The buzz around KP is noisy, palpable, and warranted. What has he done to get to this point?
You know when things work out exactly as you want? You paint a picture of a beautiful endgame, one that fulfills every burning desire that you had going into a certain situation. After stressful anticipation and thoughts of failure wreaking havoc in your mind, the moment finally comes, and then, boom. Nearly everything falls into place, and you can be content knowing that the positive outcome you so badly wanted came to fruition. This, of course, rarely happens in real life, but it’s been the case for every fan of the New York Knicks as the fall airs swirls around Madison Square Garden. A unicorn has brought the fanbase’s dreams to a reality.
We all knew Kristaps Porzingis was good. To dispute that fact would be an act of lunacy. The question all along was his ability to become the new king of New York, to pick up the crown left behind by Carmelo Anthony as he boarded a flight to Oklahoma City. During the six games last season where Porzingis played without Anthony, he averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 boards on 45.1 percent shooting. Those aren’t bad numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but he also failed to meet the lofty expectations that we held for him when he was given the joystick to the offense. Collectively, Knicks fan were cautiously optimistic this season with the vacated crown atop his tall, elongated frame. Would he be up to the task?
The short answer: you bet. Over the course of the young season, Porzingis has put up a whopping 29.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks on an impressive .478/.364/.810 shooting line. He’s been aggressively picking his spots, attacking the hoop with a vengeance, and showing a new commitment to scoring in the post. Defensively, he’s been the same Kristaps that we know, blocking shots with the best of them. There’s still improvements to be made on that end, but we’ll save the defensive side of the ball for another day. The Knicks have the third leading scorer in the NBA on their team, and he’s a 22-year-old that was supposed to just be getting consistent rotation minutes at this point in his career timeline. Before our very eyes, Porzingis has turned into one of the biggest offensive threats in the entire league.
I’ll repeat, we always knew KP was good. The part that requires a bit of digging is exactly what Porzingis has done to be so effective this year. Well folks, just call me Anna Nicole Smith, because I’m here for all of the digging.
Post Up Play
Going into this season, I viewed Porzingis’ game in the post as a big opportunity for improvement. He scored in just the 30th percentile last year in terms of points per post possession, with his lack of strength and poor positioning costing him dearly. Too often, KP would find himself catching the ball far outside of the paint, leaving too much room between himself and the basket for his slight frame to navigate. In addition to poor positioning, which admittedly could have been a product of lackluster guard play and spacing issues, Porzingis also often failed to take advantage of mismatches. When setting a screen, KP found himself with a smaller defender on him every time when the play was executed correctly. He failed to do his best “mouse in the house” act, lobbing up out-of-control jumpers or surrendering his spot.
That has not been the case at all this year. Porzingis is scoring at an amazingly efficient rate in the post, clocking in at the 83rd percentile. He’s exploited defenders and used his athleticism to perform simple moves that lead to laughably easy buckets. This is a small, seemingly innocuous play, but KP did not do this nearly as well last season:
He gets himself deep on the block, turns over the shoulder, and has an easy hoop. For a 7’3″ dude, that shot is essentially a layup. Beyond the mismatches, perhaps most noticeable about Porzingis’ post game has been his willingness to accept contact. With a new, beefier frame, he has been throwing around his weight more in the post, while graciously receiving and doling out contact that allows him to get into a better spot:
I mean, that’s textbook right there. We’ve seen Porzingis do this before, but he’s been viciously lowering his shoulder and ripping through defenders with a real purpose. The frequency with which his shots have been contested tightly is remarkable, and if NBA.com had it all together, I’d give you the exact number. Send all of your ire their way, folks. Either way, the eye test tells us more than enough here. It seems that Porzingis has finally recognized that it doesn’t actually matter how close the defender is to him. The vicinity of defender makes a shot more difficult for the vast majority of NBA players, Porzingis included, but he is so damn tall that it does not affect him as much. He has the ability to shoot over, oh, about 95 percent of players that will defend him in this league. Taking it to smaller fools that think sticking a hand in his face will actually change his shot has become his favorite pastime.
