The New York Knicks have yet to see Kristaps Porzingis at his very best, with his lack of minutes at the five proving to be a hindrance to his growth.
We all remember the fateful day where the New York Knicks were given the biggest gift the franchise had received since Patrick Ewing was drafted in 1985. It was June 25, 2015, where Commissioner Adam Silver got up to the podium in the Barclays Center and announced that the Knicks had selected Kristaps Porzingis out of Latvia.
What proceeded was an array of boos, plus Stephen A. Smith coming off of his vacation to rant about the pick. Fans immediately likened the lanky power forward to European counterpart Andrea Bargnani, who had left a sour taste in the mouth of many, if not all, Knicks fans the season before.
Measuring in at 7’1″ and weighing 233 pounds, there was debate as to whether Porzingis would be a four or a five, and how his game would translate, or if it would translate at all. Fast forward into his third season, and Porzingis has shown clear superstar potential. The question is not if his talent will translate, but rather where Porzingis is most talented? With his skill set, it makes sense for him to play center, despite his self-proclaimed hesitations.
Prior to the start of the season, Porzingis, speaking to the New York Daily News, said “it’s better for us” if he played at the four:
“Me at the four, especially if I’m playing against a non-shooting four, I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the five, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I’m just more comfortable playing at the four.”
Despite his validated reservations, an unnamed Eastern Conference scout said that center is “[Porzingis’] position of the future.”
Porzingis’ reasoning, though, might be invalid, at least from what fans have experienced with this hard-nosed, resilient Knicks team. Ranking 11th overall in the league in points allowed per game (103.5), a number that has been even better at home (100.8), the Knicks are currently ranked as the 16th-best team in terms of defensive efficiency. The Knicks defensive intensity has clearly been noted with Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, Ron Baker, Frank Ntilikina, and Courtney Lee arising as defensive leaders on the team, with many other players stepping up their game.
What does all of this mean? Well, these aren’t the Knicks of the past where Tyson Chandler was the only feasible defensive option. The Knicks, both in their starting unit and off the bench, have defensive leaders, each of whom have contributed to their surprising 17-14 start to the season. All of this means that Porzingis has to step up as their bona fide offensive leader, and the way to do that is by becoming the focal point at center.
Maybe I just want the second coming of Patrick Ewing where a big man captivated a Knicks team in need of change, or maybe after seeing what this young team is capable of, there is a sense of belief again and fans want to see some form of progression from their new superstar.
As of right now, Porzingis is averaging a career high 24.5 points per game on a career high 45.4 percent shooting from the field and a career high 38.5 percent shooting from three point range. Proving to be a strong scoring presence on the court, Porzingis’ skill set and frame would make him an absolute nightmare for centers in the league.
Porzingis came into the league 7’1″, weighing 233 pounds. Now, during the third year of his young NBA career, he is 7’3″, weighs 240 pounds, and has added muscle during every offseason.
Among current standout NBA centers, Porzingis is in the same weight bracket as Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid. Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, and Kevin Love weigh slightly more, and then DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, and Hassan Whiteside weigh about 20 pounds more. All in all, this proves Porzingis could hold his own, and likely thrive against six perennial big men based solely on weight. Porzingis’ biggest plus comes with his height.
With an ability to space the floor with his shooting stroke and ball-handling talent, Porzingis can help the whole team by playing center. Attracting the opposition’s center to the perimeter, Porzingis has two options: Use his 7’3″ frame to shoot over the likely shorter big man, or feed the ball into the post with his passing talent.
Effectively, Porzingis is able to put the ball on the court, out-shoot the current crop of elite centers in the league, and distribute from the high post too. All of this while being able to hold his own or potentially excel due to his frame.
The Knicks Wall columnist Jeffrey Bellone, also the founder of Knicks Film School, broke down the pros and cons of the prospect of Porzingis playing the five in a preseason tape, exhibiting Porzingis’ ability to take on centers while playing at the five:
As of right now, Porzingis has played 90 percent of his minutes at power forward and 10 percent of his minutes at center this season. When Porzingis is on the court playing center, the Knicks average 115 points per 100 possessions as opposed to 110.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays the four. Defensively, the Knicks also allowed 6.0 less points per 100 possessions (101.8 as opposed to 107.8) in the few minutes Porzingis has played at center, while the team also turned the ball over 7.3 percent less.
Michael Beasley has averaged 28.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting and 8.6 rebounds over his last three games, and is in the midst of a comeback season. The impending return of Tim Hardaway Jr. is also on the horizon. Porzingis logging minutes at center gives head coach Jeff Hornacek the possibility of running a lineup consisting of Frank Ntilikina, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., Michael Beasley, and Porzingis, giving the Knicks a burst of shooting, as well as defensive stability late on in games.
As the Knicks move forward, Porzingis playing center is imperative to the team’s success. The Latvian big man provides the Knicks with extremely favorable matchups, and that could take the opposition’s star out of the game defensively. The Knicks are building a strong team, centered around a defensive ethos, and as they move forward in that direction, Porzingis can develop into an offensive juggernaut and become the dominant center New York hasn’t seen since Ewing.