Kristaps Porzingis has made the leap.
With the Carmelo Anthony trade in the rearview mirror, and Derrick Rose shipped off to Cleveland, it was finally time for Kristaps to take on the role of the go-to offensive player. While many called for this, a lot of objective observers thought Porzingis might struggle to completely fill the lead scoring role. After all, last season's film left a lot to be desired, and there were plenty of holes in Porzingis' game.
I don't think anyone saw this monstrous start coming. He busted out the gate red hot, but fell down to Earth against the Celtics. I thought he'd end up being somewhere between those two extremes. But then he dropped 30+ again. And again. And again. Then he beat his career high in scoring. And did it again in the same week.
Through 9 games, Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 30 points per game, a 12 point increase from last year in almost exactly the same amount of minutes (33.4 MPG this season vs. 32.8 MPG last year). He's posted seven 30+ point performances in nine games, after having only three in his previous two seasons. But that's not all! Porzingis has also posted a 59% true shooting percentage, nearly a 5% leap, and that leap is happening while he increased his usage to 35.5%, which LEADS THE ENTIRE NBA. That doesn't make any sense, and I'm still having trouble accepting it. He's apparently fixed most of the issues that plagued him in his first two seasons. He's still only 22 years old.
This kind of leap is, frankly, preposterous. This is something Knicks fans have likely never seen from a homegrown player in their entire lives. The natural comparison, at least as far as home bred dominance, is Patrick Ewing...but Ewing was a dominant force from the start, averaging 20 and 9 to go with 2 blocks in his rookie season. What is happening here is something else entirely.
So...how exactly has Kristaps made such an impressive leap in one offseason? It's actually pretty simple, because it comes down to two key factors:
1. Core strength
Despite subpar point guard play, Porzingis is shooting a 50% from the field (even though only 20% of his shots are from 0-3 feet, a career low). Once again, this doesn't make any sense -- the longer the median shot distance, the lower the percentage should go. But what are statistics to a god? As of this moment, he's hitting an absurd 63.6% of his shots from 10-16 feet, with just over a quarter of his looks coming from that distance. That's gonna regress; the real question is, how far?
In his first couple of seasons, KP wanted to take advantage of his height, but his body wasn't strong enough to absord contact and maintain balance. Because of this, Porzingis always had major issues handling physicality and contact on both ends of the floor. This was apparent in matchups with OKC, where Porzingis was thoroughly bodied by Adams, Kanter, and Ibaka over the years. Early career Porzingis was easily flustered by defensive physicality; he'd lose his balance and toss up garbage shots like some kind of 7'3 Brandon Jennings:
That kind of stuff happened all the time in his first two seasons, but...uh...not anymore. Porzingis has reached critical mass, both literally and figuratively, and the results are obvious. Instead of shying away from contact, he's actively seeking it out (something every potential superstar needs to learn) because his body can finally handle it. Porzingis was quick to confirm this after his career-high-that-he-actually-beat-less-than-a-week-later performance against the Nuggets:
“I think my strength is helping my game a lot,” Porzingis said. “Just having my balance on all those shots here and there. Even though a lot of those shots are contested, I’m able to make them through contact. I’m more comfortable. I’m just more comfortable in the post. Getting more experience also. Getting more comfortable with the guards trying to get in my legs. It’s also since Boston game we’ve gotten a lot better of recognizing when I have a smaller go and utilizing that.”
His improved strength has clearly had a positive effect on his confidence. Porzingis has eschewed the t-shirt he used to wear under his jersey (the t-shirt under the jersey is a universal red flag that screams "SCRAWNY" at every level of competitive ball) in favor of showing off his newly developed unicorn guns. They're just as glorious as you would have imagined. More importantly, KP's confidence in his body has granted a level of decisiveness and poise that just wasn't there before. He's actually able to maintain body control through contact for the first time in his career.
(He really hit the spin move through two defenders as a pick and roll ball handler and made the shot...I mean...come on).
Adding that kind of core strength is a game changing development for Porzingis. In the past, the most effective way to guard him was with a strong, physical wing. This allowed opponents to match his mobility, and it also allowed teams to switch his screens; he couldn't make teams pay for making those switches. If you can't beat mismatches in the NBA, teams will switch EVERYTHING when the possessions start to matter. That shit ain't gonna fly anymore, because...
