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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Kristaps Porzingis or Jahlil Okafor? Knicks’ pick proved right

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks goes

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks goes to the hoop past Robert Covington of the Philadelphia 76ers for a dunk in the first half at Madison Square Garden on Monday Jan. 18, 2016 Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

The mind wanders during a long, winding afternoon full of overtimes, timeouts, missed free throws, limping stars and general messiness befitting a couple of sub-.500 teams — one of them way below .500.

Which led to the following thought on Monday: What if, knowing what we know now, we could travel back to an alternate universe in which the Knicks won the 2015 NBA Draft lottery and owned the No. 1 overall pick on June 25? What would they have done?

One part of the answer was a no-brainer, because he was difficult to miss at 6-11, 275 pounds while sitting on the 76ers’ bench for the final 22 minutes of the Knicks’ 119-113, double-overtime victory at Madison Square Garden.

Would the Knicks have taken Jahlil Okafor, who went No. 3 overall, one spot ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, whom they did take? Um, no.

What about D’Angelo Russell, who went No. 2 overall to the Lakers? Um, no.

What about Karl-Anthony Towns, who went No. 1 overall to the Timberwolves? Now that is a legitimate debate.

But the fact that only Towns is even worth discussing as an alternative to Porzingis midway through their rookie seasons is yet another illustration of KP’s ascent.

So was the nervous groan that arose from the holiday crowd at the Garden when with 3:45 left in regulation, he landed awkwardly while trying to rebound Lance Thomas’ miss and came up limping with a sore right foot.

Porzingis left 65 seconds later, then returned for 10 seconds in the final minute — against doctor’s orders, he said later — before missing both overtimes. Later he shrugged it all off and said he probably will play against Utah on Wednesday night.

The legend grows.

“I’m young,” he said. “I recover quick.”

Before taking a seat for good, he scored 16 points and shot 7-for-11. He added 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. He had plenty of style points along the way, too.

There were two emphatic dunks in the first quarter, along with seven rebounds in the first seven minutes, a steal that led to a short bank-in and a fadeaway baseline jumper — at 7-foot-3 — that no human being living or dead would have been able to block.

Even without Carmelo Anthony at 100 percent because of a sprained ankle, Porzingis said he benefited from Melo’s return after two missed games in which the rookie learned what life is like without Anthony on the floor.

“I mean, he’s drawing all the attention,” Porzingis said. “He’s very dangerous, obviously.”

That is the sort of perennial All-Star luxury Towns and Okafor do not enjoy. But still. Porzingis’ skills, all-around game, huge upside and polished demeanor speak for themselves.

So did 76ers coach Brett Brown’s decision to bench Okafor for strategic reasons even though he had scored 20 points in 25:39. And it worked. The 76ers trailed by as many as 18 during the third quarter and 13 after three before storming back.

Okafor is a formidable post scorer with questionable defensive skills. With him on the bench, Ish Smith and Nerlens Noel tortured the Knicks with athleticism in a pick-and-roll clinic.

“They’re just a different team when Jahlil’s not on the floor,” Porzingis said. “He’s a very dangerous guy in the post, very hard to stop.”

And yet, there he was, rooted to the bench in crunch time. In contrast with Porzingis, who left the bench with 13.6 seconds left, essentially to act as a decoy on the play on which Anthony tied the score with a dramatic three-pointer.

None of this is to say Okafor will not develop into a very good player, especially as he matures on and off the court. (The 76ers suspended him for two games earlier this season in the wake of a brawl outside a nightclub in Boston.)

The guy does lead his team in scoring, after all, even if it is a 5-38 team.

So 15 years from now, Towns, Okafor and Porzingis might well be thought of the way the 2004 class of NFL quarterbacks is. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers? There is no wrong answer.

But for now, the right answer for the Knicks and their fans from the big-man class of 2015 is obvious.

New York Sports