Gonzaga Rises above the Rubble/Fed not Dead

February 2nd, 2017 sendarama Posted in college basketball, tennis | No Comments »

With the sporting public finally focused on college basketball during the two week lull before the Super Bowl, the nation’s top quintets made a compelling case that there is no clear favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix on April 3rd. They did so not with their stellar play but by a run of losses to lesser foes which suggests that not a team among them can string together the necessary six victories under difficult conditions to win a title.

Last week, seven of the top 10 and fourteen of the top 25 lost once. Six of the top 25 lost twice.

No. 1 Villanova blew a 17- point lead and lost to unranked Marquette 74-72. Oregon, winner of 17 straight, was upended by lowly Colorado 74-65. No. 2 Kansas lost to West Virginia 85-69. After playing six straight games against ranked teams with a 5-1 record, Florida State lost back-to-back affairs to weak Georgia Tech and unranked Syracuse. Conference kingpins Kentucky and North Carolina lost on the road to Tennessee and Miami, respectively. Duke, the pre-season number one in the AP poll, has lost five games already, including at home to NC State for the first time since 1991.

If Marvin Gaye were alive, he’d wonder “What’s Goin’ On?” The answer is not a Lack of Lovin’, nor a deterioration in the quality of play. The top programs are getting more than their share of the one-and-dones, and there is no shortage of top talent to fill out the supporting roles. So why are the best teams losing so much?

A couple of changed conditions are at work. As a result of the realignment of the conferences into five super conferences containing up to fifteen teams, the regular season schedules in the Big Ten, ACC, Big Twelve, and Pac-12 have become minefields for upsets. Prior to expansion, Duke and North Carolina used to steamroller their way to lopsided regular season records in the ACC with home and aways against Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Clemson. Now, they must face the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh in a staggered schedule. Six of Carolina’s next eight games are against Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia , and Louisville, all top 25 residents.

West Virginia, which entered the Big 12 in 2012, has already inflicted losses on Kansas and Baylor. Maryland has made things difficult for everyone in the re-constituted Big Ten. In the new Big East, Creighton, Marquette, Xavier, and Butler are tough outs for Villanova, and for each other.

Secondly, liberalization of the transfer rules has made it easier for middle tier programs to reinforce their rosters with proven scorers. Big ticket freshmen often flame out, but there is little risk to recruiting a two or three year starter who wants to take his talents elsewhere. The one –year waiting period for undergraduate transfers remains, but players with remaining eligibility who have achieved their undergraduate degrees can transfer to another institution and play immediately.

The addition of a mature scorer to an team with a pressing need can transform a middling team to a good one, a good team to great. For example, Syracuse, hit hard by the surprise defection of freshman Malachi Richardson to the pros after a break-out 2016 post-season, recruited fifth year transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon for the 2016-2017 season. Between them, they scored 71 points in the Orangemen’s overtime win over NC State on Tuesday.

Another leading exponent of transfers is also the principal beneficiary of the carnage of losses which has afflicted the top 25. Quietly, rung by rung, Gonzaga has climbed from an opening rank of number 14 to its present position at the top of the charts. The Zags did it, not with a run of big victories, but by avoiding losses during their relatively soft non-conference schedule and decidedly soft West Coast Conference schedule.

Gonzaga is not all smoke and mirrors and a patsy schedule. At 23-0, including last night’s 85-75 disposal of Brigham Young, they’re the nation’s only undefeated team. They’ve won 16 straight by double digits, and convincingly beat tough Arizona on a neutral court. They’ve made the NCAA tournament for eighteen consecutive seasons, but suffer annually from a failure to be taken seriously. This is because they play in the weak WCC, and because they have not one Final Four appearance to show for all of their post-season appearances. More often than not they have been bounced from the Big Show early.

This year’s team is anchored by three transfers. Sharpshooter Jordan Mathews left California as a graduate transfer after three years of double-digit scoring for the Golden Bears. Johnathan Williams is a burly rebounder and interior scorer who played two years for Missouri. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was a star at Washington for two seasons before moving down the road to Spokane.

Williams-Goss is already the best yet hyphenated transfer, but if he continues to shine with his all-round game, he may become Gonzaga’s best player ever, John Stockton and Adam Morrison notwithstanding. He leads the team in scoring, rebounds, steals, and assists and exerts a Jason Kidd-like control over the game. Last week, against San Francisco, he became the fifth player in the last 20 years with 35 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and 80 percent shooting from the field in a game. Against BYU, he shot 12 of 18.