As of November 6th, Kristaps Porzingis is scoring 1.03 points per possession (PPP) on 6.8 attempts per game. Let that sink in for a second. Last season, he scored 0.81 PPP on a measley 2.5 attempts per game. Usually, increases in volume correlate with decreases in efficiency -- improving his scoring efficiency by 0.22 while nearly TRIPLING his volume should be almost impossible (you may have noticed a theme). I mean, just look at this shit:
Those are the leaders in post up scoring efficiency among players with over 2 attempts per game and at least 2 games played. That list includes Embiid, Cousins, LeBron, Brook Lopez, and KAT. Then realize that, in terms of straight up points per possession, Porzingis is the 7th most effective post player in the damn league through 9 games. You could even construct an argument that he’s been THE most effective post player in the league so far. Only Joel Embiid has higher volume with comparible efficiency, but our lord and savior is turning the ball over on only 6.6% of his post ups. Meanwhile, Embiid’s post ups result in turnovers nearly 22% of the time. That's a 1:3 ratio! It's a testament to KP's combination of strength, poise, shooting ability, and footwork. Give Carmelo Anthony a smidgen of credit, cuz KP has already integrated two patented Melo moves into his repertoire -- the jab step and the baseline fallaway jumper. He's busting those out every single game.
Of course, this post up renaissance emerged from Porzingis' ability to abuse his size and strength advantage against smaller players (which happens to include the vast majority of power forwards) for the first time. In the past, Porzingis had the size, but not the strength; with only one of the two, he struggled to even secure position against smaller guards, leading to a fairly large amount of possessions we'll generously call non-ideal:
Fortunately, that's won’t be a problem for him anymore. Porzingis has been clearing space with his body for the first time in his career, both on and off the ball. Now that he can get to his spots and hold them, he can take full advantage of his size. His shooting form is perfect for shooting over defenders; it's pretty close to a set shot, so defenders struggle to bother his release without making contact. Combined with his size, length, aggressiveness, and a quick release, he's functionally unblockable in one-on-one situations. When defenders try too hard to contest, it's almost always a foul. That's a major reason his free throw rate on post ups is so high.
That’s great and all, but will it really make that much of a difference? Lots of guys develop a post game. Why does it matter so much for KP?
To fully answer that question, we have to think like an opposing coach. If Porzingis continues to son smaller players on the low block, he could very well peak as one of the three most impactful offensive players in the entire league. Guarding him with a wing is already becoming unpalatable, and opponents will be terrified to switch wings or guards onto him (just like Dirk). The only other option is to guard him with a big; of course, that's exactly what he wants. Put a big on KP, and he'll take advantage of his quickness by running off screens and using his handle to get to the rim. Even Steven Adams, one of the best defensive bigs in the game, struggled to keep up with Porzingis as he sprinted around screens:
These two plays are worth diving into, because it’s a microcosm of the issues big men have trying to guard Porzingis. It’s essentially the same play twice; the relevant part is the simple pindown from Doug McDermott for KP. Adams can't get up and over the screen in the first clip, which nearly led to a poster dunk we'd have shown our grandkids in 60 years if it had landed. Instead, we get boring old free throws, but two points is two points. On the very next possession, Baker calls for the same exact play, with a bit of window dressing to try to disguise the same alignment they just used. This time around, Adams doesn't want to get caught again, so he ducks under the McDermott pindown. That’s an easy read for KP, and he just drifts sideways for a wide open 3. Adams tried both methods for defending that pindown. Neither of them worked. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mismatch.
Porzingis’ increased strength doesn’t just help him on the block; it’ll give him help on the glass as well. His individual rebounding numbers are about the same as they were in his first two seasons, but I expect those numbers to increase as we get deeper into the season -- there's flashes of improvement if you look closely.
In that clip, KP did a good job getting his body on Drummond and using his length to tap the ball to a safer spot. He even managed to push Drummond juuuuuust a bit towards the baseline, which ultimately made a pretty big difference considering where the ball bounced. Last year, KP wouldn't have been able to make that play, and Drummond grabs that board for a dunk. It's the little things!
