Kristaps Puts Zing in Knicks

He’s the name on the lips of every New York sports fan, even if they’re not quite sure how to pronounce it.

Following his surprise selection by the Knicks as the fourth pick overall in last May’s draft, a choice which was greeted by Knicks fans in attendance with a loud chorus of boos, Kristaps Porzingis, a 20 year old 7’3” Latvian, who played the last two seasons in the Spanish League, has taken several months to acclimate himself to life in New York and to the NBA. He played for the Knicks rookie team during the summer, and bought a home in Westchester where he lives with his father, mother and two brothers and retreats every night to ma’s cooking. Porzingis speaks four languages, is polite and respectful to everybody, and by all accounts, is a hard worker and a quick learner. He is tattooless.

Just your typical NBA player.

While Porzingis was breaking himself in over the summer, Knicks fans took that long to get his name straight. Recently I asked a group of six serious local sports fans around a poker table if they knew the name of the Knicks’ 7’ rookie, and not one of them got it exactly right.

But after watching Porzingis play, you must spell his name correctly. Displaying a variety of skills which bring to mind the best of Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, and Kevin Garnett, Zinger fills up a stat sheet with a plethora of points, rebounds and blocks. He has the offensive variety of Nowitzki, shoots fouls w/ Bird-type accuracy (85%), and rebounds and blocks shots like Garnett. In wins against Charlotte 11/17 and Houston 11/21, his lines were 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 1 block, and 24, 14, and 7, respectively. Here are his numbers over the last five games: 17.0 pts, 11.6 reb, 4.0 blocks, 85% FT, 35% FG3.

Porzingis starts at power forward with 7’ Robin Lopez at center. His range from the 3-point line is without limits. He gives new meaning to the term “stretch forward.” When Lopez sits, he’ll slide over to center, where he has displayed a lefty hook, a nifty drop step move, and several commanding put-back dunks.

Nowitzki has seen Porzingis develop as a youth in Europe. He pulls no punches:

“He is long. He is athletic. He’s got a touch. He can put it on the floor. He is for real. Sky’s the limit.”

Less than a quarter into the season, Porzingis has already spurred a mini Knick resurgence, on the court and among their fans, who are among the most loyal and passionate in sports. A New York sports fan in the 50’s and 60’s could follow up to three baseball teams and two NFL teams but only one NBA outfit. Most of them will tell you that the 1969-1970 and 1972-1973 Knicks, both NBA champs, were their most beloved sports team ever. The 90’s Knicks of Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Mason, and Sprewell were inspiring but not champions. After 15 years of bad basketball and 43 years without an NBA title, veteran Knicks fans, and the sons of Knicks fans, are ready to explode at a playoffs run.

And New Yorkers waste no time in anointing talented newcomers as superstars. Remember Linsanity? After a string of 20-point games off the bench and then as a starter in early 2012, Jeremy Lin became a cult hero. His jersey retailed for $250 and he appeared twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His luster dimmed by a season-ending leg injury and by a lack of support from Carmelo Anthony, Lin left as a free agent in the off-season.

Porzingis will be more lasting. Barring injury, he is going to be a franchise cornerstone for years to come, like Ewing. But New Yorkers need a catchword, a hashtag, to provide a short form identification for their hero. Early contenders are Zinger (my choice, which Porzingis has rejected), Godzingis, Porzilla, and KP. Bland though it may be, KP is the leader in the clubhouse, and has been adopted by teammates and by Knick announcer Walt Frazier.

Porzingis in dunk mode.

Porzingis is not the only reason for the Knicks’ fast start.

The Knicks started 8-6, including back to back road wins at Oklahoma City and Houston. A recent four game losing streak has not diminished their obvious upgrade over last year’s 17-65 team, which was far too reliant on Anthony. Porzingis accounts for much of the betterment, and his presence permits Anthony to shoot less, and more discreetly; but there are other new pieces.

Off their lousy 2014-2015 record, the Knicks were not attractive to top free agents, such as Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan. Having drafted Porzingis and point guard Jerian Grant in the first round, Boss Phil Jackson went shopping among lesser free agents to achieve value and team symmetry. He found both.

He re-signed undrafted free agents Langston Galloway (PG) and Lance Thomas (PF) from last year’s squad for a total of 2.2 million. Galloway came from their D league team. Thomas originally came in trade from Oklahoma City, but was not signed past 2015. A 2010 Duke alum, he was cut three times by New Orleans and played in China for a year. Galloway and Thomas are now key players, averaging 25 and 19 minutes a game, respectively.

Jackson then opened the wallet to sign free agents Lopez, sharp shooting 2-guard Arron Afflalo, and the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Derrick Williams, who languished for four years in Minnesota and Sacramento. Collectively, they earn less per annum than Anthony. Cheap free agents Kyle O’Quinn, Sasha Vujacik, and Lance Amundson round out the roster. On average, 10-12 Knicks get playing time every night. There are exactly two holdovers from last year’s opening night roster – Anthony and starting point guard Jose Calderon.

Unable to sign an elite free agent, Jackson employed other tactics to improve his team – second tier free agency, the draft, and trades. The fourth path to a better record, improvement from within, is now in the works, led by the man they call KP.


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One Response to “Kristaps Puts Zing in Knicks”

  1. Richard Cohen Says:

    “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting . . . better all the time.”
    The Beatles

    Michael, terrific stuff, not just Kristaps Puts Zing In The Knicks, but also your other recent work: your expertise shows, writing drives, facts inform, and insights enhance, often expand, the conversation. up there with the very best.

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