Coming into the 2017-18 season, a question that was on the mind of many New Yorkers and people around the NBA was if Kristaps Porzingis was ready to take on the challenge of leading a team. Porzingis had the benefit of playing alongside Carmelo Anthony for his first two seasons in the league and was never really looked upon to lead anyone. Instead, he played his role and quietly watched how Anthony handled the spotlight and bright lights of New York City. On the court it was never a question as to who was going to take the last shot in a tight game, or who would shoulder the majority of the offensive load on a nightly basis. Anthony would handle all of that as Porzingis continued to get better without having to deal with the full glare of the media or expectations of clutch performances when it counted most.
Now at the age of just 22, all of that has changed. With Anthony’s departure to Oklahoma City, it is now Porzingis who is expected to lead. The Knicks coaches and fans alike are looking to him to carry the offense, to take and hit late game shots, to deal with the full attention of the media and perhaps most importantly, deliver hope to a generation of fans, whom with a few exceptions, have seen nothing but year after year of losing. The good news is although we are only eight games into the season, Porzingis is showing he is more than capable of being that leader on and off the court.
Lets start with the hard numbers. Porzingis is averaging career highs in points (29.0), field goal attempts (22.0), field goal percentage (48.3) and rebounds (7.8). Add scoring at least 30 points in six of the first eight games and just under 2 blocks per game and it’s no wonder chants of MVP are raining down on the Unicorn during the Knicks somewhat surprising 4-4 start. He’s earned every one of those chants with his performance and overall effort.
We have seen more confidence and emotion from him through just eight games this season than perhaps we did in his first two seasons combined. After the Knicks opened the season with a loss to the Thunder, it was Anthony who said he was happy to see Porzingis be so aggressive and confident with his decision making. Those trends have continued through seven games since as he is doing things different than we have seen before. In his first two seasons, there would be times Porzingis was hesitant to shoot over a defender, even when being guarded by players much shorter than himself. This season, he is wasting no time establishing position and going up with the ball over defenders of all heights as he knows there is really no such thing as a bad shot for him. With each passing game, more and more of that confidence exudes from his 7’3 frame. In fact, after the Knicks win over the Phoenix Suns, it was former Knicks player, Tyson Chandler who said he had a real shot to become the best player in the league. It was a comment that Porzingis was appreciative of but he didn’t shy away from it. “Those are some big words coming from him. I believe so, too. I believe so, too,” Porzingis said. “And that’s something I’m going to work towards.”
It was also a statement that Knicks coach, Jeff Hornacek found easy to agree with. “We knew he had the talent to do it. When you become that guy and the focus is on you, that was our hope he’d do that,” Hornacek said. “It’s panned out. That’s to his credit. Playing in EuroBasket made a big difference of being the main guy. He knew could translate it when he comes here.
“He’s enjoying that role, and has the confidence to do it. You’re always surprised when a guy comes out scoring 30 every night, but in a way you’re not surprised.” He did also add “He’s become a better all-around defender,’’ in regards to MVP talk. The Knicks of course will have to at the very least be a playoff team for any of that MVP talk to become legit.
Even showing more of that confidence, Porzingis has adopted the “Mamba mentality” from the player he loved the most growing up, Kobe Bryant. Not long after dropping a career high 38 points on the Denver Nuggets, Porzingis explained how he goes about things in the same way that Bryant would. “I watched a Kobe interview, the game he had 81. He said at any moment he didn’t stop, ‘Oh I got 50. I got 60.’ He just kept going. That’s my mentality always. Whatever is going on I just keep being aggressive, keep playing my game, and once the game is over I check my stats.”
Off the court, besides conducting himself like a model citizen despite all the sinful opportunities that lie within the big apple, Porzingis is being more vocal through the media. Recently, his brother Janis drew the ire of Knicks fans when he gave an interview to a Latvian publication, where he sounded as if he was threatening the Knicks in regards to his brother signing a contract extension this summer. In the past, Porzingis may not have even addressed any of it and remained silent, similar to how he was all summer after skipping out on his exit interview last season. Instead, he spoke about everything directly and wanted to clear the air as a leader would. “I think fans know I’m here in New York, I love New York and I see myself as a Knick for a long, long time,” he said. “And I think they shouldn’t be worrying about that.”
“I thought the article and everything was taken out of context. A big part,” Porzingis continued. “But it is what it is. He made those comments and right now I really want to focus on the game, really. Just during the season I don’t think this is the right time to talk about things like that.”
He also spoke on comments his brother made where it seemed he was taking direct shots at Carmelo Anthony for how he handled things last season. Porzingis also shot those down. “Me and Carmelo, we have a great relationship no matter,” he said. “It’s taken out of context. A lot of that stuff, it’s not how he meant it. Me and Melo, we know what kind of relationship we have. I’m not worried about that.” In a city like New York, you can’t let rumors grow into something bigger and become a distraction and that appears to be something he already knows.
While it has only been a small sample size, it’s clear that anyone who was concerned with Porzingis needing another year with Melo before he could lead on his own, or needing more time to develop in general, were dead wrong. It’s still a long season and the Knicks may or may not wind up being a playoff team but there is no debating that the era of the unicorn is off to a great start and his leadership may be just the thing to guide them into the postseason.
Written by Joe Casey