GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Kristaps Porzingis was in Europe when he saw reports that the Knicks were working out Lauri Markkanen before last June’s draft. The jump-shooting 7-footer was being touted as Porzingis’ replacement if former Knicks president Phil Jackson traded him.
Porzingis laughed when he was asked about it. “I read it on Twitter,” he said after Friday’s practice. “It was pretty funny. Maybe it was the plan. It didn’t go that way, but I’m happy I’m still here.”
The Knicks are, too, as Porzingis has matured very quickly into the team’s focal point and franchise player this season. But Markkanen is off to an impressive start to his rookie year with the Bulls. Drafted No. 7 overall, he entered Friday night leading Chicago in rebounding (7.9) and was second in scoring (14.3 points), just behind former Knick Justin Holiday.
Porzingis, who said Markkanen is “more NBA-ready” than he was as a rookie, will face the former Arizona forward Saturday night in Chicago, and a win would help the Knicks’ chances of getting a better draft pick.
In the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Knicks acquired the Bulls’ 2018 second-round pick from Oklahoma City. Chicago has the NBA’s worst record at 4-20. If the Bulls finish last, the Knicks will have the first pick of the second round.
For the Knicks, it’s the start of a back-to-back against the two worst teams in the league. Atlanta (5-19) visits the Garden on Sunday night.
Porzingis, who returned Wednesday from a sprained right ankle, said he plans to play in both games. “I definitely want to play,” he said. “Especially now, I’ve been out four or five days. I didn’t do anything and guys are playing. I’m looking forward to this back-to-back.”
Porzingis has missed either one or both games in the Knicks’ last three back-to-backs. In the one set in which he played both games — Oct. 29 and 30 at Cleveland and vs. Denver — he averaged 35 points and the Knicks won both games.
After logging 34 minutes Wednesday against Memphis, Porzingis said he didn’t have any pain or swelling the next morning.“It felt really good, actually,” he said. “I was surprised. I thought it was going to be a little stiff in the morning. I woke up and it was feeling really good. During the game, I didn’t even realize I was coming back from my injury. The day after also, it felt good. There are no concerns.’’
That’s a positive sign for a team that’s going to be without its second-leading scorer for at least another six games. Tim Hardaway Jr. is being treated for a stress injury in his left leg.
Hardaway, who sat behind the bench Wednesday in a long walking boot, sat and watched practice in his sneakers. He didn’t appear to be limping when he walked off the court. The Knicks said Tuesday that Hardaway will be re-evaluated in two weeks. He traveled with the team to Chicago.
In his absence, the Knicks are asking Courtney Lee to be more aggressive and look for his shot more. Lee had one of his best games of the season Wednesday, sparking the Knicks on both ends and scoring 24 points.
“I think C-Lee is doing a great job offensively, being more involved, just playing for the team,” Porzingis said. “Obviously, every night he’s bringing it on the defensive end. For me, he deserves to be on the All-NBA Defensive Team. If he can keep doing what he’s doing, what he’s doing on the offensive side, too, that’s big-time for us. I really love how C-Lee is playing.”
Notes & quotes: Former BullJoakim Noah declined to talk to reporters after practice. Noah, who was suspended for the last eight games of last season and the first 12 games of this season for violating the terms of the NBA’s anti-drug policy, has been active only three times. He has appeared in two games.
Sometimes players fare well when they face their former teams, but Hornacek didn’t indicate Noah will play Saturday. “Not necessarily,” he said. “He’s been back [to Chicago] last year. Usually, I’ve been on a few different teams, the first time, yes. After that, it becomes just another game.”