Kristaps Porzingis’ smile is big and wide as he thinks about his rookie season and the way he silenced so many who thought he was a long-term project based on his appearance.
“I loved it,” he said. “I loved it. When nobody expects anything from you and you can actually play, that’s like revenge. That’s like a really good feeling. I knew sooner or later that I was going to prove that I can play. I just didn’t know when. But right from the beginning, I was able to play and show what I’m capable of. I’m happy I had the rookie year I had.”
During the offseason, the Knicks brought in playoff-tested veterans to give Carmelo Anthony more help in hopes of ending a three-year postseason drought. Por zingis, however, is the present and the future of the Knicks. Eventually, they’ll have to start putting pieces around the 7-3 Latvian with the growing game.
Porzingis averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.86 blocks last season and was unanimously voted to the NBA All-Rookie first team. A playoff appearance was the only thing missing. He likes the Knicks’ chances of making it this season and looks forward to the different challenges he faces.
“The expectations are raised much more than they were last year,” Porzingis said. “There were no expectations last year, so it was easy for me. But this year, there’s more pressure because we have a better team and everybody wants to see us win, so the expectations have grown for me as well.
“I like playing under pressure. I like being in New York. I like the attention. I think this season will be a better season for me.”
Porzingis, 21, seems much more comfortable and confident as he starts his second season. He was the Knicks’ best player in the preseason.
He didn’t take much time off from basketball during the offseason because he wanted to make sure he returned with some new features to his game.
With his brother Janis pushing him, Porzingis added some muscle and improved his post game, his shooting and his ballhandling.
Despite his size, he was a point guard when he was younger. He might surprise you with a move that guards Tim Hardaway, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Jamal Crawford mastered.
“I’ve been trying to work on my crossover,” Porzingis said. “I think a 7-3 guy with a crossover — that would be pretty sweet.”
Porzingis, the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, is trying to become undefendable. Last season, some teams used much smaller players on him. They would frustrate him with their quickness or by putting most of their weight on Porzingis’ legs. To counter that, he strengthened his lower body and worked on his turnaround jumper. “Once I get the ball, nobody can reach my shot,” he said. “Just turn around and just shoot over those guys. That’s easy.”
The next thing Porzingis wants to add is a signature move. He hopes to pick one up from a future Hall of Famer.
Learning from Dirk
Porzingis is most often compared with Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki. They’re both tall Europeans and great shooters. Porzingis is more athletic and runs the floor better, though.
Nowitzki, who made the one-legged step-back jumper his go-to shot, and Porzingis plan to train together after this season. Porzingis can’t wait.
“Hopefully next summer, I’ll get a chance to work with Dirk and maybe I can learn from him, take a move from him,” Porzingis said. “We tried to do it this summer. It didn’t work out.”
First-year Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek thinks spending time with Nowitzki and emulating him would be a good move.
“We’re hoping that KP can get to that point where we can put him at that elbow and just ride him the whole game,” Hornacek said. “That’s a great guy for him to compare himself to and say, ‘Hey, I can learn from that guy.’ ”
Future face of the franchise
The Knicks underwent a major facelift, adding Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. It’s still Anthony’s team, but the perennial All-Star knows it will be Porzingis’ team in the near future.
“Yeah,” Anthony said, “of course.”
The Knicks want to give Porzingis the room to grow into being a franchise player and understanding what it takes to carry a team. There are some who believe it should happen sooner rather than later.
Porzingis said he thinks about it a little bit. He’s been studying how Anthony approaches each practice and each game and how he responds to double-teams and scrutiny.
“That’s why I love to learn from Melo and be around him and see how he carries himself, the stuff he does on and off the court,” Porzingis said. “That’s how a real leader is supposed to be, that’s how the main person of the team needs to be. If I keep working hard, then I’m going to have the chance to be that guy in a few years.”
Last season, Anthony noticed that Porzingis had unique skills and tried being somewhat of a big brother to him. Now Anthony believes everyone should leave Porzingis alone and let him develop.
“We put too much pressure on him to be great so fast,” he said. “I just want him to have the opportunity to grow as a player.”
But Anthony believes Por zingis is “going to have a great year,” especially playing off of him and Rose. But there will be a shift at some point, and there’s little doubt the offense will run through Por zingis at times this season.
Hornacek plans to use Porzingis in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations, is encouraging him to take pull-up three-pointers in transition and wants him to take advantage of his size by playing in the post.
Porzingis also can wreak havoc on defense with his size and length. Hornacek believes he will keep growing as a player because he’s mature, poised and wants to be great.
“That’s when your eyes light up as a coach,” Hornacek said. “There’s a lot of guys that have talent. Which are the guys who stand out? The guys that have the talent and they work hard because you know they’re going to get better. You see that in him.
“He could become one of the top players in the league. There’s not many guys in the league like him.”
Winning matters most
Porzingis’ individual goals: becoming an All-Star and the first player since David Robinson in 1994 to have a quadruple-double of points, rebounds, assists and blocks. But team success comes first.
“I believe that whenever you’re winning and whenever you’re doing the right thing, your stats will be fine and everything else will come into place,” Porzingis said. “The only thing I focus on is just winning. Once you win, everybody remembers a winner.”