From Carmelo Anthony to Derrick Rose, to Jeff Hornacek to opposing players and coaches around the league, we have a heard a common refrain regarding the emergence of Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis as one of the new faces of the NBA.
It goes like this:
“It’s kind of crazy,’’ Rose said after Porzingis poured in a career-high 35 points in a win over the Detroit Pistons earlier this season. “A unique player. He’s going out here scoring 30, and he really doesn’t know the NBA yet.”
Make no mistake about it. In his second season, Porzingis is learning about his game, his teammates and the demands of the NBA life on a daily basis.
He has — according to coaches and players — not even begun to reach his potential. And there is no gauging the limits of that potential.
“The sky truly is the limit for him,’’ said Pelicans All-Star big man Anthony Davis. “You hear people say that a lot, but in this case it’s true. Once he has it all figured out, there’s no telling what he can do.’’
This has been a particularly tough stretch for the 7-foot-3 forward. Soreness in his right Achilles tendon forced him to miss seven games in late-December through mid-January.
He hit a bit of a shooting wall, which prompted Porzingis to spend extra time in the film room with Hornacek. Friday night in the 110-107 win over the Hornets, Porzingis looked closer to being one of the more dominant players in the league.
He scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including a foul line jumper with 50 seconds left that gave the Knicks a 107-101 lead. Porzingis added four rebounds and three blocked shots.
“Sometimes it’s just getting one or two of them to go,’’ Hornacek said. “He got a couple early on, nice shots he made, and all of sudden now his three’s are going and guys are looking for him.’’
Porzingis is being looked at in a light we’ve never seen before. He is one of the chosen few big men that are changing the face of the game.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embid, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis and Porzingis could form a freakish starting unit — comprised of five 7-footers that can do everything on the court.
Porzingis is the first player in NBA history to score at least 1,500 points, block 185 shots, and make 140 threes through his first 100 games.
He is the first player in league history to score at least 26 points, grab 12 rebounds, block seven shots and make three three-pointers in a single game.
“It’s hard to believe, there’s no question that type of player, it’s not common,’’ said Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “When I look at him I’m just saying, ‘Thank God I don’t have to play in the NBA anymore because those guys always used to be centers.'”
“You’re 6-10, O.K. You’re a center. You’re 7-4, you’re definitely a center. He handles the ball like a guard. He can shoot like a guard. He can post up like a big. He defends.”
“He’s going to be a terrific player in this league for a long time He’s one of those players, he has MVP credentials.”
Porzingis is flattered, but he has worked hard to keep his focus on improving. He turned 21 last summer, giving him ample time to get stronger, smarter and improve his low-post game.
“That’s an honor to hear from an NBA head coach,’’ Porzingis said. “I’m honored that someone sees that kind of potential in me. With work and doing the right thing and working extremely hard, I can get to that level one day.”
“It’s in my hands now to keep my head straight, keep working and try to become that type of player.”
Porzingis was chosen to play in the Rising Stars Challenge. He has yet to be an All-Star, so MVP might seem like too lofty of a goal. But Porzingis is not about to back down from such expectations.
He has a thought process about his development that Bill Belichick would appreciate. Porzingis focuses on learning everything he can about the league, his game, and the pressures that come with being at the top of an opponent’s scouting report rather than a footnote.
“I definitely feel a lot more pressure this year,’’ Porzingis acknowledged. “Guys are not backing off as easily on me. I’m not able to get wide open threes anymore. Definitely, the defense is much better this year against me.
“So I have to be able to adjust every game and see how they play me in the pick and rolls and low post. Every game is a new challenge for me and I have to be able to adjust.’’
Which brings us back to the KP Refrain: “It’s crazy. He’s going out here scoring 30, and he really doesn’t know the NBA yet.”
The NBA doesn’t know what to make of this influx of 7-footers that can shoot the three, block shots, post up, handle the ball and pass. It is the next step in the evolution of the game. The league has transitioned from point forwards to stretch power forwards to centers that knock down threes and run the court.
