NBA AM: The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

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The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis

A cynic might reasonably assert that Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet. He’s played relatively limited minutes in just nine games in his brief NBA career. He’s yet to score more than 16 points in any one contest. His team, the New York Knicks, sit one game below .500 at 4-5.

KristapsINside1Many pundits have scoffed at how so many Knicks fans have fallen head-over-heels so quickly for this rookie from Latvia.

Yet, such skeptics might be missing the point.

Yes, many Knicks fans are overly optimistic about the promise of Porzingis. But it could also be argued that many loyal Knicks fans have earned the right to get exceedingly, even irrationally, excited.

Context is important here.

Being a Knicks fan has been tough and often exhausting. Even in the “glory days” of the 1990s, the regular seasons were extremely enjoyable and entertaining, but playoff runs ultimately ended in heartache. Still, looking back, Knicks fans didn’t know how good they had it. For younger supporters of the team, being a fan of this franchise has been brutal. Teenage fans have seen basically nothing but drama and dysfunction. Oh, and losses. Plenty of losses…

Over the last 15 seasons, the Knicks have won a grand total of seven postseason games. They have lost 672 regular season games during this same stretch. Bill Clinton was President of the United States the last time the Knicks advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Still, it isn’t simply the sheer number of numbing defeats. The Knicks often found new and inventive ways to demoralize the fan base. The poor choices on draft day, moronic trades and inexplicable front office hires are simply too numerous to list. Even short-lived successes that generated genuine excitement would inevitably be followed by a crashing return to defeats and despair. The perpetual cloud of gloom that has hung over the franchise for nearly two decades has tended to deflate even the most buoyant and supportive spirits.

The coup de grace came last season. New Yorkers actually had a reason to welcome losses, but the Knicks somehow even managed to mess that up. Heading into the final week of the 2014-15 campaign, New York was in prime position to finish with the worst record in the NBA, which would have guaranteed them a top-three pick and the best odds of winning the lottery (to secure the services of stud prospect Karl-Anthony Towns). Alas, the Knicks won their final two road games of the season (the only time all season they won back-to-back road contests), which allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to back into the coveted No. 1 spot.

At the lottery drawing held in New York City the following month, only one team had the misfortune of “moving down.” It was the Knicks, who fell to No. 4 overall.

The top three picks in the 2015 draft were essentially no-brainers. Towns, the consensus top prospect, would go first. D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor would follow, in some order.

Then the consensus ceased. Most believed it was at that point where the draft diverted from “sure-fire stars” to “promising prospects with question marks.” Different scouts and pundits predicted the Knicks would take any number of players available. Some suggested it would be in the Knicks’ best interest to move down and acquire assets.

When Commissioner Adam Silver announced “Kristaps Porzingis” as New York’s selection, many fans in the crowd booed. Others shrugged. To be fair, the vast majority of New Yorkers had never watched the kid play a single game. Most could only base their opinion on limited YouTube footage. Moreover, Knicks fans had been conditioned to expect the worst.

Back in 1999, as we know, the Knicks selected Fredrick Weis – one spot ahead of NYC’s own Ron Artest.

Ten years later, in 2009, GM Donnie Walsh and all of Knicks Nation desperately wanted sharpshooter Stephen Curry out of Davidson. It was the worst kept secret in the draft. The Knicks were sitting at No. 8 overall and Curry teasingly lasted through the first six picks, before the Golden State Warriors snatched him up at No. 7. The Knicks had to settle for Jordan Hill, who played a total of 24 games for New York before they dumped him in a cap-clearing trade. Curry, obviously, won a title and the MVP award for the Warriors last season.

Many Knicks fans, possibly suffering from post-traumatic draft-pick stress, were hesitant to embrace Porzingis. Also, rumors immediately began circulating that franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony was furious the Knicks had gambled on a 19-year-old foreigner, which didn’t help matters.

But here is where this story starts to turn…

In interviews on draft night and in the weeks and months after, Porzingis spoke with an air of confidence and answered questions competently with a remarkable grasp of the English language.

New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the tall, skinny youngster during the Las Vegas Summer League. Yes, he was raw, but he flashed some impressive skills. Many fans began to shift from initially doubtful, to uncertain, to intrigued.

During training camp, and then into the preseason, the buzz began in earnest. The coaching staff heaped praise on Porzingis. His teammates raved about him.

During limited minutes in the preseason contests, he played well. Just as importantly, he played hard. Despite his thin frame, he was unafraid to mix it up in the paint. He repeatedly asked fans not to hold the past sins of previous “soft Euros” against him. He was determined to shatter the stereotype he knew existed here in the States.

He splashed jumpers from all over the court. He rebounded in traffic. He handled the ball like a guard, despite measuring in at 7’3. He defended bigger, stronger pros down low, using his 7’6 wingspan to alter opponents’ shots.

Still, one of the most appealing aspects of the Porzingis experience is the kid’s composure on the court. He’s never in a rush. He moves quickly, but doesn’t hurry. He is shockingly confident. However, he doesn’t force shots. He is almost unselfish to a fault. It is clear he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone right now.

He manages to walk that fine line between being remarkably self-assured, yet still modest and humble.

A 20 year-old celebrity who doesn’t have his head on straight could easily get swallowed up in this town. Many have, and many more will. Porzingis just seems to “get it.” When asked about his favorite part about moving to America and living in NYC, he explained it wasn’t the exciting nightlife in Manhattan, but rather the fact that he could use an open gym at his leisure to shoot around whenever he wanted to.

