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Kristaps Porzingis and the path to greatness

Kristaps’ ever-evolving game (and help from some competent teammates) could push him to new heights

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Greatness is not equilibrium. Greatness is fluidity: Being able to do what’s needed when needed. In the NBA, what’s needed (and when) is forever in flux. Adaptability is next to godliness. The greats don’t arrive fully assembled, but flawed. LeBron James had no post game. Michael Jordan was an atrocious three-point shooter. Karl Malone missed more than half his free throws as a rookie.

The greats evolve. LeBron is an exemplary post-player, and when if his athleticism declines, his vision and back-to-the-basket skills will allow him to orchestrate an offense well into his thirties. Jordan tied a then-record by hitting six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals. Malone is the all-time leader in free throws made and attempted; by the end of his career he was hitting 80% at the line.

Kristaps Porzingis had a perfectly pleasing rookie season. Now comes the next big test, the one so many fail — being great when greatness is expected. Changes in his game and the roster around him point to Porzingis making that leap sooner than later.

Check Out The Handle

Everything you ever see Porzingis do is historic; he’ll always be the first human his size to do a thing, because humans his size, even NBA humans his size, can’t match the athleticism of a small forward happily trapped in the body of a center. Defend him with 4s and 5s and his repertoire is full of things they’re not used to seeing or not comfortable trying to stop. You know how bad big men look when guards are crossing them over? There’s an unwritten rule that if you’re big, you don’t use the tricks of the little. Kristaps eats unwritten rules for breakfast.

Check out the handle: the wide, Iversonian range of the crossover; the hypnotic glide of the right foot. The size factor is something to behold: in the space of one dribble, Porzingis goes from heading baseline to getting a shot off with nearly both feet in the paint. When Clint Capela wakes up in the middle of the night, this is what he sees.

Porzingis has strengthened his lower body, but he’s not and may never be someone who bullies down low. The Platonic Porzingis is a player who can out-big half the league and out-quick the other half. If he can consistently create like this for himself, he’s going to get more open looks from midrange (which with his length is closer than midrange) or draw fouls from big men unaccustomed to such skilled size. The two Net defenders below are so unprepared for Porzingis driving down the heart of the lane they’re reduced to comedic buffoonery.

Quick guards who run are fun

Last year the Knicks’ point guard, Jose Calderon, averaged 0.9 assists per game to Porzingis. Less than one. Reasons for this sadness? Calderon can’t dribble past defenders, sparing them from having to jump off KP to stop the ball, and Calderon is a very slow NBA guard, sparing transition defenders from having to worry about he and KP getting out on the break. As a result of his slowness, he wasn’t very aggressive defending on the perimeter, because if he gambled for a steal and lost there was no way he could get back in front of his man.

This year the Knicks have three guards not named Jose Calderon, and in a happy coincidence, all three are either good at dribbling and/or quick. One of these guards is Brandon Jennings. Below are two clips of big men getting easy dunks on breaks thanks to Jennings, first Porzingis, then Marshall Plumlee, who dunks like he’s Tyler Hansbrough reincarnated. The second play is born from an aggressive Jennings stealing the ball from Net guard Yogi Ferrell.

Might wanna watch that in slow motion. Worth it for Kyle O’Quinn’s celebrating and face as the ref pushes him back toward the bench.

Last year the Knicks were dead last in forced turnovers. That meant Porzingis was doing damage almost exclusively in half-court sets, against organized defenses. Having guards who can push the pace will get him easy points more often and save some energy not having to always fight against physical, focused defenders. Not to be ignored here: Porzingis has a 7’6” wingspan. We’ve seen what Jennings can do for teammates with 7’6” wingspans. Imagine this on a cold February night.

Talent is as talent does

Last year, three Knicks played more minutes than Porzingis. Carmelo Anthony was one. The other two? Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez. Fine blokes, and Lopez playing center surely saved KP wear and tear on the defensive end. But when Lopez is second on your team in offensive win shares — and Calderon third — you’re not lightening the load any for Porzingis as he approaches apotheosis. This year, two of the Knicks’ new starters possess plus-level offensive skills. This, along with the steady brilliance of Carmelo, should make KP’s job easier even as it inevitably becomes tougher.

Joakim Noah has yet to play this preseason and is mainly celebrated for his defense. But his offensive game includes elements that could complement Porzingis. Last year Noah’s average speed in games was 4.73 MPH, faster than any Knick besides (natch) Sasha Vujacic (4.78). Pair Noah with Porzingis and you have two multi-talented large bipeds who are quicker and more agile than most opponents; add guards like Jennings, Derrick Rose and (maybe) Chasson Randle and you have the ability to pressure even a good a defense.

An elite passing big man, Noah’s 6.2 assists per 36 minutes last season would have led the Knicks; Chris Herring found that one-third of Noah’s assists led to three-pointers. Being able to find teammates open from long-range means more quality looks behind the three-point line — where Porzingis figures to spend more time this year -- and more space inside of it, where Carmelo especially is so lethal.

Maybe no Knick could potentially impact KP’s scoring this year more than Derrick Rose. The clip below is highlights from the third quarter of the Houston game, easily the Knicks’ best stretch in that game. Look at all the things happening in this clip that are happening because Rose is making them happen.

First we see Rose driving to the hoop for a lay-in. That shit didn’t happen last year! The Knicks did not dribble-penetrate. Period. But it’s a thing now it could be a thing now. Every easy bucket Rose creates for Porzingis saves energy for those special moments when Kristaps reaches for the Debeskalns.

On the play where Rose swings it to Porzingis for the right elbow three, look at how far off him Eric Gordon is playing. The threat of what Rose can do off the dribble warps the defense’s shape. The more you warp the D, the more you’re able to dictate, to get the shots you want. Too often last year, even with Porzingis, the Knicks took shots they found rather than ones they wanted.

My favorite play is when Porzingis gets the ball in the post and dumps it off for Rose, who drives baseline and forces the double-team. Rose then jump-passes back to Porzingis for an open three from the left elbow. This play is all about space. Rose poses a threat over a wider stretch of space than any Knick guard since Stephon Marbury. Because of that, the defense has to attend to him; because of that, Porzingis has plenty of space. When 7’3” has space, it’s more space than usual. Like space-and-a-half. Nice.

The last play in the clip is Rose driving to the basket for an and-one. Adding playmakers like this allows Porzingis more freedom to play off the ball. The freer players are, usually, the better. With Noah, Rose, Carmelo, and a steady shooter in Courtney Lee, the Knicks have the pieces to help Porzingis evolve from a shooting star to the sun their offense revolves around. For so long the Knicks have had the former, but not the latter. Last year the promise of greatness arrived. This year could be when it evolves into what the Knicks need most: greatness performed.