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Kristaps Porzingis’ star burns brightly for Knicks

The young big man from Latvia has his dream come true as an NBA All-Star.

Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks reacts in the

Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks reacts in the first half against the Bulls at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Kristaps Porzingis received a FaceTime call in San Francisco on Tuesday from a very familiar face. The person most responsible for his basketball career called to tell him he had made his first NBA All-Star team.

The official word came from the NBA later that day, but Janis Porzingis wanted to share the news with his brother Kristaps first.

Janis has been the driving force behind Kristaps’ ascension from a scrawny big kid playing on youth teams in Leipaja, Latvia, to playing professionally as a teenager in Seville, Spain, to becoming the face of the Knicks and one of 24 players selected to the NBA All-Star Game.

“It’s special,” Janis said. “It’s a big honor to be in that group of players. Those are considered the best in this league and in the world. I think it’s a milestone. He feels like he belongs to something now. We all have worked around him. He has worked and we have worked around him to accomplish those things.

“We were very, very happy about it. It was a happy moment for us.”

A SENSE OF PRIDE

Kristaps, 22, said making the All-Star team was “a dream come true” and brought him a feeling of national pride. After speaking to Janis, Kristaps tweeted “Just a kid from Latvia” with a photo of himself.

Four Latvians have played in the NBA. Gundars Verta played 13 games with Minnesota in 1992-93. Center Andris Biedrins spent 10 seasons with the Warriors and Jazz before his NBA career ended in 2014. And 6-10 Davis Bertans currently is a backup on the Spurs.

The 7-3 Porzingis, who leads the Knicks in scoring (23.1) and the NBA in blocked shots (2.33), is the only one to become an All-Star.

Porzingis also felt a sense of pride that he finished third among Eastern Conference frontcourt players — ahead of 76ers center Joel Embiid, who will start in the Feb. 18 game in Los Angeles — in the players’ voting.

“Players know,” he said.

Porzingis realized his first dream of making it to the NBA in 2015. The Knicks took him with the No. 4 pick as boos and one crying kid inside the Barclays Center became the soundtrack and movie of that moment.

Porzingis quieted those boos and became friendly with the boy during a rookie season in which he averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. His play also made him believe he could be an All-Star.

“That’s when you start thinking, what am I going to be capable of doing in my career?” he said. “When I was 12 years old, if you think you’re going to be an All-Star — not just playing in the NBA, going to be an All-Star — you’re a pretty crazy kid, I would say.

“I’m just a kid from Latvia living a dream, playing in the NBA. I always want to stay hungry and I always want to keep growing and try to achieve the goals I set for myself. That’s my mindset. I want to go get it.”

But Porzingis said he would trade an All-Star berth for a playoff berth. The Knicks didn’t make it his first two seasons. Entering Saturday’s play they were 4 1⁄2 games out of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final spot.

“For sure. Definitely,” Porzingis said. “Team is always No. 1, no matter what. That playoff experience would be very important for me at this point in my career.”

NO SUMMER VACATION

Janis, who also is Kristaps’ agent, doesn’t think his brother was ready to be the focal point last season. He still was learning the NBA, still developing as a player.

During the offseason, it was apparent that Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t be back and that the Knicks would become Porzingis’ team. Everyone wondered if he was ready. Not Janis or Kristaps, though — not after his grueling workouts in Europe.

“The work he put in this summer was very, very impressive,” said Janis, who played professional basketball overseas.

Porzingis trained six days a week, two sessions a day.

The first session lasted three hours. He lifted weights to add some needed muscle and played basketball.

The second session featured work on the track and in the pool, boxing and sometimes more basketball. It lasted about two hours. In between, he would eat, sleep and recover.

Porzingis did this because he missed 26 games in his first two seasons. He wanted to build the strength and endurance to handle the NBA grind and improve his game overall. Playing for Latvia in the European Championships also prepared him for what lay ahead.

“I felt coming in, I would try to be the best player I can be,” Porzingis said. “It worked out that I had the opportunity to be that No. 1 option and I just had to be ready for the moment.”

He wasted no time showing he was ready. He set a Knicks record by scoring 300 points in the first 10 games.

“I think he was just way stronger, way more mentally prepared for that,” Janis said. “At some point you have some ups and downs because it’s 82 games. You’re going to get beat up.”

No one seems concerned about his drop-off in production. After averaging 26 points and shooting 46.4 percent in the first 23 games, Porzingis has averaged 19.9 points and shot 40.2 percent in the last 20.

Janis said “it’s unrealistic” to expect his brother to be able to read every defense so soon. It’s the first time he’s been the first name on opposing teams’ scouting reports. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said he is just scratching the surface.

“He’s been put in a lot of new scenarios in terms of being the guy that has to get us a bucket late in games, get us defensive stops, play bigger minutes,” Hornacek said. “All that stuff is experience, getting trained to be that.

“You can see the difference in KP from year one to now. He’s going to get better as the years go on. Three years from now, you won’t be asking these questions.”

PORZINGIS’ FUTURE

The general consensus is that it’s the first of many All-Star appearances for Porzingis. Janis expects big things from his kid brother because he’s seen how hard he works and knows his mentality. Janis believes Kristaps will be a real force on both sides of the floor by age 25.

“It’s going to take another two, three years to become what he’s supposed to become,” Janis said. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to be there. He has everything else. He has the skill. He has the mental toughness. People can’t get under his skin even though they try.

“Defensively, he’s going to be the anchor. There’s no question about it. Offensively, he’s going to be such a threat in scoring, you really have to pay attention to him.”

Porzingis wants to become that player in a Knicks uniform. He’s eligible to sign a maximum extension this summer. A Latvian magazine quoted Janis saying there’s no guarantee that Kristaps will sign, but Janis and Kristaps said something was lost in translation.

“He wants to be a Knick, no question about it,” Janis said. “He always wanted to be a Knick.”

ZINGER’S

STATS

23.1 Points

6.7 Rebounds

2.3 Blocks

1.2 Assists

43.7 FG percent

39.1 3-Pt. percent

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