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NBA Rookie Preview: Knicks Forward Kristaps Porzingis

William Hauser/USA TODAY Sports

With the regular season just weeks away, the New York Knicks are on the cusp of officially unveiling their enigmatic draft pick Kristaps Porzingis. For a franchise scuffling through a painful rebuild, the 7’3″ Latvian tower represents an exciting, yet risky beacon of hope for the future.

Much of the Big Apple booed him when his name was called in June, but a promising effort during Summer League helped ease fans’ anxiety about the unknown European.

Porzingis arrives in New York from the Spanish ACB League with a sweet-looking jump shot and a wiry, long-limbed frame. Fans, media and even scouts still aren’t quite sure what to expect from him.

He was plucked No. 4 overall by Phil Jackson and Co. due to long-term upside as a potential star. But what exactly should Bockers fans expect in Year 1? Can Porzingis survive the fishbowl that is New York, and will he show signs of eventually becoming the second international draftee since 2004 to reach All-Star status?

Defensive Role

Porzingis has the length to challenge and overwhelm centers, and he has the mobility to stick with some power forwards. However, he’ll have trouble at both positions. It’ll take a couple of years before he’s truly a multi-positional defender.

He’s not equipped to hang with the speedier 4s in the league, so there will be times when he’s forced to guard the opponents’ 5-man. Conversely, Porzingis isn’t yet strong enough to effectively stymie 260-pound centers and consistently make a rebounding dent.

Fortunately, he’s shown scrappiness and toughness during offseason workouts. Knicks forward Kyle O’Quinn praised Porzingis’s toughness after playing with him at Impact Basketball:

“He competed with NBA-level guys, stronger guys,” O’Quinn told CBS New York, “so when people were talking about, ‘Oh my God, his size’ and stuff…obviously you can tell he’s a little skinnier than most. But you don’t judge a man by his physique, you judge a man by his heart, I think. And he’s got heart. He’ll bang.”

Porzingis also knows how to use his length to alter and block shots, and he’ll be no slouch when it comes to rim-protection effort and awareness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOJN8gd3rkY

If Porzingis’s Summer League exploits are a preview of his rookie campaign, he’ll block a bunch of shots while committing a truckload of fouls. He averaged 1.8 blocks in Las Vegas, which translates to 3.2 per 36 minutes — but he also notched 4.3 fouls (7.6 per 36 minutes). Porzingis showed willingness to rotate and contest, but he was often too late and got caught underneath the hoop.

There will be scenarios where he defends 4s while Robin Lopez checks the 5, and there will also be times when Porzingis defends centers and Carmelo Anthony defends 4s. Knicks fans will be pleasantly surprised with Porzingis’s agility and aggressiveness despite the mistakes.

Ultimately, he’ll struggle with the positional and disciplinary nuances of defending, just like any other rookie. One Eastern Conference scout explained Porzingis’s situation to Josh Martin of Bleacher Report:

He’s not unlike anybody else that’s young and in the league. You play because you’re offensively skilled, but the coach doesn’t always play you a lot of minutes because you’re not used to guarding. You struggle to make the transition defensively. That happens to most players. He probably won’t be any different. That will be the most critical part of the learning curve: finding his place and the speed of the game and defensively.

It was recently revealed that Porzingis gained 11 pounds over a five-week period. While that’s a great start and he’s feisty, he’ll still get pushed around by the NBA’s strongest behemoth’s next year. That physical disadvantage, along with the learning curve, will result in a rocky year defensively and on the glass. Fortunately, Porzingis’s length and effort will yield a healthy chunk of blocks and reason for optimism moving forward.

Offensive Role

Obviously Porzingis’s rookie season is all about development. He’s a talented shooter and a graceful player in transition, but he will not be a superstar on the 2015-16 Knicks.

Much of the Bockers’ offense will run through Melo per usual, and newcomers such as Jerian Grant, Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez will gobble up a large share of touches and shot attempts. Porzingis may play 20-25 minutes per game, but he won’t be asked to carry an inordinate amount of the offense.

That’s a good thing because he’ll be free to play confidently in a supporting role. Porzingis will set screens, take shots when he’s open and execute high-post passes in the Triangle:

We’ve known for a while that Porzingis will contribute as a pick-and-pop weapon with a high release and deep range. We also knew he could execute mid-post turnarounds, dive to the rim after screening and draw fouls. But one thing we learned during Summer League is he’s a capable passer.

He handed out just 0.5 assists per game last year in Eurocup and ACB play in 2014-15, so some prognosticators questioned his ability to smoothly make passes within the triangle system. But a look at his Summer League film shows that he smoothly dished the ball from the low post and high post, as Coach Daniel explains:

“…Before the draft, a lot of people, myself included, criticized his passing, but it was better than expected in the summer league. He showed good touch on his passes, operating from the high and low post.”

Porzingis will make a bunch of mistakes, most likely in the ball-handling and shot-selection department. It’s easy for young, tall shooters to force attempts from any angle because, well, they can.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Knicks are better off letting Porzingis play every night and learn from his missteps early in his career, and they’d also rather see him err on the side of aggression rather than tentativeness.

If the Latvian sensation holds a substantial role in the rotation, he’ll still be only the third or fourth scoring option on the floor at best. In 20-25 minutes per game, Porzingis will likely take 8-12 shots and score 10-12 points. He’ll also chip in 4-6 rebounds and 1-plus assists and blocks.

Most importantly, he’ll soak up Melo’s experience, get valuable on-the-job training and deliver frequent glimpses of hope for New York’s thirsty fan base.

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