KP Going Through Growing Pains

Watching the Knicks-Wizards game Wednesday night, I found myself focusing on Washington forward Otto Porter Jr.

I remembered Porter when he was a spindly star at Georgetown, all gangly arms and legs with a puppy dog’s enthusiasm for the game.

Porter, now 24 and in his fifth season in the league, is listed as 6-8, 198 pounds, not much heavier than he was in college, but certainly more muscular and filled out. He’s no Rocky Balboa, but he’s a man in a man’s league.

Porter, the thirrd pick in the 2013 draft, also plays alongside one of the best backcourts in the NBA. He isn’t burdened with the pressure of being the face of the franchise. John Wall and Bradley Beale combined for 52 points in Washington’s 121-103 win.

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Porter had the luxury of playing a complementary role, scoring eight points in 34 minutes.

It’s a luxury Kristaps Porzingis at the age of 22, doesn’t have.

He is the Knicks’ No.1 option. Without guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who hasn’t played since Nov. 29 because of a stress injury in his lower left leg, KP also is option 1a.

Also unlike Porter, Porzingis is the face of the franchise, the player reporters go to after every game to get a handle on the Knicks.

KP inherited that role when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony. Porzingis spent a vigorous summer working on his body. He was listed at 228 when the Knicks made him the fourth player taken in the 2015 draft. He’s added a solid 12 pounds of muscle.

He won’t be confused with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Porzingis is looking more and more like a man than the 19-year-old teenager the Knicks drafted.

The problem is that KP is carrying a heavy load, averaging 32.3 minutes per night (Porter averages 31.5), often getting doubled and tripled team, and doesn’t have Hardaway to take some of the offensive load.

No wonder that after his 32nd game, KP acknowledged he’s feeling the wear and tear of being the Knicks’ focal point, on and off the court.

“I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m so tired right now,’’ Porzingis told reporters after the Washington loss. “I have one day to rest my legs and get back and play better and have more energy and try to bring the team’s energy up.

Kristaps Porzingis talks about why it's much more difficult to play without Tim Hardaway in the lineup and whether he thinks he's getting more calls from the refs.

“We’re in a tough stretch. The mental part doesn’t help at all. When it’s mentally tough, you don’t have it in you.’’

The Knicks (18-20) are in the midst of one of their toughest stretches of the season, playing 16 of 20 games away from The Garden. They play against the Miami Heat Friday night (8 p.m.; MSG Network), hoping to improve on a 3-13 road record.

Hardaway is on the mend, but there still is no firm timetable for his return.

KP is surrounded by some very talented players – Michael Beasley, Enes Kanter, Courtney Lee, Kyle O’Quinn and rookie Frank Ntilikina. Of those players, only Lee is older than 30.

Knicks fans knew from Day One that this was a young team and that Porzingis was going to be challenged in ways he never was previously. We’ve seen signs of KP having a better understanding of the day in/day out of the NBA.

After getting banged around by the Spurs and only going to the line for six free throw attempts, KP took to the media.

“It makes me super mad that those little touches on the elbow and arm, I know they’re small, but it affects my shot so much,” Porzingis said.

Porzingis was reading from the Book of Michael Jordan, recently amended by LeBron James. Those two superstars made a cottage industry out of complaining about not getting calls. And they usually were rewarded.

“They were all focused [on] what I was doing,’’ Porzingis said of the Spurs. “Wherever I went, there was contact, boom, boom, bumping me.”

When Hardaway Jr. returns, the Knicks will have another elite scorer on the court, making it harder for teams to double KP. But it’s going to take more than the return of Hardaway.

The Knicks and KP have reached a critical juncture: The evolution of Porzingis is being tested by the minutes and demands that come with being the franchise player.

He was virtually unstoppable until mid-December. Then the boom, boom, bumping started taking its toll.

How he responds and how the Knicks help him in this next step of his growth will have a huge impact on his future as a franchise player.

“We all wanted it to be the [norm], but he’s 22, trying to be in that role,’’ Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said of KP. “He’s going to have great nights, going to have rough nights. Some nights the hoop looks really big, sometimes you can barely fit the ball in there.’’

Jeff Hornacek holds his post-game press conference after the Knicks' 123-103 loss to the Wizards in Washington.

The feeling here is that KP is going to weather this storm. He’ll come out of it a physically and emotionally stronger player, just as he came out of the summer stronger.

No one should be panicking over KP acknowledging that he’s tired. This was always going to be part of the Knicks’ process. The best of KP and this young team is yet to come.

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