling that passion.
That life-size cutout of Porzingis? It’s stationed at the Riga Airport before passengers pass through immigration.
“That’s the first thing you see,’’ said Porzingis. “It was awesome really.’’
There is another cut-out of Porzingis in his hometown of Liepāja. Porzingis took a selfie with, well, himself.
Porzingis is not boastful, but in conversation you sense his inner drive. He does not want to be another European that has made it in the NBA, he wants to be one of great players of all time.
“I think these days more and more European players are coming out and playing in this league, and the level is rising,’’ Porzingis said. “The future is pretty bright, for Latvia especially.’’
And for the Knicks.