When a tree falls in the middle of the forest, most people won’t hear its thump. when a different tree in that forest jumps up and blocks seven shots in his 14th career NBA game, basketball fans and analysts conjure up nicknames like Shaq-Zingis.
The New York Knicks snagged Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3-inch 20-year-old big man out of Latvia, off the board during the 2015 NBA Draft last June as the fourth overall pick. Averaging 13.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and a block and a half per game, Porzingis is present on rookie leaderboards in several stat categories since the season’s commencement. From the franchise’s point of view, however, the most riveting numbers this season lie in the standings, and a healthy chunk of the Knicks’ improvement from last year’s forgettable 17-win turnout can be credited to Porzingis’ performance on the low block.
For multiple seasons, New York has driven their roster focus toward competent and productive big men. Tyson Chandler and the injury-ridden Amar’e Stoudemire made up the Knicks’ last notable front court… in 2013. With Chandler being traded away and Stoudemire eventually being waived, New York knew they would be selecting the most effective frontcourt player available with the fourth pick in the draft.
The recurring question throughout the next season for top-five selections is if they were worth the early pick based on their performance. Since Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor — who made up the big-man tier above Porzingis entering the draft — were off the board before the Knicks’ pick, the team was presented with two acceptable options at the desired position: Porzingis and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, who was drafted sixth overall by the Sacramento Kings.
Cauley-Stein, thus far this season, is averaging five points, five boards and a block. But he’s receiving only 18.7 minutes per game — compared to Porzingis’ 26.9 — since both DeMarcus Cousins and Kosta Koufos are dealt a healthy amount of playing time at power forward and center. (Omri Casspi, primarily a small forward, also plays a good amount at the four.) Interestingly enough, Porzingis and Cauley-Stein present similar numbers across rebounding and blocks statistics per 48 minutes.
But Porzingis is putting up twice the points per 48 minutes that Cauley-Stein is.
Both players are absolutely superb defenders. Cauley-Stein won SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a junior last season at Kentucky over several others within that conference much deserving recognition for stellar defensive play. Averaging 2.2 blocks over three years with the Wild Cats, it’s fair to rank Cauley-Stein higher defensively. Although Porzingis returned seven shots on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, Dwight Howard’s absence from the lineup is worth noting since defensive help on the frontcourt would be necessary with him in the post.
But the offensive edge that Porzingis possesses has proven significant since the Knicks averaged only 97.6 points per game as a team last season, ranked 23rd in that category. If the Knicks were not in need of another offensive factor to help Carmelo Anthony amongst all the trees in the paint — whether on the drive or tracking down long-range miscues — then Cauley-Stein’s defensive ceiling potentially could have justified debate on the Knicks’ selection of Kristaps Porzingis.
Fifteen games into the NBA season, Porzingis is playing like a top-five draft pick. New York would like to see it stay that way. It’s been awhile since this squad caught a break.