It's NBA Rookie Week at SB Nation. We've got a good one. Let's appreciate him.
This is a story about why Knicks fans needed Kristaps Porzingis this season more than any other in recent memory and why we will always be link him to Stephen Curry. The 7'3" sweet-shooting Latvian rookie has yet to scratch the surface of his true potential, but his early success in the NBA has helped to mitigate the pain of the Knicks' role in the 2009 NBA Draft, which can now safely be considered among the best of all time predominantly because of one player.
In multiple ways the 2015-16 NBA season has already been one for the ages. Frankly, Stephen Curry's accomplishments this season are unimpeachable, but the knowledge that the Knicks intended to draft him with the very next pick in 2009 pollutes the experience with a subconscious jealousy unique to New York's starved fanbase. After all, the Knicks have a uniquely poor recent history with rookies. But it's exactly that jealousy that has made Kristaps Porzingis' arrival such a welcome deviation from the doom of the past 30 years. This is new to us.
Prior to Porzingis the most recent Knicks rookie to contribute significantly to a sustained period of team success was Patrick Ewing, who was drafted in 1985. Ewing watched Mark Jackson contend with the conference rival Pacers thanks to a trade and lost Greg Anthony in the 1995 expansion draft. In 2002 the Knicks drafted and immediately traded Nene in a package for Antonio McDyess, whose knee consisted of spaghetti. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler were both included in the Knicks' offer to acquire Carmelo Anthony in 2010 and since their departure the Knicks have traded first round picks in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. But all of that doesn't matter.
All of the aforementioned missteps combined do not add up to the pain of missing Stephen Curry, whose ascension over the past year has pushed the boundaries of basketball realism and forced us to reconsider what may be possible from a player, by one pick. For Knicks fans, the only acceptable answer to missing out on a basketball alien without historical precedent (by one pick!) would be to go get our own; a task that Houston, Orlando, Philadelphia and others have proven extremely difficult. It would be particularly unreasonable to expect the Knicks to find a young future cornerstone player a week after Curry won his first NBA Championship, but "unreasonable" is the Knicks' middle name.
Since his customary welcome on draft night, Kristaps Porzingis has done nothing to quell the preposterous expectations his draft position and anatomical proportions initially elicited. New York fans, media, and the team itself put far too much stock into whether players are "made for New York," which ostensibly lumps work ethic with attitude to create an immeasurable moxie factor. Porzingis, who wanted to land in New York more than anywhere else, leaks moxie from his stratospheric ears. His physical dimensions entail a profile like Hasheem Thabeet's or even Dikembe Mutombo's, while his touch has allowed him to shoot better from the free throw line than fellow rookie Devin Booker, who participated in this year's three point contest. Porzingis has more potential to affect the defensive end than any Knicks since Tyson Chandler and his offensive skillset conjures images of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Love and Rasheed Wallace. He has already demonstrated a willingness to learn from mistakes and an affinity for big shots.
He did this in his fourth NBA game:
He did this in his ninth game:
And this happened about a month ago:
Porzingis highlights are different from other highlights because his stature and appearance make him jump out immediately while his ensuing grace and skill belie his massive frame, which can elicit audible reactions. The moves Porzingis makes look different because he's the one doing them. The things Porzingis says sound different because he's the one saying them. If he seems more acclimated to the rigors of professional athletic life than most 20 year olds, it's because his older brothers Janis and Martins have been conditioning him to be the centerpiece of an NBA team for nearly a decade and because he's been a pro since he was 16. Kristaps Porzingis is a different kind of longterm prospect because he doesn't possess any identifiable flaws and he can be given almost any role on the court.
With the Knicks' yearly plunge into the depths of the Eastern Conference in full effect and the usual dearth of a first round pick, the franchise should shift its longterm priorities toward maximizing opportunities for young players while safeguarding against injuries for key cogs. One month into his tenure as Knicks head coach, Kurt Rambis has yet to indicate that he's given up on the playoffs and instead seems intent on playing Carmelo Anthony 40 minutes per game and mysteriously criticizing Porzingis. The infamous tumult of the Knicks would be enough to crush most rookies, but in a sense Porzingis has been here before. While high-profile rookies are often undone by the same franchise incompetence that allowed their teams to draft them in the first place, Porzingis was born in it; molded by it.
Porzingis, the promising 7-foot-1 Latvian taken fourth by the Knicks in last month's NBA Draft, trained and played as a teenager in Spain's top league, the ACB, with Baloncesto Sevilla, a team that descended into organizational chaos this past season and could be on the brink of collapse.
"Oh, man, that season was a mess," said Derrick Byars, a teammate of Porzingis's. "At this point, I don't even mind saying that was the most unprofessional team I've been around."
Byars has never met James Dolan, but his contention implies that Porzingis has not only played amidst organizational uncertainty, but thrived, pushing himself to improve on his weaknesses in the face of the 2015 NBA draft. Though he will remain a participant and observer in the current and upcoming Knicks drama as it unfolds, he is fortunate to bring prior experience into the mess. It looks once more like it will get worse before it gets better at Madison Square Garden, a tale seemingly as old as time, but this year it's a little different.
The 2015-16 NBA season will probably end up one of the more notable in history for at least one of several reasons, and thanks to a 7'3" multilingual kid from Liepāja, Latvia, Knicks fans should not feel left out. While Kurt Rambis foolishly attempts to salvage the season, Porzingis salvages Knicks fans' sanity with every put-back dunk and single-dribble drive to the rim. His very existence allows us to enjoy the historic teams in the Western Conference. Kristaps Porzingis helps Knicks fans to watch Stephen Curry's historical exploits without thinking of what could have been. His value to the NBA and the sport is potentially massive, but right now, more than anything, I appreciate Porzingis because he makes the popcorn I eat while watching the Wariors taste better.