NWG driving against BYU

Williams-Goss leads a balanced attack. The first seven average between eight and fourteen ppg. Transfer Williams supplements a massive front line, featuring 7’ 1″ 300 lb. senior Przemek Karnowski and 7’ freshman Zach Collins, who averages 10.8 ppg in less than 20 minutes a game. Rounding out the backcourt with NWG are reliable returning lettermen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson.

Unlike their Power Five counterparts, Gonzaga does not face continuing regular season challenges. Only St. Mary’s on February 11th stands a ghost’s chance of stealing a victory from the Zags before NCAA play. If form holds, they will become only the fourth team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated in the last 25 years.

If form doesn’t hold, they could lose a regular season game. But if so, or if not, be prepared for another surprise – a long Zag run in the tournament.

Fed not Dead

A most welcome interlude from the onslaught of hoops and cacophony of Super Bowl talk was Roger Federer’s five-set victory over Rafael Nadal Sunday in the Australian Open. If you saw the match, you will never forget it.

Both Federer and Nadal were returning from long lay-offs. Federer, 35, was sidelined for six months after knee surgery. The leader in major victories at 17, Fed had not won a big one since 2012. Entering the tournament, he was seeded 17th. Furthermore, Nadal , winner of 14 majors, had Federer’s number. Federer had not beaten Nadal in a major in ten years, going 0-6 in the process.

The first four sets played according to form. There was one service break per set, and each proved decisive. Each player had registered 110 points after four sets. In the fifth set, all hell broke loose.

Nadal broke Federer in game 1. Federer failed to convert either of four break points in games 2 and 4 and entered the fifth set down 1-3. To survive, Federer needed to scale breakback mountain twice, a tall if not impossible task.

Federer held serve decisively in Game 5, and finally broke through on his sixth break point to make it 3-3. Three service aces propelled him to a 4-3 lead. Federer won the first three points on Nadal’s service in game 8 to set up three break points, but Nadal elegantly fought back to deuce. After a 26-hit rally to get to ad point. Federer scaled the mountain.

The wind at his back, Federer served for the match at 5-3. Nadal reached two break points, but finally faltered. Match point, decided on an appeal of a line call, was almost anti-climactic. But there was no shortage of jubilation to come.

With all permissible props to the wondrous Nadal, Federer’s victory at Melbourne, all things considered, qualifies as one of the very great individual sports triumphs of our time.

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The Longest Game

October 27th, 2016 sendarama Posted in baseball | No Comments »

I’m just getting back from Game 5.

Metaphorically, that is. In fact, I returned home from Nationals Stadium at 2:30 a.m. Friday, after the longest game in NL playoff history (4 hours, 32 minutes) ended in the Nats’ elimination from the baseball playoffs, and after a traffic jam, fueled by Metro’s refusal to extend service past midnight, had kept me stalled on Half Street for another hour.

But the game’s reach extended beyond 2:30 a.m. on Friday. My dreams that night were filled with pitching changes and double switches, and strike outs with men on third and less than one out. A week later, Game 5 still lingers.

Was this Game 5 loss worse than Game 5 of 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 early lead and a 2-run lead in the ninth? How did it compare with 2014 when manager Matt Williams’s bad choices cost them two games against an inferior opponent? In the aftermath, it felt like the worst of all.

Because they lost, again, Game 5 will reverberate far into the future, extending the Nats’ image as postseason underachievers and feeding into the notion that they lack playoff muster. Just too many failures at moments of truth. The Nats had Game 5 on their turf with their ace, 20-game winner Max Scherzer, ready to go. The Dodgers led with 36-year-old journeyman Rich Hill, the game 2 starter. Hill’s lifetime record over 10 seasons was 26-23. A year ago he was pitching for the Long Island Ducks. It was a game the Nats should win.

What happened?

Was manager Dusty Baker outdueled by Dodger skipper Dave Roberts? Absolutely. Roberts, in his first year as Dodger manager, conducted a bullpen management clinic. We should have known genius was at work when he lifted Hill after 2 2/3 innings when he was pitching well. He had fanned thirteen Nats in seven innings of work, primarily with a baffling curve ball which travels 73-74 mph and moves both sidewards and downwards. But Hill had been nicked for one run, and Roberts was leaving no room for another. Power righty Joe Blanton snuffed a Nats rally and pitched a clean fourth.

Then Roberts inserted 20-year-old starter Julio Urias to pitch the fourth and fifth. He defied convention when he inserted closer Kenley Jansen to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and into the ninth; and in a managerial coup de grace, he summoned stud starter Clayton Kershaw on one-day rest to get the final two outs with two men on in the ninth.

