When the New York Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, they sent starting center Robin Lopez to the Chicago Bulls in the deal. Lopez is a solid center on a team-friendly contract, so it seemed as though the Knicks thought Lopez was expendable or perhaps that Kristaps Porzingis could start at center. That logic made sense considering Porzingis was effective last year playing at the five and has a skill set that few big men possess. However, the Knicks subsequently signed Joakim Noah to a large contract, signaling that Porzingis would continue playing the majority of his minutes at power forward.
There are many New York fans and people around the league who believe former Knicks head coach Derek Fisher should have played Porzingis at center more often last season. In December of last year, after the Knicks lost to the Orlando Magic in a close game, Ian Begley of ESPN explored the topic and pointed out that the Knicks were outscoring opponents by 5.9 points per 48 minutes when Porzingis player at center – compared to 2.7 points per 48 minutes with Porzingis at power forward. However, Lopez prevented Porzingis from having to compete with other centers and added rim protection, so there was reason for Lopez to be playing heavy minutes at center. But with Porzingis’ size and skills, there’s too much reason to ignore the possibility of him playing heavy minutes at center moving forward.
If you have a free moment, go check out the recent ESPN Sports Science break down of Porzingis. In the video, we see a nice visual confirmation of what we already know: Porzingis is super long, very agile for a player his size and has huge potential defensively. The ability to stretch the court from the center position is rare in the NBA and for the few who can do it effectively, they usually give up something significant in some other area. That isn’t the case with Porzingis.
As Kelly Scaletta of Today’s Fastbreak noted, Porzingis became the first rookie in NBA history to register 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks and 50 three-pointers in a season. Not bad for a player who many labeled a “project” when the Knicks selected him.
Porzingis could stand to improve as a rebounder and he is still pretty lean at the center position, which could make it difficult for him to match up with the more physical centers on a nightly basis. However, Porzingis has been working on adding strength this summer and there aren’t as many back to the basket brutes in today’s NBA as there were even a few seasons ago.
“I got a little bigger, [but] that wasn’t the main focus this summer,” Porzingis said, according to ESPN’s Begley. “It was just getting stronger and not so much bigger, although when you get stronger, it’s natural you gain weight. I want to make sure I’m comfortable at the weight.”
Porzingis may not be ready to play full-time at center this season, but that doesn’t mean he should be forced to play power forward exclusively either. This is especially true considering that Carmelo Anthony is more suited to play the power forward position at this stage of his career. Anthony has repeatedly proven how effective he can be stretching the court from the four and his skill set matches nicely with Porzingis’, which is notable considering how he has struggled to play with other big men in the past (such as Amar’e Stoudemire).
This doesn’t mean that Noah shouldn’t get significant minutes at center or that he doesn’t fit with the Knicks in a meaningful way. However, Noah isn’t the mobile center he once was after playing huge minutes over his career and suffering several injuries. Noah is being paid like a top-level center, but that doesn’t mean Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek should feel obligated to play Noah a ton of minutes at center at the expense of Porzingis. If Hornacek does opt to play Noah a lot at the five, it’s at least good to know that he will look to play more pick-and-roll and play to Porzingis’ strengths.
“Pick-and-roll situations, pick-and-pop, guys are going to expect me to pop, and then I can roll and then switch it up. And it’s going to be really good,” Porzingis said, adding that he and Hornacek have talked in detail about the offense. “I’m sure they’re going to put me in a situation where I can be effective for the team.”
Too often last season Porzingis had to force deep three-pointers as the trailer on offense. This partially explains why Porzingis shot 33.3 percent from distance last year. With an offense that incorporates more pick-and-rolls, while maintaining elements of the Triangle, Porzingis should be able to pick-and-pop more often, or roll to the basket for easy looks at the rim, or fade out to three-point line and spot up if Anthony is running pick-and-roll with another teammate. Considering Hornacek’s track record as the coach of the Phoenix Suns, where he ran a fast-paced, spread-styled offense, it’s safe to predict that Porzingis will be featured more often and put in better positions to score efficiently.
If Hornacek is looking for Porzingis to be at his most efficient, he may shy away from featuring him in the post considering that, as of now, Porzingis doesn’t have the most effective or efficient post game. Porzingis only posted up a total of 15 percent of his offensive possessions last season and only managed to score 0.82 points per possession (44.8 percentile).
“If that’s what the coaches want, I’ll play in the post; I feel more and more comfortable every day because I’ve been working on my post game and getting stronger,” Porzingis said. “So if that’s what they want me to do, if that’s where they see me more effective, then I’ll do that. But it just depends on how we’re better – from me shooting more from the outside or getting in more.”
If Porzingis’ post game does improve significantly, he will become an offensive force unlike any other in the league right now. There simply aren’t any other 7’3 players in the NBA who are as agile as Porzingis while also being capable of stretching the floor like he can and posting up effectively. The best comparison as this point may be Karl-Anthony Towns, who isn’t quite as tall as Porzingis, but has a dynamic offensive game with seemingly no weaknesses. Players like this should be the focus of a team’s offense, and in that sense, it seems like it would be a mistake to force Porzingis to play the majority of his minutes at power forward to benefit Noah.
The Knicks and Hornacek know what they have in Porzingis and will surely put him in positions where they think he can be successful. Fortunately, Porzingis is the kind of young, humble player who doesn’t demand a certain role or vent his frustrations when he thinks he’s big used ineffectively. However, the opportunity to stretch the floor with Anthony at power forward and Porzingis at center is too enticing to be ignored. There are some concerns, such as wearing down Porzingis by making him defend opposing centers, but if Hornacek can find the right balance, the Knicks could be a tough team to deal with next season.
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