Nothing in the world ever existed without a small flaw, right? The Death Star, Derek Zoolander, Clayton Kershaw; their imperfections allow us to gain some perspective. For Porzingis, his obvious flaw is his propensity to have tunnel vision. Him and frontcourt mate Enes Kanter have combined for just nine assists through the first six games of the season, which is… low. When he’s scoring at will in the post and shooting an above average percentage from the floor, this isn’t a valid complaint. When the offense dries up, however, and Porzingis goes cold, he has to be able to find the open man. No one is saying he should be a big that can pass like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic; he just needs to understand the rotating gears that are his teammates around the three-point arc when the defense hones in on him. While in the post, he is going to shoot the basketball unless some divine intervention prevents him from doing so. That sort of hell-bent attitude is what makes reliable scorers who they are, but it can sometimes backfire (shout out to our old buddy Carmelo).
In the waning moments of the Denver game last night, he was posting along the baseline, and despite getting quadruple-teamed, didn’t look to his shooters, and put up an embarrassing shot attempt. He rates in the 4th percentile for assist-to-usage rate among other bigs, a stunningly small number for a player that is the focal point of an offense. For now, this is not negatively impacting him in the slightest, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we can’t watch out for during the rest of the ‘17-’18 campaign.
Back to the good stuff! Ah, shooting, the thing that Kristaps Porzingis does better than anyone else alive. He has been knocking down shots at a career high rate from the floor, and thanks to a couple good nights from deep, has his three-point percentage at a career high as well. Some of the reasons for his success can be tied directly to his improvements in the post, but they don’t tell the entire story. Porzingis’ release time is a subtle, yet effective change that he’s made in his game to reach these incredible heights. As a rookie, he was a tad slower, and was not able to get shots off as cleanly when defenders were hunkering down on him. These things come naturally as experience in the NBA is banked.
Even at a ripe young age, Kristaps’ identity is clear, and he knows where his bread his buttered when it comes to shot selection:
The top of the arc has long been Porzingis’ favorite three-pointer to take, and his most efficient one at that. Corner threes are not a part of his game at all, and they never have been. Long story short, he is incredibly self-aware of his game, an underrated part of the equation.
Improved point guard play has helped KP find the soft spots in the defense. Since Jarrett Jack was inserted into the starting lineup, the Knicks have been much more fluid, and they have three fairly impressive wins to show for that. Even with all of these positive, would you believe me if I told you KP could be… even better?
Despite his hot start, Porzingis has shot just 50 percent at the rim, an awful number for a man of his stature. Granted, he has buoyed these struggles with high percentages in the mid-range that could be due for some regression, but either way, if he starts to finish around the rim at a normal rate he could get better.
The possibilities should have us salivating every time he touches the ball.
We can talk about all of the numbers we want, but the number one thing above all else that has aided Porzingis’ trek towards super-stardom is his confidence. He looks like a damn world beater out there, and the best part is that he knows it. This is a dude that realizes how good he is at basketball, and he has that look in his eye right now. You know, this look:
“I know this shot is going in, YOU know this shot is going in, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. FOH and let me get buckets.”
So, where do the Knicks and Porzingis go from here? It’s a complicated question, one that requires us to not get too far ahead of ourselves. The Knicks lost their first three games, and we thought they were the worst team in the league. Now, they’ve won three in a row, and we’re getting excited again. The truth is, they’ll be somewhere in between. The part that won’t be in between is Kristaps.
KP has become everything the Knicks had hoped he would be much sooner than they had anticipated. He established himself last year as a top-30 player in the league, and his ascension toward top-20 or even top-15 is well underway. The arrival is legitimate, and he’s here to stay, barring injury. He may be too good for the Knicks to truly tank. There are only a handful of players like that in the league, but is Porzingis one of them? It could be too soon for that type of rhetoric, but let’s live among the clouds for a second here. After all, our reality with Kristaps Porzingis right now is quite possible better than any dream we had.
The Knicks’ slogan for the season is “Be There From the Beginning,” a phrase that instills hope for a brighter future for the team. The Knicks as a whole may never reach the heights we hope, but one aspect is clear: we were already there for the beginning of Porzingis. This is the the rising action, the build-up, with the climax peeking over the horizon, hastily approaching.