Charles Barkley is like everyone else in basketball these days — impressed with Kristaps Porzingis and eager to see the rookie phenom perform in the flesh.
Late Thursday night, the TNT analyst will get his chance when he joins Marv Albert and Chris Webber in Sacramento for the Knicks’ visit to the Kings.
It will be only the second time this season Barkley has worked a game on-site rather than in the studio, just in time to see what all the fuss has been about.
“The kid is unbelievable; I’m looking forward to seeing him play in person,” Barkley said in a phone interview. He declared Porzingis the NBA Rookie of the Year to this point. “He has obviously surprised me.”
Barkley is not surprised by the Knicks’ competitiveness. He guaranteed they would make the playoffs during a preseason call with reporters and reiterated that Tuesday, saying they now have “legitimate NBA players” on the floor.
But he did not foresee the 20-year-old Latvian being this big a part of it.
“I think it’s completely out of leftfield,” Barkley said. “But the thing I like about him, I think he is not given enough credit for his mental toughness. The way he got booed on draft night can really shake a kid up. That really impressed me.
“First of all, he probably hadn’t been in this country that long, if ever, then to get booed like he did on draft night.”
Barkley said Porzingis will help the Knicks’ established star, Carmelo Anthony, and vice versa.
“The better players you play with the easier the game is,” he said. “You also have to take your hat off to Carmelo, because he’s really tried to play within the system.”
The fit between Porzingis and Anthony already looks superior to that of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
“This is much better because Porzingis gives him a lot of space to work with,” Barkley said. “This is a much better match to Carmelo. You have to play this kid out in three-point land, so that opens the floor up for Carmelo.”
Barkley was on the same island as Porzingis Monday, but he was not at the Garden. Rather, he was visiting the United Nations for the first time, where he was given a lifetime achievement award by Auburn’s College of Human Sciences.
“It was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me in my life,” he said, adding it was a special honor to be recognized at the event alongside the U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.
If Sacramento seems a less-than-glamorous road trip for a personality of Barkley’s magnitude, it turns out he chose that game with a purpose. He is a benefactor of a school there for homeless children called Mustard Seed and he tries to visit periodically. (He won $67,633 for the school on a celebrity edition of “The Price is Right” in 2013.)
Barkley also said he “loves” the Kings’ antiquated but intimate Sleep Train Arena, which is scheduled to be replaced in time for the 2016-17 season.
While Barkley is more optimistic about the Knicks than usual, he has a dire outlook on their Brooklyn counterparts.
“It’s going to be a long time, because they don’t even have their draft picks,” Barkley said of the Nets. “I feel bad because I like [GM] Billy King a lot. But they’re in serious trouble right now.”
He was not a fan of the 2013 trade that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from Boston.
“The Celtics are not going to trade guys who have anything left in their own division,” Barkley said. “You would never trade guys in your own division. That’s crazy.”