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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Jose Calderon: Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis on fast track

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks reacts

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks reacts after a basket in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Jose Calderon has played with the best European-born NBA players, and he thinks Kristaps Porzingis is ahead of where they were as rookies.

Calderon played on the Spanish National Team with Pau Gasol and with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, the two players the 20-year-old Porzingis has been linked to most often. Calderon sees some similarities and a drive in Porzingis that he hopes propels him past those two.

“You are talking about two of the best players ever,” Calderon said. “Just give him some time to see what he can be. He’s been great for us. He wants to be the best. He works really, real ly hard. I think we can see things from both of those guys, but it’s too early to say.

“Those two guys have been great for so long. I want him to be as good as them or even better. But I think just to make comparisons right now, it’s maybe too soon. He’s great. I think he’s more ready than maybe the other two. That’s for sure.”

That’s high praise, considering Gasol was the 2001-02 Rookie of the Year.

Porzingis earned Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November and is looking more comfortable and confident each game. But the Latvian big man entered the NBA confident and looking to prove he belonged.

As impressed as Calderon has been with Porzingis’ skills and play, he might be more impressed with his attitude, approach and personality.

“He thinks about wanting to be better, or even better than that — wanting to be the best,” Calderon said. “He works hard. He has a bad game, he goes back and works even harder. He has a good game, he goes back and works hard. He asks, he listens. He’s always listening to everybody.

“You have to say he’s kind of like a sponge. He’s just getting all that information and he’s showing us that it’s not just one day. He’s been pretty solid.”

End is near

Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, but at age 37 his body has broken down, leading to his official announcement that this is his final season in a poem entitled “Dear Basketball” on The Players’ Tribune website.

Kevin Garnett, who was drafted in 1995, the year before Bryant, can’t be too far behind. The same goes for Tim Duncan, the No. 1 pick in 1997 and the oldest of the three.

But Duncan’s body isn’t breaking down. He’s still productive and efficient at 39. Duncan is averaging 9.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, shooting 53 percent and has six double-doubles. In one of those games, he grabbed 18 rebounds. In another, he had six assists and six blocks.

It’s hard to imagine that when Duncan is ready to retire he will do it publicly or by poem. It will be quiet and understated, the way Duncan has been throughout his career.

Some players consider Bryant underappreciated, but that may be more applicable to Duncan. He’s never been flashy, never wanted the spotlight, and always put the team first. Duncan, nicknamed Old Man Riverwalk after the San Antonio tourist attraction, has five rings, like Bryant. But Duncan has a chance for more.

The Lakers are one of the worst teams and the Spurs remain one of the best. A fitting end to Duncan’s career would be to win a sixth title and then walk away.

The King’s speech

One of LeBron James’ regrets is never having faced Bryant in the Finals. During a 15-minute tribute to Bryant to Cleveland reporters, James said, “I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain,” when the Cavaliers lost to Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.

“I know the world wanted to see it,” James said. “I wanted it, he wanted it. He held up his end, I didn’t hold up my end and I hate that. I hate that it didn’t happen.”

James added, “It won’t really make sense next year when you see the Lakers and you don’t see Kobe in a uniform.”

Philly failure

The 76ers finally got something right when they suspended rookie Jahlil Okafor for two games Wednesday, but it shouldn’t have taken that long.

Since they drafted Okafor third he has had more off-court incidents than on-court wins. The organization has to take some responsibility for both. General manager San Hinkie’s “plan” to accumu late assets/picks, keep payroll down and load up on young, unproven players has resulted in mostly uncompetitive basketball and a 38-146 record the last two-plus seasons.

Okafor, 19, went from national championship team at Duke to a national disaster. As good a man as coach Brett Brown is, the Sixers have created a losing culture and have no veterans whom young players can emulate, no one who can get in their ear or face and keep them focused amid all the losing. No one on the Sixers’ active roster was born before 1990.

That doesn’t excuse Okafor’s actions. He reportedly was stopped for driving 108 mph last month, and reportedly got into two separate fights outside a Boston bar on the same night last week. It shouldn’t have taken details of the second Boston fight for the Sixers to take action.

Fast breaks

The Lakers have to decide whether to retire Bryant’s uniform No. 8 or No. 24. He won three titles wearing No. 8, and in 24 he captured two championships, two Finals MVP awards and a league MVP. He also carved out his identity in 24 without Shaquille O’Neal. Maybe they’ll retire both.

Michael Jordan, to whom Bryant has been compared most often, also wrote a “Dear Basketball” letter when he retired for the third and final time in 2003.

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