Porzingis’ reluctance to pass, despite sketchy outside shooting from New York, has crippled the Knicks’ offense, but KP can learn to improve his passing skill by trusting his teammates.
Early in the season, Kristaps Porzingis looked like a fully developed Unicorn ready to carry the upstart Knicks into a new, post–Carmelo Anthony era. Two months later, however, as the Knicks (19–23) swoon out of the playoff picture, it appears like young Kristaps still has much to learn about being the team’s focal point.
As the Knicks have dropped nine of 11, Porzingis has come under increased scrutiny for both his inefficient play and his complaints about being tired.
Porzingis hasn’t shot over 50 percent in a game in a month and has increasingly displayed a tendency to force bad shots—and lots of them. This bad habit—exacerbated when he’s motivated by certain matchups, such as the last two games against Lauri Markannen and Karl-Anthony Towns, both of whom outplayed KP—is not just disruptive to the offense but also indicates a glaring hole in KP’s development: his lack of passing ability.
For a player who consistently draws multiple defenders (and can see over all of them with his seven-foot-three height advantage), KP should be a much more effective passer. Yet, he almost never sets up teammates. As Ben Falk at Cleaning the Glass pointed out, Kristaps leads the league in shot attempts per minute, but still has one of the lowest assist rates in the league—at a similar level to his first two seasons playing alongside Carmelo Anthony. Falk also tracked his own stat—the “Carmelo,” he calls it—measuring games when a player takes 25+ shots but dishes one or no dimes. Porzingis currently leads the league in this category (7), and is on pace to break Carmelo’s single-season record (15).
Also, the return of Tim Hardaway Jr. should ignite the squad, but Porzingis has shown no history of assisting to the team’s second-leading scorer:
While Tim Hardaway Jr. provides a presence to keep teams from doubling down on Porzingis in the post, I was surprised to find that in 509 minutes played together, KP has only made 4 assists to Hardaway, and none out of a double team (mostly dribble hand-offs) #Knicks pic.twitter.com/kzisuCMkLF
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 4, 2018
In KP’s defense, the problem goes both ways. The Knicks are last in three-point attempts and makes in the league, and that isn’t solely because Porzingis has struggled to kick-out to open shooters. This is a roster mostly bereft of trigger-happy sharpshooters, and Porzingis is usually on the floor with another lane-clogging center in Enes Kanter or Kyle O’Quinn. Furthermore, Jeff Hornacek’s offense tends to encourage isolating the 7’3″ Latvian on the block—a tactic that isn’t ideal for producing threes.
Still, even when his post-ups do generate an open look, Kristaps typically misses the opportunity:
We've seen teams help off Jarrett Jack on Porzingis in the post. Tonight, the Knicks put Jack on the opposite corner and had McDermott on the nearside, but KP didn't make the pass out pic.twitter.com/LG1FJDq8KA
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) December 13, 2017
And as Falk points out, players who mainly work out of the post are much more likely to accrue “hockey assists,” (the pass leading to the assist) and Porzingis has only notched 11 of these on the season, per NBA.com.
Plus, the Knicks do shoot a respectable percentage from downtown, and most of their wings—particularly Lee, McDermott, Hardaway Jr. and Lance Thomas—also happen to be excellent off-ball cutters. KP rarely finds them in either situation.
Porzingis is also painfully slow to recognize or anticipate incoming double-teams, an issue he acknowledged after the Lakers loss on December 13, stating he’s “still trying to learn when the double-team comes to make the right pass and make the right play. I’m still learning that,” via the NY Daily News. Porzingis added, “This is my first experience where every night I’m playing the other team is coming and I have to be capable of making the right plays so they can’t be [double-teaming me] every time.”
Exactly one month later, though, he hasn’t shown any improvement, leading to wasted possessions instead of open triples:
Early in the game, the Knicks turned this into a nice driving basket for KP. But when it slows down into a post play, the double off Jack is too easy pic.twitter.com/wyrL33EphJ
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 13, 2018
(Porzingis had two assists and shot 3-of-14 on two-pointers in the Minnesota defeat, while Towns went 9-for-15 with nine dimes and overall outplaying his draft classmate.)
As excited as New Yorkers are about Porzingis as the franchise centerpiece, they will have to exercise patience. KP is still just 22, and certainly entitled to some developmental leeway, especially while the Knicks are nowhere near title contention. After playing his first two seasons with Carmelo in Phil’s sad Triangle recreation, he is being asked to make decisions and reads that he simply isn’t accustomed to.
A justifiable cause for concern, though, is that KP’s scorer’s mindset seems rather entrenched, and passing has evidently never been a focus of his game. Falk ran the numbers on Porzingis’ pre–NBA career in Europe, where he posted similar assist and usage rates: “Porzingis had an assist rate of 5.0 percent with a usage of 25 percent. The prior year, in 35 games, he had an assist rate of 4.0 percent on a 23 percent usage. In 2012-13 he played 15 games with an assist rate of 7.0 percent on a usage of 28 percent.”
Fortunately, he seems to be at least aware that he needs to improve this aspect of his game, and he has shown instances when he consciously looks to dish more:
Kristaps Porzingis looked rusty in the first half vs Boston. But he did look to pass out of the post more often than we've seen. My breakdown for @TheKnicksWall: pic.twitter.com/BC1GN0ncdR
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) December 22, 2017
He’s also occasionally showed some nuance with his passes, signaling some level of understanding of passing concepts:
Ruled a two, but nice for NYK to get this from Lance Thomas. Porzingis placed that pass nicely to set him up #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/KPsXVmksct pic.twitter.com/QPG8dg9luZ
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) December 22, 2017
When KP keeps his head down, though, his reluctance to create good looks for his teammates is simply crippling to the offense and becomes the most exploitable weakness in an otherwise near-impossible player to defend. He doesn’t need to become Nikola Jokic overnight, but adopting a more open-minded, unselfish approach would generate better looks for everyone, and ease the stress of shouldering a load that is clearly wearing him down.