Conversely, Baker’s rapid removal of Scherzer after Joc Pederson homered to lead off the seventh had backfired. Baker used five pitchers after Scherzer in the seventh inning alone, setting a record for most pitchers used in an inning, and the Dodgers scored four times. The seventh inning lasted 66 minutes. In the course of the multiple mound changes, Baker made two double switches which cost him Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon at crunch time. The double switch is a convenient tool to push back the pitcher’s position in the batting order, but Baker overdid it. Suddenly Baker’s 0-9 record in playoff deciding games is no longer a mystifying stat.

But you can’t blame Baker for the outcome, not when he was such a huge upgrade all year long over Williams, and not when the Nats blew so many chances on the field. If there is a common denominator to the Nats’ postseason troubles, it has been their failure to make the most of scoring opportunities. And that’s what happened in Game 5.

The primary culprit was Jayson Werth. Because his arrival as a free agent in 2011 coincided with the Nats’ improvement as a team, and because of his monster game-winning home run in game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Werth has gotten a pass. He earns prime star money at $18 million a year, but his average stat line since joining the Nats is .270, 16 homers, and 60 RBIs. In the last two years, he has batted .221 and .244, respectively. He can be a black hole in the middle of the line-up when he is batting second or third.

Werth hit well during the first four games of the series but it was fools gold. In Game 5, he reverted to form. He struck out three times, twice with a runner on third and less than one out. With the Nats ahead 1-0, Trea Turner led off the third with a single to left. He promptly stole second. Then, after Bryce Harper’s medium drive to left center, Turner took off for third, narrowly edging Pederson’s laser-like throw with a head-first slide which originated at least fifteen feet from the bag. Safe. One out, Turner on third, Werth up.

Trea’s bold progression around the bases without a base hit was typical of his contribution. His arrival from the minor leagues in late July altered the Nats’ character and solidified their roster. He provided speed at the top of the order, solved the center field problem, and fortified the infield and outfield depth. He was Trea the Transformer. Derek Jeter on steroids.

Had the Nats advanced, Turner would have been the reason. Like Jeter, Turner is a tall, rangy shortstop by trade with a modicum of power. But he fields three positions, has the speed of a cheetah (22.7 mph at top speed), beats out infield grounders, and steals bases at will. His stats over 73 regular season games projected to .342 BA, 233 hits, 29 homers and 73 stolen bases for the full season.

So it was particularly important to this observer that Werth get the runner home — to reward Turner’s effort, and to manufacture a run in a playoff game where it might make the difference. Pre-Turner, the Nats squandered scoring opportunities. Now, through the devices of Turner, they were run creators.

But he’d need at least a minimal contribution from Werth to finish the job. “Just get the damn ball on the ground, and I’ll score,” Turner must have been thinking to himself.

But Werth struck out, and Turner was stranded on third. The importance of that second run cannot be discounted. Had the Nats led 2-0 when Pederson homered to lead off the seventh, perhaps Baker would have extended Scherzer’s leash and left him in the game. Werth continued his reign of error. In the sixth, after a walk, he was thrown out by a mile when he tried to score on Ryan Zimmerman’s double to the left corner; and he struck out in the seventh inning with one out and the tying run on third.

Werth’s problem is not just that he bats third and does not hit for average. His outs are predominantly strike outs, or feeble pop-ups to the right side. He is no more than adequate in the outfield. His lackadaisical approach to a flyball hit by Justin Turner in Game 4 cost the Nats a crucial run. He enters the final year of his contract in 2017.

The Nats should not wait until the end of his contract to reduce Werth’s role. Obtaining a right-hitting outfielder with pop should be high on GM Mike Rizzo’s wish list. In the task re-configuring the Nats from post-season failures to playoff victors, eliminating Jayson Werth will be an important first step.

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Pearl Everlasting

April 27th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro basketball | No Comments »

The tall dude with the pronounced paunch and an apparent case of the cocaine sniffles looked vaguely familiar, but it had been several years since I’d seen him dribble under duress, and he looked nothing like the whirling dervish of a point guard who went behind his back and through his legs as routinely as taking a breath. He entered the Big Wheel Bikes store in Georgetown in the summer of 1989 as a customer, not as an icon, and that’s how I figured it.

I’m looking for a bike, he mumbled. I showed him a few options, and then he left.

Two hours later, he came back and said he wanted the black Fuji Royale on the front display hook. He took out his American Express card for payment.

I read the name emblazoned on the front of the card and gulped. “Dwayne Washington,” it read. I looked up at my customer, peered down again at the card, snuck a final stare at Dwayne Washington’s features, and blurted out in astonishment, “Son of a bitch, you’re Pearl Washington.”

