The praise for New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is quickening now, like an express train from Madison Square Garden to Springfield, Mass. He’s taking the unicorn label literally. As the rest of us struggle to find comparisons for a 7-foot-3 import who is a many-faced god offensively and protecting the rim at an ungodly rate on the other end, teammate Courtney Lee has his analogy.
“The closest person to KP was probably Yao (Ming) with Yao being that tall,” Lee told reporters after his team’s fifth victory in six games, a 108-01 win over the Indiana Pacers, via the New York Daily News. “But KP’s more skilled as far as playing on the perimeter. He’s just scratching the surface right now.”
Ming, of course, was an All-Star every season he stayed healthy and a Hall of Famer, freakishly skilled for someone so massive, so that’s high praise from Lee, who crossed paths with Ming on the Houston Rockets in 2010. And Lee is not wrong about Porzingis, at least not through nine games this season.
Porzingis is playing at record-breaking pace for a franchise that has featured Carmelo Anthony, Patrick Ewing, Bernard King, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett:
Most points by a Knick over the first 9 games of a season:
1. Porzingis (272)
2. Bernard King (264)
3. Pat Ewing (261)
4. Willis Reed (243)
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) November 6, 2017
Let’s first dispense with the obvious comparison between Porzingis and Ming:
Would like to see this fight – Yao Ming v Manny Pacquiao pic.twitter.com/pI3xDPtTGs
— FeelTheTip Sports (@FeelTheTip) August 11, 2015
As for Lee’s bold “more skilled” claim? Porzingis’ 30.2 points per game trail only early MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 31.0, and the Knicks star is playing three fewer minutes a night. The 22-year-old phenom is adding 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks (third in the NBA behind Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant) and an assist in 33.4 minutes per game, good for a 28.6 Player Efficiency Rating, which puts him fifth in the company of perennial All-Stars Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis.
We caution everyone to remember that we’re extremely early in the 2017-18 campaign, a fact supported by the evidence that the Knicks (5-4) lead the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-6) in the Eastern Conference standings. But as Ball Don’t Lie’s resident New Yorker Dan Devine reminded us last week, Kristaps Porzingis is everything Knicks fans could have hoped he’d be through the first few weeks.
Porzingis has embraced the post-Carmelo era with the mettle required of someone who will take center stage at MSG several dozen nights a year, even using ex-Knicks team president Phil Jackson’s not-ready-for-primetime dig at the then-21-year-old on his way out the door as added motivation.
“Of course,” Porzingis said on Sunday when asked if Jackson’s comments served as extra incentive over the summer, via ESPN.com. “The challenge is never too big for me. I always accept the challenge and that’s why I knew coming into this season [if] Melo was not going to be here, then I’m going to have to be that guy and that’s why I was just [spending] 24 hours in the gym. I was preparing for this, preparing myself physically, and I’m just happy that I’m capable of playing at this level right now.”
It’s not that Porzingis is excelling, because we’ve seen that in flashes before. It’s how he’s dominating that’s so refreshing to those who wanted him to play this way.
His usage rate (35.5 percent) is tied with Houston Rockets guard James Harden at the top of the league, and he’s scoring almost as efficiently as the MVP runner-up. Porzingis is taking two-thirds of his shots from either inside the paint, where he’s shooting 57.8 percent, or outside the 3-point arc, where he’s shooting 39.5 percent (excluding half-court heaves).
The ability to do this helps:
Ming never averaged more than 25 points or a PER higher than 26.5. The 7-foot-6 Chinese sensation was incredibly efficient in the post and mid-range, thanks to his fancy footwork, but he was never as athletic as Porzingis. And consider this: Ming finished his career 2-for-10 from 3-point range. Porzingis was 3-for-6 over the weekend. The NBA is a different game now, and Porzingis defines the evolution.
Plus, Porzingis has maybe been more remarkable as a rim protector. According to the NBA’s stats, opponents are shooting 28.9 percent worse inside of six feet when defended by the Knicks big man. That’s the best mark among NBA regulars who face at least five such shots a night by 12.3 percent. Opponents are shooting 51.9 percent inside of six feet against Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and rim protector extraordinaire Rudy Gobert. Against Porzingis? They’re shooting just 31.1 percent.
This was all captured beautifully on Sunday by photographer Nathaniel S. Butler:
And just when you thought Knicks hype couldn’t get any heavier, meet rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, a.k.a Frankie Smokes, a.k.a. the French Connection, a.k.a the French Prince, a.k.a. the French-ise.
He has now played 45 minutes with Porzingis, almost all of which have come during the recent five-wins-in-six-games stretch. Lineups containing those two are outscoring opponents by 37.7 points per 100 possessions, posting a 12.4.5 offensive rating and 86.8 defensive rating, both of which would lead the league handily.
Ntilikina scored a career-high 10 points in Sunday’s win over the Pacers, including the dagger 3-pointer and an ensuing steal that put the Knicks up for good in the final minutes of a game they trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half. The 19-year-old added seven assists, but his most important contributions have come on defense, where the Knicks have been atrocious in years past, especially at the point guard position. Let’s just say Jarrett Jack’s starting role should not be safe.
Again, we’re barely a tenth of the way into the season, but there is hope for Knicks basketball. That’s all New Yorkers (and, really, all NBA fans) have really been asking for over the past two decades.
The only question mark for Porzingis this season stemmed from comments his brother made about taking a wait-and-see approach to re-signing with the Knicks, but he provided the only answer New Yorkers needed to hear on Friday, via ESPN: “I think fans know I’m here in New York, I love New York and I see myself as a Knick for a long, long time. And I think they shouldn’t be worrying about that.”
He followed that up with a career-high 40 points on Sunday and this statement for the MSG crowd:
Kristaps Porzingis in true NY fashion is talking about that "NY Grit."pic.twitter.com/5xCyeudUHz
— The Shadow League (@ShadowLeagueTSL) November 6, 2017
“Honestly, I think we’re just playing with that New York mentality — that New York grit,” said Porzingis in an homage to the beloved 1990s Knicks. “I think we’re representing the city the right way now.”
If only Charles Oakley were allowed in the building to see it.
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