Knicks fans were beginning to buy in.  He remains remarkably easy to embrace. He’s said and done all the right things since the day he was drafted.

Prior to the draft, he let it be known that it was his “dream” to be drafted by the Knicks. He wanted New York. He was ready for the challenge. New Yorkers wanted him to be good, so they could get behind the promise that exuded from his game. He looked good in Vegas and in preseason action, but how would he hold up once the real games began?

The Knicks played their season opener on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and cruised to an easy 25-point victory. Porzingis struggled from the floor (3-for-11), but still managed to pour in 16 points by getting to the line 12 times.

The excitement in New York was palpable.

In New York’s fourth game of the season, the Knicks hosted the San Antonio Spurs at MSG. Porzingis finished with his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. He also produced the first of what has been become his trademark highlight: an awe-inspiring put-back dunk, this time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

Porzingis was starting to go viral now. The bandwagon was gaining steam and supporters. Early expectations had been exceeded. Could he possibly keep this up?

Porzingis has posted double-doubles in four of the Knicks’ last six games. His per-36 minutes averages are incredibly impressive: 16.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. As of Tuesday, he was one of just two players in the NBA leading his team in rebounds, steals and blocks (with Detroit’s Andre Drummond being the other).

Knicks fan are downright giddy, to the point where, in some circles, they are being ridiculed for being overly optimistic. “Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet,” the critics claim.

The doubters aren’t necessarily wrong. But that’s not the point.

Those Knicks fans who have stuck by their team though thick and (mostly) thin these past 15 years have earned the right to be irrationally excited. In fact, they should be encouraged to go crazy over the first handful of Porzingis highlights. Who knows when they will be in this position again?

Of course, Porzingis does have flaws. He fouls too much. His shooting percentage is still south of 40 percent. But the extraordinary talent and immense potential is impossible to miss if you’ve watched the kid play at all. And it’s been a very, very long time since Knicks fans have had the opportunity to invest emotionally in one of their own young players with such a high upside.

Over the past two decades, many people have been introduced as saviors to resurrect this woebegone franchise. Owner James Dolan hired Isiah Thomas to much fanfare, who immediately traded the farm for Stephon Marbury. Zeke’s next big move was trading two unprotected first-round draft picks to Chicago for Eddy Curry. After that experiment crashed and burned, Donnie Walsh was brought in as GM to clean up the mess and was tasked with luring LeBron James to New York. That didn’t work, so the Knicks ended up handing $100 million to Amar’e Stoudemire, who boisterously proclaimed that the “Knicks are back.” But Stoudemire’s well-worn knees soon buckled under the weight of expectations. New York next traded half their organization to bring in Anthony. The early returns were promising, but New York has failed to even qualify for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

It’s been even longer since Knicks supporters had a homegrown star to latch onto. New York has struck out on plenty of picks. They have also failed to develop and retain those promising players they did draft. Amazingly, the last player the Knicks drafted and subsequently signed to a multi-year contract after his original rookie deal expired was Charlie Ward, who was selected 24th overall in the 1994 draft.

Long story short, it’s been hard for Knicks fans to be hopeful.

The Knicks are once again part of the New York sports talk conversation. Many ardent fans have noticed that friends and brothers and uncles who hadn’t watched the Knicks in years have recently tuned in to catch a glimpse of this European dude that people are talking about. Porzingis is on the path to becoming ‘must-see TV.’

There is obviously no guarantee that Porzingis reaches his full potential and develops into a legit superstar in New York. He’s a long, long ways from even starting that discussion. He will have to hurdle countless road blocks before reaching those lofty heights. Maybe Porzingis gets hurt or flames out at some point soon or further down the road.

But the flip side of that coin remains a distinct possibility as well.

Maybe we are watching a truly great player take the necessary baby steps towards stardom?

For Knicks fans that have had so precious little to get truly energized about in recent years, why not go all in? It’s understandable that New Yorkers have been reflexively attempting to curb their enthusiasm. Still, those fans that have suffered through the torment of the 2000s and beyond deserve the anxious excitement of unknown and untapped potential. Anybody can appreciate and root for an established star; getting in on the ground floor is always more exciting. It requires taking a leap of faith.

Porzingis’ on-court production thus far is undeniably impressive. He is one of just 11 players in the last 30 years to tally at least four double-doubles of points and rebounds in his first nine career games (Patrick Ewing only had three). He is also the only player of those 11 to post four double-doubles while averaging fewer than 25 minutes per game. Kristaps is the first player in Knicks franchise history to grab 15 rebounds in a game before celebrating his 21st birthday. He is also the first player in NBA history with at least 100 points, 80 rebounds and five three-pointers in his first nine games.

And although the numbers are remarkable, it’s far more than just the statistics that have fans in all five boroughs so encouraged and enthused. It’s the sense that Porzingis is merely just scratching the surface.

After beating the L.A. Lakers last Sunday, Porzingis sat at his locker and coolly answered questions from the gathered media. At one point, I asked him if he, like the rest of us, was surprised at just how well he’d played this season. He responded with a one-word answer: “No.” He wasn’t bragging; he was simply relaying his belief in himself.

It’s justifiably difficult for dubious, downtrodden Knicks fans to believe in Porzingis as strongly as he does in himself, but fortunately for those fans, they hopefully have the rest of his bright career to be persuaded.

For anyone on the fence, feel free to jump on the bandwagon. There’s still room, but seats are filling up fast.