That’s right, said Pearl, but it was clear that he didn’t want to have a discussion about basketball.

I told him that I’d never forget his monster performance against Georgetown in the Big East conference tournament final in 1984, and he had trouble recalling the game. Knowing full well that he’d been cut by Miami just a few weeks earlier, and was obviously out of shape, I gingerly asked him what his plans were. He said that he was in DC for a short stretch to be with his girlfriend, and would be attending the Houston Rockets training camp in the fall.

I had the feeling that my efforts to buddy up to Pearl were not being reciprocated, so I gave up trying. I delivered the bike, and we bid our adieus.

When I heard of Pearl’s death last week of a brain tumor at age 52, I was touched, in part because of our brief encounter, in part for my affection for Syracuse, but principally because Pearl Washington was the most exciting college basketball player I’ve ever seen. With the ball in his hands, he was electrifying.

Pearl in mid-dribble

Pearl failed to hang on at Houston, and his descent continued with short stops with Rapid City and San Jose in the Continental Basketball Association, where spectators wondered aloud what had happened to Pearl Washington in a few short years.

It was posited that his ball-handling talents did not translate to the NBA, where 7-foot Goliaths guarded the lane, and his slowness afoot and lack of leaping ability were fatal drawbacks. And he had a problem controlling his weight. But you’d think that the best penetrating point guard in the history of college basketball could find a niche in the NBA among players he had trounced in college.

Pearl himself provided an insight during an interview in 2003 with the New York Times, “I had a God-given talent, and I was always ahead of everybody else in high school and in college. But when I got to the next level, guys were above me. So you have to decide — either you work hard enough to excel in the NBA, or ‘this ain’t for me anymore.’ I didn’t love it enough to really work hard at it anymore.”

To say Pearl’s NBA career was nondescript is to embellish it. Pearl was drafted with the 13th pick in the first round by New Jersey, a moribund franchise whose star point guard, Michael Ray Richardson, had been suspended by the NBA a few months before for cocaine use. He signed for three years and $900,000. En route to consecutive seasons of 24-58 and 19-63 during 1986-87 and 1987-88, the Nets were the pits of the NBA, drawing flies to their makeshift stadium in Hackensack, NJ, and playing in the perpetual shadow of the Knicks.

Pearl came off the bench, averaging about 20 minutes a game. He put up decent numbers, but Nets officials criticized him for being slow and unwilling to work at his game. And there was a bad environment in the locker room. Three Nets were suspended from the league for drug use between 1986 and 1988. When Pearl was left unprotected by the Nets after the 87-88 season, he was drafted by the expansion Miami Heat, who cut him in the spring of 1989. Three years out of college, he was out of the league.

If a lack of motivation and effort were to blame, can you fault the Pearl for not being inspired to succeed in the NBA? He had already blown away expectations at several levels. When he was an 8-year old in the playgrounds of Brooklyn, older players on the court compared his moves to Earl The Pearl Monroe, then a star with the Knicks who was famous for his herky-jerky spin moves and unorthodox shots. He didn’t just live up to the moniker — he usurped it.

The Two Pearls

As a high schooler at Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, he averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and was the most highly recruited player in the country. He put Syracuse on the map as a college basketball power and was “the most exciting player who ever played in the Big East and the most important player to our program,” said his coach, Jim Boeheim.

Pearl took ball-handling to a new dimension. He dribbled primarily with his left hand, but shot righty. He created the crossover, a side-to-side dribbling maneuver which freezes defenders at their knees, often causing them to fall backwards. “In the open court, or on the break, or steering through the lane, one on one, there’s nobody better,” wrote Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated during Pearl’s freshman season at Syracuse.

That’s what we’ll remember about the Pearl — his dashing, headlong, daring, and of course, penetrating, forays to the hoop, the Carrier Dome exploding as his lay-in somehow eludes Patrick Ewing’s fingertips, David slaying Goliath.

Even in repose, he’ll never stop being the Pearl. The NBA?…. that’s just a footnote.

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Ben Simmons Is Very Interesting

January 14th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

His handle is so good he’s neither right-handed nor left-handed.

He was the pre-season player of the year, a pre-season first team All-American, and the projected number one pick in the 2016 NBA draft without having stepped on a college court, and he’s exceeded expectations.

He doesn’t dribble. He glides. He’s Fred Astaire in sneakers.

His passes are so accurate they come stamped with a return receipt.

Magic compares himself to him.

He leads his team in points, rebounds, shooting percentage, assists, steals, and blocked shots.

