NEW YORK — A crowd of excited teenagers sat on bleachers at adidas’s new flagship store in Manhattan and anxiously waited for Knicks players to arrive and raffle off exclusive sneakers. As lines grew out on Fifth Avenue, this group was lucky enough to have front row seats to the day’s events and their excitement was palpable.
The students cheered harder with each arrival until, finally, Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis strolled down steel steps to a deafening welcome. While the reaction is commonplace for a long-time big name like Rose, it’s still new for the Porzingis, who isn’t too far removed from entering the NBA draft as a virtual unknown.
In the past year and change, though, Porzingis has become part of an emerging contingent of young big men in the NBA. At the time of the adidas event, Porzingis was in the midst of a home-and-home stint against Karl-Anthony Towns, with players like Julius Randle, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid on the upcoming schedule. He spoke with SI.com about the new era of big men, his NBA maturation and more.
DeAntae Prince: You're donating money to charity every time you block a shot this season. How important is it for you to look out for the younger generation?
Kristaps Porzingis: I love it, I love giving back to the community, especially when I went to the event and saw all those kids smiling faces. They went wild; it was crazy when they saw me. Being able to make an impact on those kids and their lives is huge, and we came up with this idea that through those blocked shots we can do something good and kind of show the defensive part of my game at the same time.
DP: How fun has it been to face off with Karl-Anthony Towns and sort of duel for two straight games?
KP: It’s not easy, because Karl is an unbelievable player, the level he’s been playing at and the type of player he is all around, it’s hard to guard a guy like that. Usually, you’re not having too much fun when you have a guy like that going against you, but the big thing for me when I step out on the court is always to enjoy it out there, and I think we both did.
DP: Joel Embiid is another young big man who has burst onto the scene this season. Are you looking forward to playing against him?
KP: Of course, he’s been playing at a really high level. I know they’re holding him back so his numbers will probably get even better. He’s a really good player, his size, his ability to shoot from outside and all that he’s put together. It will be another challenge for us, but I’m excited for it.
DP: I asked you about those two guys because it feels like there’s a good class of young big men, even as team emphasis has shifted to becoming smaller and more mobile.
KP: I think [the 2015] draft last year was one of the top drafts in the last few years, but that’s up to us to prove that, and a lot of really good big men came out of that draft. Now we just have to prove how good we are and keep it going.
DP: You're well on your way to doing that here. How much more comfortable are you with New York, America and game situations now that you have a year under your belt?
KP: The first year was kind of hard for me. There was just too much attention, too much going on and I really just wanted to focus on basketball. All these offers were coming in, especially when I started playing a little bit, because nobody was really expecting much from me. But once I started playing there was really a lot going on. It was kind of crazy, because I didn’t know. But now that I’ve grown used to it and I’m in my second season. I’m doing a better job. I still can improve my off-the-court life, but I think I’m managing it better and my brothers are managing all the stuff better.
DP: Do you feel like that’s coming out in your play? This year you've already dropped 30-plus a few times and are now in that range more often after only a month.
KP: Last season I never got to 30, I was always around 28, 29. This year I’ve got it twice already, and it’s just about playing with more confidence, knowing that you’re capable of doing a lot more on the court and my teammates trusting me. My teammates are really making me look good out there a lot of times, and that’s why I’ve been able to be successful.