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Knicks cautious with improving Kristaps Porzingis but hope he still will draw a star free agent

New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis looks on

New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis looks on from the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the Knicks travel to London for a four-night visit — crossing the Atlantic Ocean to face the Washington Wizards, a team usually an Amtrak ride away — they almost certainly will leave their biggest European draw, Kristaps Porzingis, back home.

But putting Porzingis on display for the British crowds is not nearly as important as the real showcase they hope isn’t far off. Knicks coach David Fizdale said he has seen Porzingis on the court working with assistant coach Kaleb Canales, and what he’s seen portends well for using the rehabilitating star as a drawing card for potential free agents.

Porzingis hasn’t played in a game since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Feb. 6, 2018, and he won’t play in a game for a while; the Knicks plan a re-evaluation in mid-February.

But Fizdale said that what he’s seen looks like the player who was poised to serve as the face of the franchise — and maybe even better.

“I don’t see a drop,” he said. “That I don’t see. I haven’t seen him move in a way that makes me go “uh-oh.” I think we’re going about it the right way. His body looks great. He looks strong, he’s defined. It’s just a matter of time, and when we get him, we’ll be happy.”

The Knicks’ player development and rebuilding plan for this season looked good on paper. First, sacrifice wins right now. Mission accomplished with a 10-32 record. No matter how many times they say they want to win every game, they clearly have prioritized the future by benching win-now players. They have watched their latest first-round lottery pick, Kevin Knox, begin to show hints of what he can become and are positioning themselves to be near the top of the next NBA Draft. Porzingis has been kept out of action, and when he’s healed in full, he might be teamed with a star free-agent acquisition next season.

But part of the problem is it’s hard to sell someone on playing with Porzingis when no one quite knows what to expect from him.

Knicks president Steve Mills detailed the process last month and said at the time that he already was seeing Porzingis shooting pull-up three-pointers and dunking. Fizdale said it’s still the same workload now, but mostly out of caution.

“We’re still being cautious, I would say,” he said. “But at the same time, just pushing, getting to the next level, jumping and moving, his strides and all of that stuff. Today I walked by and just put my hand up [hiding his eyes], because it’s just for me, it’s like, I can’t even say what it is.

“God, I’ve got this 7-foot beast here, so I’ll literally be like this,” he said, shielding his eyes again. “He started laughing. He said, ‘Don’t look, Coach. Don’t look.’ But he’s progressing, and I think he’s in a really good place right now.”

That place is the Knicks’ practice site in Westchester County rather than accompanying the team to London.

“Right now I think we’re leaning toward keeping him back because of the distance of the trip,” Fizdale said. “We talked to him [Friday]. I got to spend some time with him, which was nice. And he’s in a really, a great groove right now with his workouts and his development. He was on the court today with one of the coaches. So we’re leaning toward most likely keeping him back.

“I don’t even weigh all of that stuff into it,” Fizdale said of Porzingis’ European popularity. “I’m just thinking more about what’s best for his leg and getting him back on the court, nothing jeopardizing where he’s at. Obviously, he misses playing. That part has been hard. But he’s starting to get stronger so he’s feeling better and he seems to be in a really good place.”

Workout partner

Fizdale said Porzingis’ connection with Canales is not just basketball.

“You know, they got that Spanish thing going,” Fizdale said. “I think they’re talking [trash] about me half the time. I don’t understand what they’re talking about. He’s listening to Spanish rap while the workout’s going on. They’re the only two guys who know what they’re talking about, so it’s pretty cool that they’re forming a good relationship.”

Back in time

When LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 points for the Spurs in a 154-147 double-overtime win over the Thunder on Thursday, it marked the highest point total for a player without a three-point attempt since Shaquille O’Neal scored 61 on March 6, 2000. For context of how things have changed, after Thursday’s game, James Harden is leading the NBA with 187 three-pointers made. In the 1999-2000 season, Gary Payton led with 177 made in the entire season.

Road weary

The Knicks just completed a 15-day road trip and returned home for only five nights and two games before departing for London, where they will spend four nights.

“I like it. It’s good for them,” Fizdale said. “I just see it all as experience. Everything’s experience for this group. Right before we went out West, we played nine in 16 days, which was a beast, and they had to battle through that. And then obviously you go out West and you play those teams who are all so talented and so good. And now you get two games at home against two really good teams and now you've got to head out to Europe. I just like the idea of them having this, that they can’t relax mentally and it’s always a challenge for them. It’s constantly making them uncomfortable and just pushing them to a place where they have to adapt.”

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