A little after 4:30 on Monday afternoon, Kristaps Porzingis pulls into the players’ entrance at Madison Square Garden. He steps out of his black Mercedes Benz and exchanges a hand shake and hug with one of the Garden security guards.
A small group of Knicks fans standing outside of the security gates confer with one another to make sure that they’d just seen the player they’d been waiting for.
“Yup, that’s him — he’s hard to miss,” one says as Porzingis heads into the arena.
A few hours later, some of those same fans are screaming at Porzingis, showering him with early-season MVP chants. He’s wrapping up a 38-point night against the Denver Nuggets, leading the New York Knicks to their third straight win.
It’s Porzingis’ fifth 30-point game of the young season, but, ever self-aware, the 22-year-old downplays the accomplishment after the game.
“I’m just playing my game,” he says late Monday night.
If what we’ve seen over the past two weeks is Porzingis just playing his game, the Knicks (3-3) may be in better shape than any of us thought.
“If they wanted to tank games for the draft this season, his play may not let them,” one Eastern Conference executive says.
The numbers for Porzingis so far are stunning. His five 30-point games are the highest total through six games in Knicks history. He’s the league’s third-leading scorer (29.3) points per game. And his point total through six games (176) is the highest for a player 22 or younger in the past 10 seasons.
“He’s up to the task,” Knicks guard Courtney Lee says. “…. He knows what’s ahead of him and what we expect from him.”
What you’re seeing from Porzingis is a product of weeks of conditioning and strength training in Latvia over the summer.
Porzingis spent about five hours a day training — one session in the morning and one in the evening — to increase his core and lower-body strength. He combined track and field workouts and conditioning in the pool with targeted weightlifting and on-court work — under the guidance of physiologist Manolo Valdivieso.
The added strength and conditioning have allowed the 7-foot-3 forward to keep his positioning in the post.
“He’s catching the ball where he wants to catch it,” Knicks forward Lance Thomas says. “The last couple of years, guys were able to push him off of where he wants the ball and he’d be able to make up that ground by dribbling and playing down to the defender. [Now] he has shots where people can’t guard him. … He’s realizing that he has that advantage over guys that are 6-10, 6-11.”
The numbers support Thomas’ words.
Porzingis’ post touches (+4.8 per game) and paint touches (+3.5 per game) are up significantly from last season. He’s averaging 1.1 points per play on post-ups, putting him in the 84th percentile in the league, per Synergy Sports. (He was in the 31st percentile last season.) Porzingis is also shooting 51 percent on midrange shots — those turnarounds and face-ups — and his midrange field-goal total (3.5) is the fourth-highest in the NBA. And his shooting percentage in the paint outside of the restricted area is up 16 percent from last season. “He’s just tough to guard there,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek says.
Porzingis has also been strong from the perimeter. He has hit 39 percent of his 3-point attempts since Jarrett Jack took over as the Knicks’ starting point guard on Friday — the most noteworthy being a 33-footer in the first half against Denver.
“Some of the stuff he does, we just look at each other on the bench like, ‘Man, did he really just do that?'” new teammate Enes Kanter says.
Porzingis’ new tricks aren’t limited to the court. With Carmelo Anthony now in Oklahoma City, teammates say he has taken on more of a leadership role this season — something Thomas has been pushing him to do.
“He’s in tune with everyone,” Thomas says. “In the past, guys have always had their groups of people they hang out with. But he’s everywhere. He’s over there [hanging out] with everyone.”
Porzingis’ early-season exploits have made the drama that surrounded him a few months ago into almost an afterthought. To recap: He skipped his exit meeting with team executives Phil Jackson and Steve Mills over frustration with the drama and dysfunction surrounding the franchise. In the following days and weeks, the Knicks spoke with several teams about potential trades for Porzingis.
Talks were most intense in the days leading up to the NBA draft. The common perception afterward was that Jackson, who drafted Porzingis, was teaching his young star a lesson for skipping his exit meeting. But league sources have told ESPN that multiple members of the Knicks organization were in favor of trading Porzingis at the time. That led to a fracture in the relationship between Porzingis and the franchise.
One of the biggest questions going forward for New York is if Porzingis will commit to a long-term extension with New York at some point over the next two summers. Knicks president Mills believes that he will.
“He’s very excited about where we’re going,” Mills said before the season. “… I’m very confident that we will make him feel good about being a Knick and make him feel good about the environment here.”
Of course, plenty can happen over the next four months — and the next two summers — with the Knicks. But so far, it looks like Porzingis is enjoying himself in New York.