With the tumultuous Carmelo Anthony era finally over, the future of the New York Knicks is now in the hands of a 22-year-old. A somewhat frightening proposition, though we should note Kristaps Porzingis isn’t just any 22-year-old.
The 7-foot-3 big man is coming off a season in which he averaged 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 three-pointers per contest, on respectable 45.0/35.7/78.6 shooting splits.
Over the course of his first two campaigns, Porzingis became the first player in league history to nail at least 175 threes and swat away 175 shots in fewer than 140 career games.
And if it weren’t for that Karl-Anthony Towns guy over in Minnesota, Porzingis would be the unquestioned top player to come out of the heralded 2015 NBA draft.
Overall, not a bad start for the Latvian unicorn.
Recently, Porzingis (sort of) made headlines for comments he made regarding his positional preference. In an era so hyper-focused on fast-paced, small-ball-centric offenses, where traditional small forwards play power forward, and traditional 4-men play down low, one would think the 7-footer would be fine playing the role of game-changing center.
However, the upcoming third-year player doesn’t quite agree with that assessment. Via the New York Daily News:
Porzingis would rather play power forward. And it has everything to do with defense. “I think it’s better for us,” Porzingis said Wednesday. “Me at the 4, especially if I’m playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the 5, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I’m just more comfortable playing at the 4.”
At first glance, his thoughts on the matter make sense.
On any given night, an Eastern Conference center has to go up against the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond or Tristan Thompson – insatiable bigs who chase every rebound like they’re starving hyenas who have spotted their next meal.
Considering Porzingis’ slight frame (he’s listed at a generous 240 pounds by the Knicks), and his relatively-innocuous-but-not-totally-ignorable injury troubles through two seasons, should head coach Jeff Hornacek want him banging with bigger bodies for a majority of his minutes?
Luckily, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue, as New York’s roster is legitimately littered with centers.
Not only do the Knicks return Joakim Noah, Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn from last year’s team, just to muddy up the big man rotation even further, they added another center through the Anthony trade in Enes Kanter.
It’ll be nearly impossible for Hornacek to find much time for Porzingis at the five, which, statistically, may not be such a bad thing.
According to NBAWowy, in 2016-17, the Latvian shot-blocker played around 454 minutes as the team’s center. In that time span, the Knicks posted a blazing 111.6 offensive rating, but were held back by allowing an absurd 114.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the worst defense in the league last year (belonging to the Los Angeles Lakers) allowed just 110.6 points per 100 possessions.
Part of the issue is that though Porzingis is an outstanding rim protector, he tries to block everything, which more often than not ends up getting him into foul trouble. His herky-jerky movements and overall lack of body control forced him to commit 3.7 personal fouls per night last season, the second-highest average in the league.
Issues with grabbiness aside, ultimately, it’s a matter of comfort for Porzingis. After this summer’s awkwardness between the star and New York’s now-departed president of basketball operations Phil Jackson, the Knicks should be doing whatever they can to appease the 22-year-old.
According to Basketball Reference, thus far in his burgeoning career, Porzingis has spent 75 percent of his time on the floor at power forward. Odds are, with the way the roster is constructed, that number will shoot up to the 90 percent range in 2017-18.
Though it may be bucking the modern NBA trend that says smaller is better, the Knicks do have a couple of interesting bigs to pair with Porzingis in their frontcourt.
Over the final 20 games of last season, Hernangomez showed major promise. The Spaniard averaged 11.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per contest in that time frame – consistently finishing plays at the rim with deft touch.
Along with Hernangomez, Kanter is another traditional big who warrants an extended look this season. The former Oklahoma City Thunder big merits long-term consideration not just because he is owed another $36.5 million on his deal, but also due to the fact that he’s coming off back-to-back quietly effective campaigns.
Though a liability on the less glamorous side of the ball (can’t forget his old head coach Billy Donovan famously muttering can’t play Kanter during the 2017 playoffs after the big man gave up an easy pick-and-roll alley-oop), he’s deadly effective as a scorer.
The inside-out potential between him and Porzingis could eventually become a terrifying reality if either guy figures out how to pass the ball. In 2,164 minutes last season, Porzingis dished out only 97 assists, while Kanter handed out merely 67 helpers in 1,533 minutes.
But keeping in mind the Latvian stretch-4’s freakish abilities as a finisher, the onus to become a better distributor has to fall on the new guy. Via NBA Math play-type profiles, in 2016-17, Porzingis added 17.3 points of value as a cutter – the 10th-highest total among traditional big men.
When someone standing 7-foot-3 can finish plays as explosively as this near the basket…
… you need to find creative ways to feed him the ball as much as possible – even if that means forcing a center with 269 career assists in 9,479 minutes to dish the rock more frequently.
At the end of the day, roster construct and personal preference will make Porzingis New York’s power forward this season.
Perhaps if he cuts down on the fouls and continues to mature physically, he can eventually shift one spot up on the positional scale. But that day won’t come in 2017-18.
For now, the Knicks just need to make him comfortable as the team’s top honcho, and hope he can take the next step with the expanded role he’s set to receive.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.