He was born and raised in Australia, where his Bronx-born dad played professional basketball and married an Australian woman with four kids. Playing for Montverde Academy in Florida beginning with his sophomore year, he led his team to three consecutive high school national championships and won the Morgan Wootten Award as the McDonald’s All-American who best exemplifies outstanding character, leadership, and academics.

At 6’10”, 245 lbs, with the wing span of a pterodactyl, the hops of a kangaroo, and superior ball-handling skills, he can take it to the hoop at any time.

“One of the best ever to play,” said Antawn Jamison of the 19 year old.

He rarely shoots the three ball… He doesn’t have to.

In fact, he doesn’t shoot very much at all – but when he does, it’s with near 60% accuracy and more than a dash of the spectacular.

He’s Ben Simmons of LSU, the most interesting basketball player in the world.

Outside of the recruiting trail, where he is legend, Simmons may also be one of the more well kept secrets in the world. Ben’s identity, let alone his excellence, is far from common knowledge among the sports fan public, which continues to be mesmerized with pro football. The NFL trumps interest in college basketball until after the Super Bowl. And that’s not about to change.

Despite a series of public relations disasters which would have crippled a mid-size country, the NFL is more popular than ever, and has expanded its reach by partnering with fantasy gambling sites Fan Duel and Draft Kings. Early this season, the sites advertised shamelessly during NFL games. When New York State’s attorney general instituted a court case to shut down Fan Duel and Draft Kings in New York, they wisely curbed back on the obnoxious advertising; but the league succeeded in introducing millions to legal gambling on football.

The mix of fantasy site gambling with the NFL’s intoxicating game action has produced an excitement package strong enough to withstand the fall-out from the bad stuff, which, if you’re counting, includes a) rampant player misconduct; b) Deflategate; c) the spate of concussion lawsuits; d) steroid allegations; e) inconsistent rule interpretations which cloud our understanding of catches, fumbles, and touchdowns; f) too many penalties; g) the Redskin logo uproar; and h) the latest slap in the face, the Rams’ relocation from St.Louis to LA, which was characterized by Michael Powell of the New York Times as “a move consistent with the league’s tear-’em-up, toss-’em-out ethos.”

Two years of uninterrupted bad acts by the league and its players should have undermined the public’s confidence in the game. But revenues and ratings and fan interest have suffered not a lick from the league’s blunders and bad press. Deflategate?… Who cares? Peyton Manning on steroids? … The purveyor of the story, Al Jazeera, left town. A playoff run quickly extinguished the Redskins logo issue. Nothing stands in the way of the NFL. It’s bigger than US Steel.

Ben Simmons Finishes

But if ever there was a college basketball game, and a player, to break through the NFL haze prior to the Super Bowl, the game was the 3-overtime thriller between no.1 Kansas and no.2 Oklahoma on January 4th; and the player is Simmons, who has displayed his full portfolio of skills in leading the Bayou Bengals to a 3-1 start in the SEC, including last week’s decisive triumph over Kentucky and a home win over tough Ole Miss last night.

Kansas-Oklahoma had a lot of hype going in. Not only was it the first regular season meeting between a No 1 and No 2 team in the same conference since 2007 (Ohio St-Michigan), but the teams were reversed in the two major polls. The AP voted Kansas No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2; the Coaches Poll placed Oklahoma in the top rung and Kansas second. The conflict was understandable. The game could not have been more even.

After both teams had blown opportunities to win in regulation and both overtimes, Kansas survived 109-106. “We beat a team that could win a national championship,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. Oklahoma nearly did the same thing.

LSU is not in that category. After a weak non-conference performance, including three straight losses to lesser foes, the Tigers probably need to go 12-6 in the SEC to assure an NCAA berth. If not, then Simmons will probably lose out on player of the year honors to Buddy Hield of Oklahoma, Melo Trimble of Maryland, or Denzel Valentine of Michigan State, who play for top teams. Nor is Simmons a finished product. In a recent loss at Florida, he had seven turnovers in the second half, three of them on offensive fouls. Sometimes he tries to do too much, as when he passes up the mid-range jumper for a more difficult shot or pass.

As he gets used to what his teammates can and cannot do, and develops confidence in his jump shot, Simmons will iron out the few wrinkles in his game. His signature move leaves no room for improvement.

When Simmons rips the ball off the defensive board, and turns up court with a full head of steam, culminating with a dish to a trailing teammate for an easy lay-up or his own thunderous dunk, he indelibly brands himself as a once-in-a-generation player.

And that’s pretty interesting.

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Kristaps Puts Zing in Knicks

December 1st, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro basketball | 1 Comment »

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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