LAS VEGAS—In a basketball environment that can be chaotic and susceptible to hyperbole, Kristaps Porzingis enjoyed a controlled, respectable debut.
Porzingis, the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft, scored 12 points and grabbed three rebounds for the Knicks, who beat the Spurs 78–73 in their first Las Vegas Summer League game on Saturday. The 7'3" Latvian big man logged just 18 minutes, but that was a strategic move by coach Derek Fisher rather than a reflection of his quality of play. With Porzingis battling a minor hip injury, and the Knicks set to play on Monday and Tuesday, Fisher entered Saturday's action planning to limit the rookie's playing time.
A decorated player overseas, the 19-year-old Porzingis is still a curiosity here, and he arguably faces more scrutiny than any of his classmates. Unlike the three players taken before him—Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor—he doesn't have an NCAA resume for fans to pick through. And unlike the other lesser-known quantities taken after him, Mario Hezonja and Emmanuel Mudiay among others, Porzingis must handle the oversized expectations that come with playing in New York City. It didn't help that he was booed by Knicks fans on draft night, or that rumors circulated soon after that Knicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony was unhappy with the selection, or that the man who drafted him, Phil Jackson, presided over the worst season in franchise history in his first full season as president, or that the Knicks struck out on A-list free agents.
For the wrong personality, these circumstances could be a disaster in the making. Porzingis, however, presents himself as more self-deprecating than serious, more reflective than overwhelmed.
“I can't be 7'3" and hiding to myself,” Porzingis told a crowd of perhaps 20 reporters after his debut. “I've got to be an open person, be nice to the fans. I like people. I think that's something that will help me in the long run. The fans are nice. They're not so nice on social media, but on the street they're nice.”
There were no boos and only a few heckles at the Thomas & Mack Center. In fact, the Knicks fans in attendance cheered practically every time his name was called over the public address system, and his return to the game midway through the fourth quarter, when it seemed he might be done for the day, drew loud applause. Summer League fans are generally an optimistic bunch, and they rewarded baskets with excitement.
Porzingis earned that positive reception, even if his play wasn't necessarily spectacular. After giving himself a pregame pep talk, in which he told himself to "chill out," Porzingis didn't suffer from any obvious nerves. He scored New York's first points and showed assertiveness in his willingness to shoot, battle for position inside, handle the ball on the perimeter, and step out defensively against smaller opponents. He looked like the professional that he is—Porzingis spent the last three seasons in Spain's ACB league—rather than a deer in the headlights.
“He doesn't look physically overpowering but he plays a strong game,” Fisher said. “He's not afraid to go in there and mix it up. For that to be his first NBA action, I thought he had himself a good game.”
Although he's not the quickest or beefiest player you'll come across, Porzingis does move with the comfort of a stretch-four on offense. On one possession, he came from the baseline to set a high screen, popped out behind the arc to serve as a release for the ball-handler, faced up a defender, drove left to collapse help defenders, and then kicked out a pass to a shooter at the angle. There were only nine players in the NBA last season listed at 7'1" or taller, and none is equipped to handle such diverse responsibilities in quick succession like Porzingis.
His baskets came in different flavors. The first was a simple, smooth face-up jumper off a pick-and-pop. The second was a tip-in around the hoop made possible by his 7'6" wingspan. The third was a junky prayer that rattled in to give New York a seven-point lead with less than three minutes remaining.
“I've been working on those,” he joked afterward. “No, I just threw it up there. It was a lucky shot.”
Porzingis looks comfortable shooting with a hand in his face and dribbling under defensive pressure. He drew two shots with a well-executed spin move that he set up by putting the ball on the deck and creating body-to-body contact before stepping back. The best pass of his night, a well-timed and well-placed bounce pass to a backdoor cutter, produced free throws.
His feel for handling defensive attention can improve, and his desire to put the ball on the deck in traffic will bite him during the regular season. There are clearly strength-related issues too: he makes for an easy-to-spot target while posting up, but he was rooted off his spot on multiple occasions. It didn't help that New York's guards were struggling to feed the post and missed him at least once on over-the-top opportunities. After the game, Porzingis, who is listed at 233 pounds in New York's media guide, told reporters he would look to add “maybe 20, maybe 30” pounds to his frame as he develops.
Fisher was more interested in talking about Porzingis's defense. Despite a skinny frame that makes it tough for him to hold position and avoid being out-leveraged down low, Porzingis has some playmaking potential on the defensive end. His length helps him contest shots around the rim and on the perimeter. He blocked three shots against the Spurs, doing a nice job at times of keeping his verticality as opponents drove into him and moving laterally with attackers. He trusted his feet when facing smaller opponents, sought contact when angling for rebounds and even laid out horizontally for a late-game loose ball.
“He has the potential to be really special on the defensive end,” Fisher said. “There were some things he recognized, and made adjustments on. Supporting his teammates, switching out on smaller players, and using his length to protect the basket. On the defensive end I thought he impacted the game in a major way.”
Against NBA competition, Porzingis will need to prove that he is quick enough to handle ball-handlers turning the corner, and more discipline when it comes to avoiding foul trouble. He will need to get significantly stronger to become more of a consistent presence on the glass, and, as he pointed out, will need to continue to learn the Knicks' defensively terminology. Importantly, though, he moves like a basketball player rather than someone who was forced to play basketball.
Pessimistic observers fearing the worst—that Porzingis will turn out to be a total bust or stiff—will have a hard time reconciling that position with this first performance. He wasn't intimidated, he looked like a natural athlete, and his skill level rose to the surface on multiple occasions.
“I proved to some people who thought I was soft [that] I play physical,” Porzingis said. “I was just playing hard. It wasn't my greatest game, but I played OK. ... [The crowd reaction was] the opposite of what I heard on draft night. It was nice to hear some cheers out there.”