Kristaps Porzingis has made “the leap.”
The Knicks’ cornerstone eclipsed the 30-point mark in seven of the team’s first nine games on his way to averaging 30.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
He’s doing it simply by doing more of everything. Porzingis’ spike in aggressiveness in 2017 is glaring to anyone watching — seven more shots a game in the same amount of minutes per game. His usage percentage, a stat that measures the percentage of possessions that a player shoots or turns the ball over, has jumped from 24.3 percent to 35.8 percent.
Nine games into this season, alpha Porzingis passes the eye test also. In lieu of swinging the ball around the perimeter to a slew of players who aren’t ready to shoot, he’s using his height to shoot over double teams before the defense can get set.
A good chunk of this aggressiveness comes from the fact that Carmelo Anthony is no longer around. Anthony had a usage percentage of almost 30 percent and led the team in shots by a wide margin in Porzingis’ first two seasons.
With Anthony gone, it was to be expected that Porzingis’ shot totals would jump. But, the difference is even more stark when it comes to getting to the free-throw line. Porzingis’ free-throw attempts per game have doubled since last year, up to 7.7 from 3.8.
For a 7-3 forward, 3.8 free-throw attempts per game was simply not enough. But, Porzingis has taken the keys to the offense and used them to attack the rim with much more frequency. The team as a whole is taking just one more free throw per game, but Porzingis is taking almost four more (and hitting them at an 82.6 percent rate). He’s absorbed nearly all of Anthony’s 4.9 attempts per game from last year.
“Now, I’m getting more looks, I’m getting more opportunities to score and be the focal point of our offense, and that helps a lot,” Porzingis said. “But also it starts from practices, from training camp, just showing that I can be that guy and I can be aggressive and I need the ball and I can help the team.”
Porzingis also is getting the Knicks’ superstar calls. Say what you want about basketball refereeing, but one thing is certain: Superstars get calls. There are 30 teams in the NBA. In the 2016-2017 season, 16 of those teams were led in free-throw attempts by their highest-paid player, and 24 of them were led in free-throw attempts by their highest-scoring player. Porzingis isn’t even close to the Knicks’ highest-paid player, but he leads the team in scoring by 14 points. It’s been made clear that this is his team now.
Through Sunday’s games, Porzingis is tied with Golden State’s Stephen Curry for ninth in the NBA with 69 free throws. Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins leads the NBA with 91 free throws.
On Oct. 24, after the Knicks’ 110-89 loss against the Celtics, Porzingis talked about how he wanted more whistles on what he felt like was contact on shot attempts. “It’s hard for a lot of defenders to block my shot actually,” Porzingis said. “I’m trying to tell the referees all those little contacts on my elbow, some on my arm, it’s bothering my shot and it shouldn’t be allowed.”
Following those comments, he attempted three, five, six and five free throws in the team’s next four games. But, in his 2017 cat-and-mouse game with the refs, he earned a career-high 13 trips to the line last Friday in a win over Phoenix.
During the broadcast on Sunday night, a game in which Porzingis scored a career-high 40 points on 15-for-24 shooting and 8-for-9 from the free-throw line, Knicks commentator Walt Frazier noted that Porzingis has been nagging the refs more than in years past. “Reminds you of last year with Melo,” Frazier said.
It reminds you of last year because in 2016, Anthony was the superstar. He could badger the refs and get away with it, because for the most part, he was the only one asking for superstar calls. In 2017, that’s different. In 2017, Porzingis is the superstar and he’s showing it.