Enes Kanter spent the last two years watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook work up close and in person with the Oklahoma City Thunder, so he’s seen a thing or two when it comes to Most Valuable Player-caliber talent. And when it comes to Kristaps Porzingis, his new teammate and New York Knicks fans’ main reason for breathing, Kanter’s seen enough to know he’s seen enough.
“It’s crazy, but I think he should be in the MVP talk,” Kanter said after the Knicks’ 116-110 win over the Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden, according to Al Iannazzone of Newsday. “He should definitely be in the MVP talk. Because he’s bringing it every night. He’s doing an amazing job. He’s not taking nights off.”
The Turkish big man wasn’t the first one to float the idea out. The lovestruck and heartened hordes at MSG beat him there:
— Andrew Claudio (@Claudio_GSN) October 31, 2017
And who could blame them? After all, Porzingis was in the process of putting the finishing touches on his best game of the season, pouring in a career-high 38 points in 34 minutes to lead the Knicks to their third straight win. He’d just spent the previous two hours torturing a pretty damn good defender in Paul Millsap, making 14 of his 26 field goal attempts, including four of seven 3-pointers, a couple of which where launched from somewhere in the vicinity of Schenectady.
It was Porzingis’ ability to get loose from anywhere — flashing to the foul line off pindowns, popping behind the arc after a high screen, slicing around a backscreen from Tim Hardaway Jr. through the lane for a Kanter feed for a dunk — that helped the Knicks build a double-digit lead in the early going, despite being on the second night of a back-to-back after having blown out the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. Even more importantly, after the Knicks frittered away their 23-point lead by throwing the ball all over the freaking place for a six-minute stretch in the third quarter to fuel a 27-2 Nuggets run, it was Porzingis’ ability to stop the bleeding — on both ends of the floor, in spectacular fashion — that settled the Knicks down:
Pretty decent sequence for your man Kristaps. pic.twitter.com/0u3SBNQ6MZ
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) October 31, 2017
Courtney Lee actually got worried that the first play in that chain was about to become a massive mistake.
“Listen, I feel like I threw [the lob] a little too high,” Lee said after the game. “But I saw who I was throwing it too, and he went Go-Go Gadget, and went and got it.”
And with the game in the balance in the closing minutes, it was Porzingis’ strength — something he spent a great deal of time working on this summer; “He doesn’t get pushed off his spots anymore,” teammate Lance Thomas told Yaron Weitzman of Bleacher Report — that allowed him to anchor on the right block, work out of the post and drill big shots, like his jumpers over Millsap with 5:35 to go and over cross-matched guard Jamal Murray with 1:29 remaining.
“It comes with strength. Guys, they can’t get under him now,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said after the game, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “He says ‘OK, I’ll just shoot right over the top of you.’”
So far, with the exception of a rough night against Al Horford and a Boston Celtics defense that’s been excellent to start the season, that recipe — and the increased volume of shots he’s getting with Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City and Derrick Rose in Cleveland — has worked wonders for Porzingis.
At just 22 years old, Porzingis has started the season by scoring 30 or more points in five of New York’s first six games; he’s the first Knick ever to do that. Four months after the insane trade rumors that prompted frantic billboard rentals, Porzingis now sits third in the NBA in points per game, behind only bona fide superstar offensive engines Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMarcus Cousins.
Porzingis 30-point games
2015-17: 3 out of 138
2017-18: 5 out of 6
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) October 31, 2017
After finishing just under a quarter of the Knicks’ offensive possessions with a field goal attempt, turnover or foul drawn in both of his first two NBA seasons, Porzingis’ share of New York’s trips has ballooned to 35.1 percent thus far this season, the highest usage rate in the NBA. He’s feasting on that steadier diet of looks, shooting career highs on 2-point (51.5 percent) and 3-point (36.4 percent), while getting to the free-throw line at a much higher rate (7.4 attempts per 36 minutes) than he has to date.
Despite the uptick in offensive responsibility, Porzingis is still taking care of the ball, turning it over on a microscopic 8.3 percent of his possessions. That’s down from 9.7 percent last season, and the fourth-lowest mark of any player using at least 25 percent of his team’s plays this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. What do you call an efficient, high-usage, low-turnover scorer, whom defenses need to respect from 30 feet out and who can get a clean look against just about any defender inside the arc, who moves without the ball, can protect the rim, clear the defensive glass, run the floor, fill the lane and finish on the break, and who can seemingly do it all within the flow of the game? Well, when you’re sick of “unicorn,” you’d be forgiven if you decided to chant something a little catchier, with fewer letters.
Yes, this is all the product of two good weeks, and dimmer days are all but surely ahead for the 2017-18 Knicks. Lest we forget, we’re all of three games clear of the Knicks literally not knowing what they were doing and being winless despite Kristaps’ heroics. And no, you can’t really call Porzingis the MVP of a league in which Giannis has already ascended to an even higher level, and in which LeBron still exists, and in which Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant remain eminently capable of reducing even elite defenses to rubble.
But whatever may come for the team as a whole this season, and however well-justified and hardened your Knicks-related skepticism may be, it’s impossible to come away from a run like this, in the first year post-Melo, with the feeling that this is really what Kristaps Porzingis is: an actual, honest-to-goodness centerpiece. For the future, sure, but also for right now.
“Honestly, I’m just obsessed with being great,” Porzingis recently told Harvey Araton for The Athletic.
Six games into the season and one year into the Knicks’ latest attempt at a rebuild, he might be closer than anyone could’ve hoped.
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