Kristaps Porzingis holds Knicks’ fate, and perhaps Phil Jackson’s, in his hands
The light is red at the corner of 58th and 7th in Manhattan, good news for the two guys in the massive refrigerated truck with too many wheels to count.
The smiling passenger rolls down the window and yells something to Phil Jackson, who happens to be walking by on an unseasonably warm November afternoon.
It was hard to discern exactly what was said — the light had turned green a split second earlier and the truck rolled noisily into gear — but you could make out one word: “Porzingis.”
It’s on the tip of the tongue of every New York Knicks fan, the same way “Carmelo” used to roll off the roof of the mouth excitedly when the Knicks’ last impact rookie was making headway in the NBA.
If there’s such a thing as being lucky in the draft lottery by falling two spots, that might be the Knicks and Jackson, their president, last May.
They went from second overall to fourth after being passed by the Lakers and Philadelphia. When it was their turn to draft a month later, Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis was still waiting for them, a 7-foot-3 power forward averaging 12.3 points and 8.3 rebounds with good intangibles (1.5 steals, 1.2 blocked shots, 0.7 three-pointers per game) through six NBA games.
His length has bothered opponents, most recently Cleveland’s Kevin Love, who was held to four-for-13 shooting.
“Porzingis is their best player on the court,” said a scout who watched a recent Knicks game. “Hands down.”
And to think Knicks fans booed heartily when the pick was announced at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on draft night. The ESPN cameras paid particular attention to a frowning young fan who smacked his forehead and kept giving emphatic thumbs-downs while wearing an orange Knicks jersey and blue glasses.
The ESPN announcer piled on a bit, mentioning that Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were the first European players taken as lottery picks. They became All-Stars. Since then, none of the 16 Europeans taken with lottery picks have become All-Stars.
The interest now in Porzingis from Knicks fans is almost funny. The team is 2-4 but his play symbolizes what a promising rookie can bring to a city starved of a basketball championship since 1973.
The Lakers were “very much” intrigued by Porzingis when determining whom to draft with the second overall pick, Coach Byron Scott said Saturday, mentioning the athleticism and rare outside touch for a big man.
“From what we saw, he was able to shoot it from three-point range pretty easy,” Scott said. “He was a young kid that, in the workouts we had, really didn’t show any fear. We just thought it was going to take him some time. Obviously, we’re probably a little wrong about that because he’s playing pretty well right now.”
The Lakers, who play New York on Sunday, drafted Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell, who has been slower to adapt to the NBA game in admittedly a very small sample size.
Jackson’s big-picture success with the Knicks is somewhat tied to Porzingis. Jackson is in year two of his five-year contract and it will also be important to woo some free agents of impact next summer. Porzingis, meanwhile, gives the franchise a youthful face lift and a cornerstone for whenever Anthony, 31, retires.
“I believe in Phil Jackson,” Knicks superfan Spike Lee said on Colin Cowherd’s radio show Friday. “He has a five-year contract . . . so I’m optimistic.”
Jackson’s confidence in Porzingis continually has been followed by verbal reminders of his young age. He was 19 when the Knicks drafted him. He’s now a mighty 20.
At the same time. Knicks fans want a winner now. And they think Porzingis can deliver soon.
Jackson was recently working his way through a salad at a local eatery when a man in his 20s approached the table.
“Congratulations,” he said, extending his hand and smiling broadly.
“Porzingis looks great out there.”
Of course. Welcome to New York.
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