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Kristaps Porzingis: ‘I’m not Shawn Bradley’

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Shawn Bradley averaged 12.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes over a successful, if underwhelming, 12-year NBA career. He might not be remembered so fondly, but he’s been in the news recently in a story that involves the winningest coach in NBA history and the hopeful savior of the New York Knicks.

Charley Rosen’s excellent piece on Kristaps Porzingis from Tuesday gave a little insight into Phil Jackson’s mindset when deciding to select the Latvian superstar. For all the excellent reporting present in that piece, predictably the only thing the media cares about is that Jackson compared the fourth overall pick to Bradley, who fairly or unfairly carries the same “bust” label as Sam Bowie, Greg OdenDarko Milicic and Andrea Bargnani. This is unfortunate, as Knicks fans are already extremely sensitive, with many of them already fearing that the Zinger has all the red flags of joining that infamous club.

“I’m not Shawn Bradley,” said Porzingis, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.com.

The exact quote he was responding to wasn’t necessarily a comparison of their games, but a concern about their height:

“Like Shawn Bradley, who was nevertheless a pretty good player, KP might almost be too tall for the game,” said Jackson. “What I mean is that his core strength might never be good enough, and that he might not be able to get low enough to get himself into prime defensive position to body-off power rebounders or drivers.”

However, the ESPN article noted that he was taking Jackson’s comments in stride, not being offended but rather motivated by them. In fact, Porzingis has put on 11 pounds since late July, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

He’s reportedly eating 5,000 calories a day and lifting weights twice a day in between on-the-court practices:

“I’m working out twice a day, lifting hard, trying to eat as much as possible to gain weight, getting my sleep, doing the right things to gain weight,” Porzingis said. “I’m getting stronger and I’m feeling stronger playing in five-on-five pickup. Definitely feeling stronger.’’

The hard work is already paying off, as Knicks fans who remember him from draft night — or even the hardcore fans who saw him play in the Summer League — should notice a significantly broader body. That added weight and strength should go a long way towards his development as he pushes for playing time early on in his career in New York.

All that bulk is itself a response to negative comparisons, not as much with a player like Bradley, but rather other European busts like Milicic and Bargnani who were/are considered soft. The Zinger doesn’t want to be in that category. It’s true that despite being 7’3″ (according to Berman), he’s more known for his athleticism and sweet shooting stroke from distance than he is as a pounder on the inside. Still, the idea that he won’t ever be able to make it as an NBA big man because of a weakness on the boards or in the paint bothers the Knicks’ first-round pick.

“I want to be better than Shawn Bradley, obviously,” said Porzingis. “And be stronger than him, but I’m a different player.”

It does seem like Bradley’s career is taking one more beating here in the exchange — although it’s fair to note that Jackson called him a pretty good player. However, Porzingis saying he wants to be better than Bradley isn’t as much a put-down as it is a desire to succeed.

Draftniks may have been following Porzingis for a while, but for many less intense fans, they were first introduced to him with Grantland’s Who Is Kristaps Porzingis?, a three-episode video series. In those shorts, NBA fans got to know a sincerely motivated, very ambitious kid who wants to be a superstar at the highest level. That might turn off some, but with his intense training and workout regimen, he at the very least seems like he knows the best ways to achieve his goals.

That dedication to his craft has helped him add the 11 pounds of muscle he and the team have decided he could use as he prepares for his rookie season. From late-July (when he returned from Latvia) to last week when the reports of the bulking up surfaced — about six weeks — the results have already begun to show. There are another six weeks, give or take, until the NBA season tips off. Given the work ethic Porzingis has shown, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to build upon that strong start.

Comparisons to guys like Bradley, Milicic and Bargnani have had Knicks fans on edge since the day of the NBA Draft Lottery through the days following the draft. The immediate reaction was a lot of fear that the team would take Porzingis and he’d either never be NBA ready or he’d end up just being another European bust.

Since then, hope seems to have drifted back into the hearts of the Knicks fans, and whether they’d admit it or not, the New York faithful are buying their Porzingis stock. The fear of the bust is still there, but the prevailing belief is that he’ll stay true to Jackson’s promise that the team drafted the future of the franchise.

Part of that belief does come from reports like Berman’s and press like Grantland’s, which show the hard work and commitment of this young man that’s convinced New Yorkers he’ll defy the scary bust potential that came with selecting him. He wants to be better than Bradley, obviously, because he wants to be better than everyone. Pretty good isn’t good enough, and he isn’t going to let his slight frame hold him back.

“Guys can’t push me around that easy, and I still got time to get a little stronger,” said Porzingis. “I can’t wait for training camp.’’

Neither can Knicks fans.

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