PHOENIX — Kurt Rambis has been critical of Kristaps Porzingis, but has balanced some tough love with unwavering confidence that the rookie will be a great player.
It’s clear, however, that Porzingis isn’t the same player he was earlier in the season, the one that earned team president Phil Jackson praise for picking the perceived project fourth overall in the draft.
The put-back dunks that made top-10 highlights and caught everyone’s attention early in the season have been few and far between for the 7-3 rookie lately. So have wins for the Knicks.
Porzingis is still putting up decent numbers, but they haven’t been as impactful amid the Knicks’ slide. That and some recent ailments have taken a toll on the 20-year-old Latvian
He returned Tuesday in Denver from a one-game absence because of a contused left lower leg, and looked like he could have used another night off. Porzingis had no impact, finishing with six points and five rebounds in a 16-point Knicks’ loss. But he didn’t blame it on the leg, or being tired from playing more games and minutes than he ever has.
“Bad games happen,” Porzingis said. “Two, three games later I have a great game; it’s just ups and downs and especially my rookie season. It’s all a learning experience. I try to find that consistency where I can play at the same level. I’m not there yet. But I’m learning.
“This is another game to learn from. There are tough moments in the season. I’m mentally prepared for it. I just have to be able to push myself through all those games.”
Porzingis, who is averaging 13.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, had an opportunity to bounce back Wednesday against the Suns, as did the Knicks.
After the Denver loss, Rambis criticized the Knicks for not following the game plan and Porzingis for forcing his shot too much. He was 3-for-11 from the field against Denver.
“Sometimes he gets a little too eager looking for his shot. He’s got to be more patient, allow things to come to him,” Rambis said. “I understand his frustration. He’s a very talented offensive player. And we’ve got to do a better job as a team of making sure that he’s involved more. But he still can’t go off on his own looking for his own shot.”
The interim coach added that it wasn’t only Porzingis doing it. The Knicks collectively haven’t done many things right in recent weeks, with losses in 17 of their last 21 games before last night.
But Rambis believes these experiences will help Porzingis. Rambis wants to see him in the post more and be more active defensively. He knows how impactful Porzingis can be, and will be, even if he’s hit a rough patch as he and the Knicks limp to the end of the season.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Rambis said. “He’s still 20 years old. He’s got a lot to learn and my mindset’s not going to change about him. He’s going to be great. There’s just no doubt in my mind. But if we thought it was all going to happen this season and he was going to be perfect and not make mistakes and do everything right and he was going to solve all the mysteries of basketball this year, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Porzingis busted out of the gates, and was putting up double-doubles on a regular basis. His last one was Feb. 7, which happened to be Derek Fisher’s last game as Knicks coach. Under Rambis, the Knicks are utilizing Robin Lopez more, and he’s had some big scoring and rebounding games.
Under Fisher, Porzingis averaged 7.7 rebounds and had 18 double-doubles. He’s grabbing 5.0 rebounds a game since Rambis took over. Porzingis said it’s because teams are focusing on him and opposing players have raised their play, but he knows he has to do the same.
“I have to find a rhythm starting with defense, starting with rebounds and then the offensive game will come,” Porzingis said. “Sometimes I try to force it because I want to be aggressive, I want to score points. I should let the game come to me and should start with defense and rebounds and block shots.”