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Kristaps Porzingis: ‘I’m just playing ball . . . and having fun’

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis in the fourth quarter

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 5, 2017. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Kristaps Porzingis’ preseason goals of leading the Knicks to the playoffs, becoming an All-Star and winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards don’t seem as far-fetched now.

He hasn’t mentioned it, but MVP has been associated with his name, too.

Granted, only 11 percent of the season has been completed, but Porzingis has 100 percent of the NBA’s attention with his torrid start.

He scored a career-best 40 points in Sunday night’s comeback victory over Indiana, the Knicks’ fifth win in six games. He was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 33.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.25 blocks while leading the Knicks to a 3-1 mark.

He’s second in the league in scoring (30.2 points), third in blocks (2.2), first in usage rate (35.5) and fifth in Player Efficiency Rating (28.6). That metric measures a player’s effectiveness per minute. To put it in perspective, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis have higher PERs.

Porzingis’ 272 points are the most ever by a Knick through the team’s first nine games. He’s making an early case for the three individual honors he craves as well as MVP. He also has the upstart Knicks (5-4) playing inspired basketball and believing they can make an unexpected playoff run.

“He’s scratching the surface right now,” Courtney Lee said. “He’s still got a lot of room to improve, and that’s the scary thing about him. He’s having fun and he’s showing that he’s capable of doing it. He’s solidifying that he wants to be an All-Star and everybody on this team, we support that.

“We’re trying to make it easy on him and trying to help him as much as possible. But he’s doing some special stuff right now.”

Jeff Hornacek was asked if he’s surprised at what Porzingis has done. “Not anymore,” he replied.

The 7-3 Porzingis does something every game to raise eyebrows. He’s only 22, and this is his first time being the focal point of an NBA team, but he’s making it look easy, as if he’s done it before.

“I’m very comfortable,” Porzingis said of being the Knicks’ go-to guy.

Porzingis has many people to thank for that, but two of them no longer are with the Knicks — Carmelo Anthony and former president Phil Jackson.

During his first two seasons, Porzingis watched and learned from Anthony — how he handled the pressures of being the franchise player in the locker room and how he dealt with facing multiple defenses and still made shots or plays.

Jackson, who drafted Porzingis, helped motivate his former player in April when he said he didn’t think he was ready to carry a team. Porzingis put in extra work over the summer to prove Jackson wrong and show that he could be the NBA’s next big thing.

Porzingis indeed is carrying the Knicks. He led them from 19 points down with just under 14 minutes remaining Sunday, outscoring Indiana by himself, 24-17. In the Knicks’ five wins, he is averaging 35.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks and shooting 55.3 percent from the field.

Almost all of Porzingis’ stats are up from last season. He said it’s because he has the ball in his hands more and his offseason work prepared him for a bigger role.

“I’m getting more looks, I’m getting more opportunities to score and be the focal point of our offense, and that helps a lot,” he said. “But also it starts from practices, from training camp, just showing that I can be that guy and I can be aggressive and I need the ball and I can help the team.

“I’m happy that the things I worked on this summer and I got better at are showing now in the games.”

Porzingis has taken 7.3 more shots a game than last season’s average. He’s also more than doubling his free-throw attempts per game: 7.7 this year compared to 3.8 last season. He’s also shooting a better percentage from the field (50 compared to 45).

One number that’s down are his assists, but he had a huge one against Indiana when he was doubled during crunch time with the score tied. Instead of forcing the shot, Porzingis found rookie Frank Ntilikina, whose three-pointer with 1:33 to go gave the Knicks the lead for good.

“I’m just trying to make the right decision,” Porzingis said, “whether it’s me being aggressive and attacking or passing the ball at the end like I did to Frank.

“I’m just playing ball. I’m just having fun. I’m just visualizing a lot of stuff. I’m thinking pregame how they’re going to play the defense. If there’s a double-team coming, what am I doing and just visualizing a lot of stuff, how’s it going to happen. How physical they’re going to be with me. Just a lot of little details that I go into and try to think before it happens, and I think that’s helped me.”

New York Sports