When the New York Knicks fans at Barclays Center heard the name Kristaps Porzingis announced as the team’s draft pick, the 7-foot-4 Latvian unicorn was greeted to a chorus of boos. Probably because (a.) Porzingis is foreign and, at the time, was unknown to swaths of fans, (b.) New Yorkers can be rude or (c.) all of the above. So the fans booed him, this one kid even cried.
It wasn’t long until the jeers turned to cheers. New York won its first game of the 2015 season, beating the Milwaukee Bucks by 25 points. Porzingis, who finished with 16 points, 5 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block in 24 minutes was a big part of that win.
In the ensuing games, he captured the imagination of Knicks fans. His putback dunks ignited the fanbase, his bulging box scores provided hope, his status as the Latvian Gangster inspired rap videos. The Knicks won just 32 games, but Porzingis finished second in Rookie of the Year voting behind fellow unicorn Karl-Anthony Towns. The future of the Knicks had arrived.
Just as quickly as the future arrived, some people were ready to jettison the present, suggesting, nay, demanding that the Knicks trade Carmelo Anthony. Build around Porzingis they said. You’re suffocating him they said. After adding veterans like Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose this offseason, New Yorkers palmed their collective, pizza-sauced faces.
Concerns aside, the Knicks are off to a strong start and in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Porzingis is leaning on a veteran locker room, and the Knicks have won six of seven games decided by four points or less.
“I think the experience the starting five has [helps us win close games]. Except me, I’m the young one,” Porzingis said after one such win against the Sacramento Kings in December. “But the guys knocking down free throws at the end of the game and making big plays, I think that’s what separates us at the end and we’re able to win those games.”
That doesn’t sound like someone who is eager for his teammates to be traded away. It doesn’t sound like a player who selfishly wants the spotlight, or who is feeling suffocated by the set-in-their-ways veterans around him. Porzingis struggled with his shot in that Sacramento game, missing 13 of his 19 shots, including making just one of five 3-point attempts. Anthony, meanwhile, scored 33 points on 22 shots.
“Carmelo, you know if you have a night off, he’s got your back and we try to do the same for him, but there are few nights that he doesn’t show up,” Porzingis said. “He’s always out there, he’s always making plays for us, shooting the ball well. And that’s Melo, you know, that’s him.”
Anthony has not been an MVP candidate or even having one his stronger seasons, but the 21-year-old Porzingis relies on him. The entire locker room, really.
Let me take you into that locker room. The visitor’s one after the Kings game. The Knicks at that point were kicking off a five-game road trip, and they started it with a win.
When I walked in, with the rest of the media scrum, Noah was screaming from near the trainer’s table. Not in anger, not in pain but, like, he was hype. Anthony was being stretched out on the table, cracking up at the jokes Noah was telling. He was shaking his head and saying really observational things like “this muthaf**** crazy.”
Rose, in street clothes because he sat the game out with an injury, watched in amusement void of surprise. After all, he knows Noah from their days in Chicago. You can imagine this scene played out tens, if not hundreds, of times with the Bulls.
As Porzingis got ready to talk with us, Courtney Lee, a 31-year-old journeyman the Knicks signed this offseason, sat alone on one side of the locker room. Not isolated, but because that’s where his locker was. He was sort of taking everything in. I could hear someone singing in the shower, too. I think it was Kyle O’Quinn. It actually wasn’t bad.
Porzingis spoke, then Noah. Some reporters talked with other players at their lockers. Others huddled in a circle in the middle of the room, laughing at the lively surroundings. Anthony, taking his sweet-ass time, was last to speak with the media and had yet to come out.
The default caretaker, Lee, was yelling across the room “bus leaves at 10:45!” Under his breath, a public relations guy muttered “it was supposed to be 10:30, actually.” Time flies when you’re having fun.
When Anthony was asked by one Bay Area reporter about the vibe, he said “it’s maybe your first time seeing this, but this is every day.”
“This is what we go through every day. We try to keep it light in the locker room. When it’s time to lock in, it’s time to lock in, but for the most part this is us,” Anthony said. “Guys are loud in the locker room, some guys are louder than others (he laughs here, clearly taking a friendly jab at Noah, who is still yelling about whatever) and that’s just who we are.”
Noah, ever the grizzled veteran, turned the same question into a teaching moment coach-speaking coaches would be proud of.
“Yeah, winning, it always feels good,” Noah said. “We feel good about getting a ‘W’ here, but we know we can play better and it’s just on to the next one.”
Jeff Hornacek is in his first year as head coach of the Knicks but has more than 200 games under his belt as coach of the Phoenix Suns. His arrival, along with the veterans, has made a noticeable difference. They can do veteran player things now like “get after it.”
“Sometimes when you have veteran guys they know how to lock down in these games when they are close,” Hornacek said. “They’re veteran guys that get after it. They have a confidence going in and we just try to keep reiterating in timeouts saying ‘hey any close games we’re going to win.’ They don’t get panicked, they take their time and make plays.”
It’s safe to say the Knicks wouldn’t be as confident without those veterans, and certainly not if they traded Anthony, who seems poised to make his 12th All-Star team. Even before the Kings game, Porzingis had been struggling. In the four games previous, he had made just 19 of his 61 shots. 31 percent. The Knicks went 3-1 in those games, their only loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Those struggles continued versus the Kings, but New York still managed the win. After the game, Anthony, a veteran shooter himself, was asked if he was offering Porzingis any advice.
“I mean it happens,” Anthony said. “Kind of let it come to you, we got to do a better job of helping him kinda get through it. I mean, missing shots, it happens to everybody. What he’s doing on the defensive end and rebounding and blocking shots is something that’s going to carry us.”
While the critic’s spotlight has been on guys like Andrew Wiggins, Towns, DeMarcus Cousins and will surely focus on Ben Simmons when he returns from injury, it’s skipped right by Porzingis. He’s afforded the luxury to “just relax”– as Anthony tells him when he’s struggling — because he has teammates he can lean on. Teammates like Anthony and Rose demand attention themselves, from opponents and media.
In his next game, Porzingis made 8 of 15 shots for 26 points in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. In the game after that, he scored 34 points on 12 of 23 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks in an overtime loss to the Suns. It was New York’s first loss in a game decided by four points or less all season.
No one rushed the San Antonio Spurs to rebuild around Kawhi Leonard. The Heat, after drafting Dwyane Wade, didn’t double down on young players. They traded for Shaquille O’Neal. Guys like Leonard and Wade benefited from veteran teammates, and won titles early on in their careers. Now, the Knicks probably won’t be winning a title while the Cavaliers dominate the East, but they are winning.
More importantly, Porzingis is being allowed to develop at his natural pace. His numbers for attempts, field goal percentage, 3-pointers, rebounds and points are all up. He is functioning as a member of a big three with Anthony and Rose, with the third-highest usage rating and the most Wins Over Replacement Player on the Knicks.
Porzingis doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of winning the way Towns does, or bare the full spotlight onto himself. He is cocooned and, when the time is right, will become the sole face of the Knicks. That time just isn’t now.