For all the brilliant performances, jaw-dropping athletic feats and impressive double-doubles we’ve seen from New York Knicks 20-year-old rookie Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-3 Latvian still has a lot to improve upon as he navigates through his first NBA season.
There will be growing pains for Porzingis along the way – no pun intended – including the rough patch he is currently enduring. In New York’s last three games— a road trip to Utah, Sacramento and Portland— Porzingis had a total of 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on 6-of-25 shooting. He is going to hit walls this season. After playing 1,072 minutes last season, Porzingis is on pace to play 2,238 minutes this season, per Ian Begley of ESPN New York.
His recent poor play is a far cry from the breakout game he had on Nov. 17 against Charlotte, when he scored 29 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had the Madison Square Garden crowd loudly chanting his name. Strong play like that earned Porzingis the league’s Rookie of the Month award for November, becoming the first Knick since Landry Fields in Dec. 2010 to win the monthly award, as our Chris Bernucca pointed out in last week’s column.
Porzingis has another chance to wow the home fans Wednesday night when he faces Karl-Anthony Towns of Minnesota in a showdown of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year thus far.
We know all too well what Knicks fans think of him, but what about opposing players? SheridanHoops spoke with players from four different teams to find out Porzingis’ strengths and weaknesses along with what he needs to do to fulfill his seemingly limitless potential.
“We know he’s a talented kid. He’s already shown his skills,” Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia told SheridanHoops. “He can play inside and outside, he can shoot threes and surprisingly as a European, come to the NBA and have NBA range. He has moves on the block and it’s only just the beginning.”
That being said, every team, including Pachulia’s Mavs, heavily scout Porzingis to try to exploit his weaknesses.
“Nobody’s perfect, especially at that young age,” Pachulia said. “If he wants to get better, he needs to work on getting better at what he’s not good at it.”
And as good as Porzingis has been this season, there’s a lot that he can do to improve. Take a look at his shot chart:
For someone as big as Porzingis, he should be at least above average in the restricted area. But he is shooting 55.1 percent from that range – less than a percentage point above the league average – and far more than 37.4 percent of his shots should come from that range. Porzingis is shooting 37.6 percent on jumpers and just 49.1 percent on layups, per NBA.com.
It is encouraging to see Porzingis’ proficiency from three – although it is odd that he hasn’t really shot corner threes – but his mid-range game is surprisingly weak. Despite some of his early shooting shortcomings, Porzingis has earned the widespread praise he’s gotten.
“To be so young and an all-around threat makes him so tough to guard,” Brooklyn Nets big man Thomas Robinson told SheridanHoops. “The league hasn’t seen too much of him, but what they have seen they can’t really stop yet.”
Robinson said that opposing teams can’t afford to treat Porzingis like an ordinary rookie.
“Stay aggressive with him, any of the normal things you’d do with a good offensive player,” Robinson said. “You have to put him on that pedestal right away, so try to break his rhythm.”
Like every other team, the Houston Rockets looked at extensive film on KP, but that footage proved to be deceptive.
“We said that he’s a skilled big man, but it’s different watching him on film than in real life,” Rockets forward Corey Brewer told SheridanHoops. “In real life he was even better.”
Brewer said that Houston’s plan of being physical with Porzingis would throw him off his game, but instead Porzingis went for 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks on Nov. 21. The Rockets tried a different approach for their second meeting, which came eight days later.
“We tried getting in his air space more and it worked,” Brewer said, though given that Porzingis shot 8-of-13 on Nov. 29, maybe not so well. “You can’t leave him open or give him air space, because he’s going to knock the shot down.”
Being as tall as he is, Porzingis has most air space than most. Charlotte Hornets center Spencer Hawes is 7-1, and even he was amazed by Porzingis’ size and length.
“I didn’t realize he was that tall,” Hawes told SheridanHoops. “I thought he was another 7-footer, and then I saw, ‘Oh s***, he’s like 7-3.’ He’s going to be able to get his shot off pretty much anywhere. The way he shoots it too, you’re not really going to get to it, you’re just gonna contest it.”
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle agreed with Hawes’ assessment.
“If he wants to get a shot anywhere he wants from the outside, he could pretty much get it,” Carlisle said. “He has the footwork and ball skills to create it. It’s a very potent weapon.”
When asked what the Mavericks could do to defend that, Carlisle gave a very Popovichian response: “Hope he misses.”
Porzingis has missed shots more often than he’d like to away from Manhattan. His home-road splits leave much to be desired.
For some reason, Porzingis’ field goal percentage is more than 10 percentage points worse on the road. New York is scoring 16 fewer points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor on the road than at home.
No matter where the Knicks play, they need their big rookie on the floor. New York outscores its opponents by 1.4 points per 48 minutes while Porzingis is on the floor, but is minus-6.3 per 48 minutes while he sits, per NBA.com.
Porzingis’ efficiency has dipped in December. His offensive rating went from 104 in November to 97 in December, but his field goal percentage rose from .432 to .486 and his 3-point percentage is way up this month in far fewer attempts.
Porzingis’ enormous potential and skill set is evident to opponents across the league. Now it’s up to him to work hard and eliminate his weaknesses.
“It motivates you to work even harder and to make your weakness your strength,” Pachulia said. “It doesn’t come in one day, but you have to work hard. Time is the best practice. It’s the repetitions.”
Hawes said that Porzingis has an advantage over other rookies in that he’s going to get those repetitions immediately with a high quantity of minutes.
“This kid has a chance to forge out his own niche,” Carlisle said. “He really has some unusually great abilities and skills. It’ll be interesting to see how career unfolds.”
Based on at least a few opinions from around the league, people are expecting some pretty big things out of Porzingis.
“He’s long, really athletic, more athletic than I thought he would be,” Brewer said. “He’s going to be a superstar in this league.”
Pachulia took that even further.
“It would be sad if he did not become one of the superstars of the league,” Pachulia said.
No pressure, kid.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.