A huge part of KP’s game has been underutilized: his passing. Developing a fine passing element from the Latvian could open up avenues for the Knicks.
When Kristaps Porzingis strides onto the court, he’s impossible to miss. At 7-foot-3, he makes normal NBA players look downright diminutive, with a shock of once—and hopefully future—cornrowed blond hair and an easy, confident smirk when he’s impressed with himself.
kristaps just winked and smiled at dwight after drawing a BS foul
my chest ? pic.twitter.com/KyeQXwN1gY
— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) November 8, 2017
His eminent visibility holds true from an analytic standpoint, too. Since taking the floor under the bright MSG lights, his talent level and athleticism have been impossible to overlook, yet at the same time, his flaws have been equally apparent: the lack of endurance over 82 games, a troubling amount of injuries (particularly in the lower body), and an unfathomably poor rebounding rate (this season he became the first player ever to average 22+ points, two or more blocks, and fewer than seven rebounds per game*). These issues have been covered and debated plenty, but one area where he falls short has received less attention than it should, and it has the potential to take his game to the next level: his passing.
This is not entirely new territory. Our own Michael Corvo wrote about Porzingis’ passing, or lack thereof, and pointed out that who Porzingis is now as a facilitator isn’t some byproduct of learning the NBA ropes from noted isolationist Carmelo Anthony. Rather, it’s consistent with how he played in Europe.
Back in 2016, Mike Schmidt put out a video pointing out his improvement since the Seville days that seemed to offer hope at his continued improvement. But since then, he’s trended further in the wrong direction each year, with his assist percentage dropping from 7.9 percent his rookie year to 7.3 percent, and finally 6.2 percent last season, good for 429th league-wide. Of the four players to ever average 22 points, seven rebounds, and an assist rate below seven percent, Porzingis is the only player taller than 6-8. Part of this can be attributed to a young player learning how to carry a franchise devoid of offensive talent. Still, Porzingis’ lack of passing has reached near-historic levels.
13 players had a usage rate above 30 percent this past season. Aside from Porzingis, the lowest assist percentage belonged to Joel Embiid, at 18.2 percent. No one else on the list came in below 20 percent. That’s a Grand Canyon–sized gap, and one that the quality of teammates doesn’t excuse. If we drop the usage requirement to 25 percent, the list expands to 53 names, and Porzingis still has the lowest assist percentage, with noted point gods Harrison Barnes, Mo Speights, Boban Marjonavic, and our formerly very own Michael Beasley coming in higher than the Unicorn. Shit, Derrick Rose more than doubles Porzingis’ assist percentage, and we all know how much Derrick Rose hates to pass.
(Of those 53 players, Trey Burke actually had the second-highest assist ratio, behind just John Wall, and ahead of Russell Westbrook. Take that as you will.)
Luckily, between Marc Gasol, Chris Bosh, and a season as an assistant with rookie Al Horford, David Fizdale has plenty of experience working with smart-passing bigs. Both prime Gasol and later-career Bosh were lethal high-post distributors, and it’s here where Fizdale should start with Porzingis. Considering how much of KP’s offense comes off of pick and pops and above the break catch-and-shoots, growing comfortable hitting cutters and guys spotted up in the corners would open up the floor considerably, making it harder for opposing teams to send doubles, thus giving KP even more room to get his shot off.
Short rolls and passing out of double teams are some of the easiest ways for a big to get his teammates involved. Porzingis has shown that he’s capable of making high-level passes, but he’s spent his entire NBA career on bad Knicks teams that needed him to be a scorer. If he wants to be the Knicks’ savior, he’ll need to become more than that, and soon.
Being great isn’t enough to be a franchise player. You need to make your team better, and to do that you need to make your teammates better. Luckily, KP has spent the last two and a half years playing beside a guy whose best talent was just that: Kyle O’Quinn. One of the few successful components of Jeff Hornacek’s offense last season was the open looks cutters generated whenever KOQ had the ball in the high post. Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway, and Doug McDermott, in particular, were able to consistently get buckets around the rim due to opportunistic cutting and savvy passing from the top of the key courtesy of the Bearded One. If I were Fiz, I would sit Porzingis down with a compilation of KOQ’s passing footage to see just how open the floor gets when defenders have to be keyed into off-ball movement.
Speaking of franchise players: it’s inevitable that Porzingis will forever be linked to Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns, the top three Rookie of the Year vote-getters in 2015, and three men from three different countries representing three different takes on the future of the NBA big man. While Porzingis has been rehabbing this summer, his two unicorn classmates have been busy getting paid (and in a jarring role reversal, Towns is now the one on a dysfunctional team).
Now, Jokic is the best passing big man we’ve seen in years (not counting Ben Simmons) and plays with elite cutters in a system designed to leverage those gifts. It would be unfair to expect Porzingis to start matching him assist for assist. But consider this: Nikola Jokic has 100 career games with four or more assists. This past season, when he reached that threshold, the Nuggets were 38-21, while going 4-11 in games in which he dished out fewer than four. Towns has 59 career games with four-plus assists, and last year his team went 13-5 in such games. They were 34-30 when he didn’t.
Porzingis, on the other hand, has six games with four or more assists. In his career. Last season he had one, and guess what? The Knicks won.
The Unicorn is, in a way, a victim of his height. Since he can get a shot off over just about anyone in the league, the line between a regular contested jump shot and a reckless contested jump shot can be harder to gauge.
Too many times in the last few years, Porzingis has settled for a smothered fade away when there are other options available. Not all the blame here falls on Three Six Latvia’s broad shoulders. Jeff Hornacek ran a clunky offense that couldn’t seem to shake off the iso-ball, stand-around-and-watch habits picked up during the Carmelo years, especially among the starters. In Fizdale’s more egalitarian system, there should be more off-ball movement, more creative uses of screeners (another area Porzingis needs to improve in), and of course more Kevin Knox.
One of the benefits of the long road to recovery Porzingis is currently walking is that he will have plenty of time to watch his teammates and learn their on-court habits. There is much losing in the Knicks’ immediate future, but with a revamped roster of young athletes, a team-first, developmentally-focused head coach in Fizdale, and the hope that this season, shooters like Frank, Dotson, Hardaway, and Knox can show some consistency from outside, Porzingis will see that the scoring burden doesn’t fall on him and him alone.
At 7-foot-3, KP can see over any defender and should be able to find passing angles few others could even think of, but in the end, he’s got to want to do it. If he does, it could be the next step in his journey to becoming an all-time great.
*All stats via Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.