2. Decision making/basketball IQ
This kind of stuff is difficult to pin down, but it's showing in a couple of areas that we can measure. The obvious place to look is at KP's cutting, which has improved drastically (1.55 PPP vs. 1.41 PPP) since last season. This is a good reflection of his improved feel for the game.
That's an advanced play, and it shows off a level of offensive understanding that just wasn't there last year. Watch Porzingis fade to 3, where he's wide open; instead of settling and waiting for the pass, though, he cuts hard to the basket just as a panicking Thad Young tries to find him, and that’s an easy dunk. Beautiful stuff.
More importantly, that IQ has had a major effect on the other end of the floor. KP's mind is finally catching up to his body; he's become much more fundamentally sound defensively, which is pretty obvious when we focus our attention on his fouling (or lack thereof). For an area in which Porzingis struggled regularly, it's impressive how fouling has completely ceased to be an issue at any point this season. According to Basketball Reference, KP only has nine shooting fouls, total, for the entire season. The other seven were all offensive fouls. This is the same guy that consistently picked up two or more fouls in a quarter, often within a span of minutes. Of course, this means Porzingis is spending more time aggressively terrifying fools at the rim. He's still one of the best rim protectors in the league; opponents are shooting 31.1% within 6 feet of the rim when Porzingis is in position to contest, per NBA.com (the only other player under 40%? Kyle O'Quinn. That's the good shit right there). Read that again. 31.1%. NONE OF THIS SHOULD BE POSSIBLE.
This play is a perfect example of how his newfound poise is making a major difference:
Watch how slow KP plays it. He doesn't help too soon or lose control in a desperate attempt to disrupt the shot. Instead, he calmly stalks his prey, knowing his length can make up lost ground. He springs the trap at the perfect time, and Collison had no chance. This is like me blocking my 14 year old sister on an eight foot rim. I let her get sooooo close, and she sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but it turns out I'm lurking right over her shoulder to swat that shit into the street. Considering that's Darren Collison rather than a 14 year old girl...that's impressive stuff. That kind of timing only comes with (sigh) time; KP was always a great help defender, but he often got in trouble in situations that required poise and tact over physical attributes (see: 40 year old Tim Duncan still playing effective defense on one leg). If Porzingis continues to push closer to the necessary balance...the league is on notice. The Pacers already know all about that; by the end of the night, they were actively avoiding the rim when Porzingis was in the area.
There's still stuff to work on—KP is going to see more and more double teams, and he hasn't shown much of an ability to make the correct read when they do come. That could present a problem for the fluidity of the overall offense in the long term. Fortunately, he's become so damn good (and he's so damn tall) that doubles don't affect him as much as they might affect other guys. Regardless, he's gonna need to work on his vision if he's going to become an MVP caliber talent. That kind of vision and anticipation tends to come slowly, outside of a few truly gifted passers, so it's nothing to worry about. But if/when Porzingis displays that ability...his evolution will likely be complete.
Now I have to put on my objectivity hat and point out that it’s irresponsible to avoid talk of regression. Porzingis probably isn't going to average 30 PPG and compete for the scoring title, and he's definitely not gonna shoot 62% from 10-16 feet. So there’s almost definitely going to be some kind of regression. That being said...he's shooting just above 50% from the restricted area, and he's only hitting 36% of his 3's; both of those numbers should trend upwards as his other percentages come back to Earth.
His per game averages don't really matter to me, though. Obviously, we'll rain down nonstop MVP chants if he maintains a 30PPG pace...but if he finishes with 25 per game, that's fine. What matters is this -- through the first nine games, the 22 year old Porzingis has done more than any of us could have reasonably imagined. He's taken the mantle of the #1 scoring option and made it his own (without a quality point guard), doing it almost entirely alone in the halfcourt. What more can you ask for?
Coming into this season, we needed to know if KP really was the kind of foundational talent you can build a true contender with. We had all seen plenty of intriguing flashes, but nobody could say for sure whether he was truly prepared or not. Small sample size be damned: the answer is a resounding yes. And for a Knicks fanbase always starved for hope, this is about as good as it gets.