The already disgruntled citizens of the Knicks Nation were further dismayed in June when the NBA Draft Lottery relegated their team to the No. 4 pick.
Gone were their hopes and dreams of building a glorious future around the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor or D’Angelo Russell. Some blamed the unfortunate result on chance. Some blamed the Basketball Gods for showing their disdain over Jim Dolan’s mishandling of the franchise.
And some blamed Derek Fisher for prompting his players to win two of their last three games — beating both Orlando and Atlanta on the road. Why couldn’t the Knicks have tanked like the Wolves and 76ers did? How many ping-pong balls had those wins cost?
Okay, New Yorkers are as used to disappointments as they are to vicarious successes. So, they wondered, what would Phil Jackson do now?
Actually, Jackson was indecisive. “I was hemming and hawing about who to choose,” he said. “I knew there were several outstanding prospects that would be available, but I was focused on getting a big man. My decision was essentially made when Clarence Gaines, my primary adviser and a super-scout, told me there was a game tape I had to watch. This turned out to be a Spanish League contest between Cajasol Seville and a team from Barcelona, a game that Seville had to win to avoid being degraded from Division One to Division Two status. And the main player Clarence was promoting was Kristaps Porzingis. What I saw made up my mind.
“Although the competition in the Spanish league is more physical, more consistent and more advanced than even the best D-One college teams over here, Porzingis more than held his own. He had a long, lively body, a well-developed basketball IQ, a soft shot with terrific range, and he didn’t back down from anybody. Plus, he showed an amazing athleticism for somebody his size.”
Primarily powered by the heroics of Porzingis, Seville won the game. “The young man certainly stepped up,” said Jackson.
Coincidentally, the NBA’s draft extravaganza was held in Brooklyn, so there were dozens of the Knick faithful on hand, hoping that Jackson would tab a player they’d seen and/or read about.
Perhaps Willie Cauley-Stein, defensive whizz from Kentucky. Maybe Frank Kaminsky, the college player of the year from Wisconsin. Even though Emmanuel Mudiay had opted to play in China instead of going to college and was something of a mystery, all the published reports of his outstanding pre-draft workouts also seemed to make him an acceptable choice.
But then Jackson picked Porzingis.
All that the media had reported about this guy was that he was 7’2”, weighed a mere 220 pounds, and was so skinny that you could see his heart beating when he walked past a lit lamp.
In a chorus, the Knick fans in the Barclays Center greeted the choice with loud, vehement boos. The TV cameras focused on a youngster in a replica Carmelo Anthony jersey, grimacing and pointing his thumb at the floor.
In quick order, the vast majority of the media pundits likewise condemned, and even ridiculed, Jackson’s selection.
But here’s how Jackson justified drafting Porzingis: “After watching him during a pair of individual workouts, as well as KP’s performance in the post-draft Las Vegas Summer League, it was evident that KP can score. However, his natural bent is to be a team player. On defense, he can block shots from behind and is quick enough to stay in front of guards in screen-roll situations.”
Jackson did have one potential concern about his prize rookie: “Like Shawn Bradley, who was nevertheless a pretty good player, KP might almost be too tall for the game. 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.”
No surprise that the same media crew who’d lambasted Jackson’s selecting Porzingis immediately responded by claiming that the Knicks president had claimed that the rookie wouldn’t be any better than Bradley.
Nonsense. Jackson was simply voicing an honest evaluation of what problems Porzingis might be facing in the NBA. Perhaps Jackson was also delivering a not-so-subtle message for the rookie to visit the weight room ASAP.
Turned out that Porzingis needed no prompting. Quickly gaining the reputation for his diligent work ethic, by the first week in September he had already added 11 pounds of muscle. He’s also been working on a post-up game — jump hooks with either hand, as well as turnaround jumpers.
Most importantly — despite the New York media’s reflexive anti-Knick and anti-Jackson bias — is the testimony of one of the most experienced and knowledgeable NBA insiders of them all.
This would be the universally-respected Hal Wissel, who over his 40-year NBA career has served in many capacities ranging from assistant coach to director of player personnel for several teams. “Back in 2001,” said Wissel, “I was with the Memphis organization and was tasked with working with a blue-chip rookie they had obtained in a trade — Pau Gasol, who weighed only five pounds more than Kristaps. Moreover, Kristaps is taller, longer and a much better athlete than Gasol was. Plus, where Pau couldn’t shoot himself in the foot, Kristaps is an outstanding shooter. For me, he was the best player in the draft and Phil was fortunate to drop to the fourth pick.”
There’s no doubt that Porzingis’s NBA education will be a grueling one. But, it says here that, sooner rather than later, thumbs-down will flip to thumbs-up. And the frowns on the Knick-o-philes among us will turn to smiles.