Hornacek mused earlier this season that when he came into the league, centers were named Ewing and Olajuwon. They played in the paint. They rarely took a shot from behind the top of the key and they certainly never brought the ball up.
“As far as big men go, I don’t want to say we’ve changed the game but put our stamp on the game,’’ said Davis. “Now the game is definitely evolving where you have a lot of bigs shooting the ball from 3 and handling. So the game is definitely good for our league.’’
Even as Porzingis is in the center of this change, he too can take a step back and marvel at what is taking place.
“Yes, I’m very fascinated big men are dominating the game from the perimeter as well as the inside and with our length and ability to block shots,’’ Porzingis said. “We’re capable of changing the game.’’
Porzingis knows to continue to change the game, he must continue to improve on all levels. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 assists. He’s shooting 45.3-percent from the field and 38.6 on threes, up from 42.1 and 33.3 last season.
“And he’s doing it in New York, in Madison Square Garden,’’ Davis said. “A lot of young players don’t have to deal with the fans and the media as much as he does. That could be a burden but he handles it great. He seems older than what is he, 20, 21?’’
Yes, arguably the most popular athlete ever to come out of Latvia, Porzingis wasn’t even of legal drinking age in New York until his birthday in August.
He is remarkably comfortable around fans and media. After Friday night’s win over Charlotte, as Anthony was fielding the latest round of questions regarding his future in New York, Porzingis started blasting a Seventies disco hit.
His personality is in contrast to his competitiveness and work ethic. When asked about his improvement, Porzingis is very measured.
“I’ve made some steps in improving my game in my second season,’’ Porzingis said. “I feel there’s still a lot more to learn, to get better at. But I think I’m moving in the right direction.’’
He is, but this season has brought its own challenges. In the Knicks 109-103 win over the Indiana Pacers, Porzingis missed his first six shots and committed three turnovers.
“The first quarter was the worst quarter I’ve ever had, I think,’’ Porzingis said.
Every great player has experienced those kind of nights, a fact Anthony pointed out after Porzingis scorched the Hornets.
“It happens,’’ Anthony said. “Guys have bad games here and there.”
For Porzingis, some of it was the shooting slump and some of it is the more increased defensive attention Porzingis is receiving. Some of could be the grind of the NBA. He’s averaging 33.5 minutes per game, up from 28.4 last season.
In his last three seasons playing in Europe, Porzingis played in a total of 165 games. When the Knicks play at the Atlanta Hawks today (2:30 p.m., MSG Network) Porzingis will play in his 114th NBA game in two seasons.
The sore Achilles was a warning sign that Porzingis, who takes pride in his conditioning, will have to commit himself to a more rigorous off-season program.
You won’t find an MVP, no less an All-Star, that hasn’t put the work in during the summer.
“You have to do them,’’ Porzingis said. “If you’re a real professional you have to do them. You have to do the best you can to take care of your body, eat right, make sure you get your rest and that’s for myself, what I consider a real professional and a real professional athlete.
“I try to follow those things as much as I can. That way I can make sure I can get the most years at the professional level as I can.’’
Imagine, if you can, Porzingis in five years: He is stronger and smarter. He is physically and mentally prepared for a full season. His three-point shooting is the 40-percent range and he has developed more of a low post game.
No wonder Towns went dope on Twitter in a September post on Porzingis. The two became friends during the 2015 NBA Draft run-up and have had some remarkable duels.
PorzinGOD does not care or need my opinion for he is a higher life form then all of us. #😂
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) September 2, 2016
Yes. It’s crazy.
The night he scored 35 against the Pistons, the Garden crowd serenaded him with chants of “MVP! MVP!”
“Too early,’’ Porzingis said jokingly afterward. “It’s a New York crowd.’’
A crowd that is savvy enough to know they are watching one of new faces of NBA mature before their eyes.