A cacophony of boos thunder through the crowded Barclays center. It is the night of the 2015 NBA draft and commissioner Adam Silver has just finished reading the name “Kristaps Porzingis”, as the gangly Latvian teenager saunters over to shake his hand.
Donning a grin that belies the negative response of those around him, young Kristaps smiles into the camera as he receives his Knicks cap from Silver. Somewhere in the crowd, a six-year-old is crying into the camera of his iPhone, not realizing that he’d own the 7’3” rookie’s jersey in less than a year.
From Dust to the Stars
Kristaps Porzingis was met with a mountain of skepticism going into the 2015-16 season, mostly through no fault of his own. The history of European prospects taken in the lottery was as grim as it was short.
For every Dirk Nowitzki, there seemed to be ten Darko’s, and the Knicks fan base couldn’t bear that disappointment after 15 years of mediocrity. In his first full season as president of basketball operations, it seemed as though Phil Jackson had pulled the wool over the franchise’s eyes by effectively throwing away their first top five picks since Patrick Ewing. This rail-thin prospect who wasn’t supposed to be able to contribute for years was his answer for their suffering?
Fast-forward to present day and Kristaps looks to be the Knicks best rookie since the aforementioned Ewing. In fact, Kristaps’ play has already earned him four Rookie of the Month awards and he’s done so by excelling at the areas his detractors expected him to take years to adjust to.
The few positives scouts had to say about the rook were about his silky smooth jumper and offensive acumen, and while he’s had his share of outstanding performances (29 points on 59% shooting against Charlotte; 28 opposite his self-proclaimed idol Dirk Nowitzki) he’s made his bread with his defense and rebounding.
Going into this season most critic’s largest concern with Kristaps was his rebounding. He would be spending a majority of his time playing power forward with spot minutes at the pivot, where many thought his slight frame would lead to him being tossed out of position.
Compound that fear with the reputation of European big men like Dirk and Andrea Bargnani being a nonfactor on the boards and you seemingly had a recipe for disaster. At least right up until he hammered home a one-handed putback over Lamarcus Aldrige in just his fourth NBA game.
Kristaps is second among all rookies at 7.3 rebounds per game, and was known throughout the early season for extending over other players (and occasionally teams) to slam home vicious putback dunks.While lacking the girth that the league’s best rebounders have, Kristaps uses his superior length and 7’6” wingspan to snag rebounds other players can’t get a hand on.
Opposing teams have more tape of the young Latvian now and have begun to box him out further from the basket, a physicality that seems to bother him some. His putbacks are fewer and farther in between, but his overall rebounding has not dropped off much. He still posts a respectable 14.4% rebounding rate, good for top five among qualified rookies.
He also shows a fearlessness in his game that is present on the boards. He sports a REB Chase % of 27.2%, well above average for an NBA power forward and an example of how he chases after rebounds other players wouldn’t bother to. Kristaps still needs a good 30lbs on his frame before he can be considered a dominant rebounder, but he’s shown promise and the right mentality to improve.
The Fearless Foreigner
Poor defense is assumed of most international prospects, and was especially concerning for Kristaps before he started his NBA career. Scouts saw a rookie that would be bullied by heavier more physical players and provide little to no rim protection. Before delving into any numbers, the biggest testament to this being false is the defensive game plan of the New York Knicks with KP on the floor.
The Knicks guards try to close off baseline drives and force ball-handlers to the middle, effectively creating a funnel into shot blocking bigs. There’s nothing truly novel about this strategy, as most NBA teams employ some variance of it, but what stands out is how much faith the coaching staff has in Porzingis to carry it out.
Along with center Robin Lopez, KP creates a formidable backline for the Knicks defense that often lets guards parade to the basket. When meeting them there, the Knicks rookie uses his length and a seemingly veteran understanding of the rules of verticality to alter or block shots. Kristaps is actually the rookie leader in blocks per game at a stout 1.9, including seven against both Houston and Minnesota.
When meeting them there, the Knicks rookie uses his length and a seemingly veteran understanding of the rules of verticality to alter or block shots. Kristaps is actually the rookie leader in blocks per game at a stout 1.9, including seven against both Houston and Minnesota.
Even more promising than the raw numbers is the willingness KP showed in contesting star players like James Harden and Andrew Wiggins and what that did for the Knicks defense as a whole. The Knicks hemorrhage points on average, but reach a respectable 104.4 DefRtg with him on the floor – good for a middle of the pack finish.
They also deviate slightly from the game plan and chase steals and fastbreak opportunities more when he is on the floor since the guards believe in him to be a serviceable anchor. He won’t be confused for a defensive stalwart just yet, he admittedly does get bullied down low and bites on far too many pump fakes for that, but he’s shown the promise and requisite intelligence to blossom into a plus defender.
Kristaps Porzingis is best viewed in a vacuum. Dispel your previous notions of European big men – they don’t apply to this rookie. Forget about all the stretch fours that can’t rebound or protect the basket. This lanky Latvian has already proved he’s more than that, and it begins and ends with his attitude. It’s time to start cheering.
By Carmine DiCuozzo, Featured Columnist