The new-look New York Knicks embark on its first preseason road game, tonight, when they take on the Washington Wizards. And one of their new features to display in the early part of their exhibition portion is a supposed new-look Kristaps Porzingis.
It’s not so much a physically changed Porzingis, but rather a changed man in regards to metaphorically carrying the weight of a franchise and city. Sans Carmelo Anthony, who was traded two weeks ago to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Porzingis is now being looked upon as the unquestioned leader for the first time in his young career. The third-year forward declined to take Anthony’s locker space, but he will take the future Hall of Famer’s seat, both literally and figuratively, as he now sits in Anthony’s former customary spot on the bench.
The future is believed to be bright for the Latvian sensation, whether he’s asked, his coach is asked, or opposing general managers, who voted Porzingis as has having the second-best chance for a breakout season this year. In the annual general manager survey, Porzingis tied Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner for that distinction – behind Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Porzingis was also voted the fourth-best international player in the league.
He’ll get the chance to enhance those rankings, this season. Porzingis, who shot 6-of-14 for 15 points and added five rebounds, two blocks, and one assist in 22 minutes of action in the Knicks’ 115-107 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the preseason opener, said he’s been working on new moves, knowing he’s now the opposing team’s primary target.
“The other team, they’re going to play a different type of defense once the season starts,” Porzingis reasoned. “I almost touched the ball on every offensive possession that we had [against the Nets]. I have to be ready to make the right decision on every play.”
Head coach Jeff Hornacek has admitted to seeing a difference in Porzingis already, noting that while the third-year forward won’t become a more demonstrative voice, he’s witnessed some tweaks on and off the floor.
“You can tell he worked hard in the summer. Watching the Eurobasket games, there were moves he made that maybe you didn’t see much of last year in terms of banging a guy and then lean back and shoot it. So that’s age, that’s experience. That’s strength. I know he’s worked hard on his legs to get that better,” said Hornacek. “He’s been great in training camp. He’s really stepping it up as kind of a leader in camp with his talking and his example of how he comes out there every day in practice and goes hard. I think he’s ready for a great year.”
Hornacek also thinks the Knicks are ready for a change offensively, as he wants them to play faster. No more staid Triangle offense as the primary set, as the coach wants more threes and more high-volume shooting.
Porzingis was used a variety of ways against the Nets, and Hornacek admitted that will be the norm. Porzingis’s first two baskets came in the post. He then added a pull-up jumper, a nice put-back in transition, and finished with scores at the rim off the dribble – including a fancy and-one score that was preceded by a sick crossover.
The Latvian said he worked on adding strength over the summer to improve his post play, but still admitted he’s not a fan of playing too much in the post, even if Hornacek is enticed to move the power forward to center for stretches of a game.
Hornacek reasoned that with Porzingis’s wingspan and 7-foot-3 frame, he can be a problem at the center for opponents. Porzingis played some pivot for Latvia in the Euroleague Championships over the summer, and Hornacek tried many different combinations against the Nets – including using Porzingis at center. But the star forward reasoned he’d still rather stay where he feels he’s most effective.
“It’s better for us, especially if it’s a non-shooting [power forward]. I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the [center], I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage. But I’m just more comfortable playing at the 4 [power forward],” he said. “Fours are usually smaller. I can shoot over them easier. If it’s a non-shooter I can be under the rim and protecting the rim and that’s what I love. I’m just more used to playing at the 4. If we need to go small, then I’m playing at the 5 [center]. Then I have to change a little bit my mindset. So I have to be able to adjust to different situations.”
Hornacek understands Porzingis’s misgivings about playing center, but acknowledged that playing his star there is “a weapon” almost too good to pass.
Whichever position Porzingis plays, it’ll likely be a mismatch on the offensive end, no matter who’s defending him, because 7-foot-3 guys with a nearly eight-foot wingspan, ability to put the ball on the floor, or shoot 3s is hard to contain.
Kevin Durant didn’t dub Porzingis a “unicorn” for nothing.