Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis has room to grow, much to offer the NBA
The rosters at the Las Vegas Summer League are stocked with draftees looking to impress and fringe players desperate to land an NBA contract. This tends to make it even more of a guard's league than the NBA proper. The players who initiate the offense on the perimeter want to prove to every scout, coach, and executive in attendance that they can make winning plays. Too often they go about it in the wrong ways—rushing shots, overdribbling—for the sake of having a direct and obvious influence on the game that shows in the box score.
Big men, then, tend to function as accessories. In spite of that organizational limitation, Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis was able to showcase a level of skill and feel for the game in Vegas well ahead of his developmental schedule. That hardly makes him NBA-ready in all respects, though it's valuable in itself that Porzingis looks to be a prospect worth waiting for.
Those glimpses go a long way. Patience is the order of the day in New York, where the reactionary mismanagement typical of that franchise has finally given way to a more gradual track to respectability. Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and Kyle O'Quinn won't save the Knicks or bail out Carmelo Anthony in any dramatic way. They will, however, fill the rotation with players more worthy of their roles and more capable of running the triangle offense as intended. Short-sightedness and market hubris led the Knicks into pitfall after pitfall over the years. At long last they've actually deemed it worthwhile to actually watch their step, take reliable footholds, and plot their way forward.
This is what long-term planning looks like and Porzingis is just the high-leverage piece for it. Much rests on the shoulders of the 7-foot prospect, which is just as it should be for a team in New York's position coming off of the No. 4 pick in the draft. With time, the Knicks will bring in more players of developmental interest and potential stars. As it stands, they can make do with just the one—a smart, calculated risk that complements the rest of New York's blueprint nicely.
Porzingis isn't physically ready to be a meaningful NBA contributor, if only because he's still too slight in ways that will factor into most every possession. Forget the post; Porzingis isn't at a point where he can set a hard screen, hold his rebounding position, or deny an off-ball opponent from moving as they'd like. Practical basketball strength goes well beyond being dislodged from the low block. Until Porzingis can fill out a bit, even incidental contact will be a battle.
What's most promising is that Porzingis, despite his lean frame and playing on a team of players he hardly knew, still navigated the floor in Vegas like a fluid, instinctive basketball player. So much of what he couldn't do can be remedied with time and training. What he already could do confidently—turn on the catch and shoot quickly, slide around the floor on defense, assist teammates outside the context of any set play—spoke to a feel for the game that's much more innate. Rare is a 7-footer who can move as Porzingis does. Exceptionally so are those who operate with an instinctive sense of purpose beyond the obvious.
Reading and navigating the NBA game will be an entirely different test for Porzingis. Summer league is, from an execution standpoint, an incredibly limited setting. The players aren't talented enough and the schemes aren't sophisticated enough to force any individual into possessions on end of complicated decision-making, as would happen when trying to slow the Spurs or score on the Warriors. How Porzingis does with that flow will be a point of intrigue. Clearly he has the skills and size to be factor. Yet stardom in the modern NBA requires the ability to stay ahead of an opponent's progressing offense or recovering defense on a beat-for-beat basis. Discerning the right play only matters, in a sense, if a player has the coordination and timing to complete it.
We won't know for sure until we see Porzingis challenged at full speed. His height alone gives him some leeway in firing off his jumper, catching passes in traffic, and contesting the shots of others. These are the perks of being a giant. The push toward precision, though, will help Porzingis in those snap transitions from one responsibility to the next. NBA bigs are caught in a never-ending spiral of screening, rolling, rebounding, containing, and challenging. Porzingis has the ability to do each of those things individually. Only time will tell if he can do them all in succession at the rigor that high-level NBA play demands.