Now that Carmelo Anthony is on the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Knicks are left with a big void in leadership and lead talent, meaning someone has to step up and fill those shoes. Luckily for them, third-year forward Kristaps Porzingis wears a size 16 and has the talent to boot, so metaphorically filling Anthony shoes may not be an impossible task.
Holding court at the Knicks’ Media Day, today, Porzingis said he’s ready for all the encompassing challenges of now being looked upon as the franchise player.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to be a leader of the team. But it’s not just gonna be one guy,” Porzingis offered, adding he feels he’s ready after serving as Anthony’s apprentice for the last two seasons. “I’m grateful to have had him for two seasons. I learned from him. He was a great leader, and a mentor, and a big brother to me. I have respect for him and wish the best.”
Besides the loss of such a magnanimous locker room presence, Porzingis offered it’ll be on the court where the biggest adjustment will take place – for everyone, not just for him.
“I don’t think people understand what he meant,” Porzingis said about Anthony. “He took a lot of pressure off us. Every night, teams were schemed for him first. But now I’m gonna be one of those guys [teams scout first]. It’s gonna be different. I have to be ready for it.”
General manager Scott Perry thinks Porzingis is ready for the added duties, but reasoned nobody will know until the lights come on for real and the Latvian sensation is thrust into his new role.
“We’re looking forward to his development, as he continues to grow physically and mentally,” Perry said, adding he wants to find new ways daily to turn up the heat to see how Porzingis handles it all. “We want to test Kristaps to see if he can handle his new role. We want to push him. … It’s up to him to accept the [leadership] challenge.”
That may be the hardest challenge for any of the 30 franchise players around the National Basketball Association, particularly for guys who are used to being second banana.
The Knicks essentially blew up their roster over the summer, adding 12 new faces to the mix. About half of them are merely camp bodies, but that’s still a lot of new egos to massage, and skill sets to learn. Porzingis said while he was back in Europe fine tuning his game this summer, he didn’t pay much attention to what Perry and team president Steve Mills were doing to the roster. But he did reason that despite the talk of discord and dysfunction, everything is fine within the franchise and he trusts the new regime will do a better job than the last one – even if he refused to spew the name of the deposed Phil Jackson.
“I’m coming in with a fresh mind. The past is the past,” was all Porzingis would say about last year’s circus. “I believe it [that the new management has done a good job]. I have faith in those people. They want us to grow and put us in a position to succeed.”
Succeeding in the Eastern Conference may not be too difficult. Most of the major talent remains in the west, including former Indiana Pacers star Paul George, who will join Anthony in Oklahoma City. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving and his new Boston Celtics teammates are still the elite in the conference, but the rest is a hodgepodge of teams that could fall anywhere between the third seed and the eighth seed with not much difference in the standings.
Simply put, for the first time in five seasons, the Knicks could actually make a significant run and grab one of those six remaining playoff seeds. Sure, it helps that the conference is watered down, but for Porzingis, he doesn’t care for talk of it being easier to make the playoffs now because the conference’s talent pool thinned out over the summer.
“It’s a losing mentality to hope that a conference gets worst just to make the playoffs,” he bristled.
That was the rare time Knicks’ fans would see a publicly miffed Porzingis. But maybe that’s what the Knicks need now – someone who can back up the surliness with winning play on the court. Center Joakim Noah was brought here for just that type of leadership, but injuries and lack of productivity even when healthy didn’t cut it, last season.
Porzingis is poised for a breakout year. And for what it’s worth, he was very confident in deeming he thinks he’ll be an all star this year. If that happens, he hopes it’s as a power forward, especially with the glut of centers on the roster that now includes Enes Kanter, Noah, Kyle O’Quinn, and Porzingis’s good bud, Willy Hernangomez. That security and depth in the post will allow him to play his natural position.
“I’m more comfortable at the 4 [power forward],” said Porzingis, adding he can’t wait to see how the starting center battle shapes. “That [competition] at the 5 [center], it’s gonna be competitive in practices.”
The competitive nature of practices should be ramped up this season, especially now that head coach Jeff Hornacek will be allowed to run his own system. He’ll be able to maximize guys’ strengths and really allow them to play freer and be more themselves – which will only make practices and games more amped.
And leading the way will be a special “unicorn” who intends to be more bullish as the new franchise cornerstone.