Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis is something special

Video: Jason Jones' three takeaways from the Kings' victory against the Knicks

Jason Jones' three takeaways from the Kings' victory against the Knicks
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Jason Jones' three takeaways from the Kings' victory against the Knicks

So what’s in the water in the Baltics anyway? Kristaps Porzingis. KP. Kris. Whatever. The New York Knicks rookie, in an early two-man race for Rookie of the Year with Karl-Anthony Towns, is a tantalizing tangle of contradictions.

The native of tiny Latvia is 7-foot-3 and has a wingspan that stretches from head to toe. His skills threaten to reach out and touch the heavens. He runs, rebounds, passes, shoots threes without breaking a sweat. He blocks shots with one hand, then catches the ball with two.

True, he is so skinny above the waist, a strong gust presumably could sweep him out of a gym. But presume nothing about this kid. Barely two months into the regular season, Porzingis is trending as the latest off-Broadway sensation, a charismatic performer who – by an audience of famously demanding and knowledgeable Knicks fans – has been described as all of the following: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!

His clunker Wednesday night in Salt Lake City at least slightly tempered the enthusiasm. While packing for a trip that opened in Utah, Porzingis seemingly misplaced his cape. He had zero lift in the thin mountain air. His shot was short and flat. He appeared fatigued, almost sleepy, and was benched after 13 minutes and a season-worst four-point, three-rebound outing.

Alas, he is what he is. There is no cheating the calendar. He’s a first-year player, albeit one who leads rookies in blocks (1.83 per game entering Thursday) and is among the leaders in every significant category. His fascinating progression resumed in his first and last appearance at Sleep Train Arena on Thursday, when he bounced back with 13 points and seven rebounds in the Kings’ 99-97 victory over the Knicks.

Kristaps Porzingis leads rookies in blocks and is among the NBA leaders in every significant category.

So how did he get here from there? From a country of two million people, one that had produced only two other NBA players (Andris Biedrins and Gundars Vetra) while neighboring Lithuania remained an international powerhouse and a source of riches for professional teams? Largely because of the efforts of Hall of Famers Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, who for years have operated a basketball academy in Vilnius, Lithuania, the model for small country superiority, sharing something of a kinship with the small-market San Antonio Spurs.

Porzingis, 20, was only 8 when the marvelous, if oft-injured Sabonis, also 7-3, retired in 2003. While Porzingis grew up in the nation next door, so to speak, to parents who both played basketball, he followed a more modest career path, beginning with youth teams in his hometown of Liepaja and embarking on his professional career with Baloncesto Sevilla (2011-15). It was in Spain that NBA scouts and executives began to, well, salivate.

Kings assistant general manager Mike Bratz, a friend of Porzingis’ former coach in Sevilla, was among the early converts. According to general manager Vlade Divac, Bratz’s influence swept through the organization; had Porzingis been available at No. 6, Divac said, Porzingis would have been the Kings’ draft pick.

“I saw (Porzingis) play in Spain and Lithuania,” Bratz said, “and right from the beginning, it was obvious that you were looking at someone special. Outside of his body, there really were no concerns. Right off, there was his size. The guy is tall and long. He was thin but could gain weight. He was athletic, could really run the floor. Then watching him practice, the kid worked really hard. He showed no fear and is a natural shot blocker. But the best thing about him was his amazing shooting stroke. It’s compact. He was able to catch and shoot in one motion, repeatedly, and was very accurate.”

I saw (Porzingis) play in Spain and Lithuania, and right from the beginning, it was obvious that you were looking at someone special.

Mike Bratz, Kings assistant general manager

NBA scouts by the dozens trekked to Europe, though not without some trepidation. The overseas market has been in a downward cycle, and Porzingis was competing for draft status with several high-profile prospects, including Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Willie Cauley-Stein. Though he impressed league executives with his maturity and language skills at the predraft camp in Chicago, the Timberwolves (Towns), Lakers (Russell) and 76ers (Okafor) went with college prospects, leaving the gifted Latvian for Phil Jackson and the Knicks. Of course.

Jackson, who helped develop Croatian standout Toni Kukoc into one of the league’s most elegant players in the 1990s, might have a Kukoc-plus. Kukoc routinely deferred to Bulls teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but Porzingis thus far defers to no one, including All-Star Carmelo Anthony. And though the Knicks arrived in Sacramento on a three-game skid, Porzingis’ development is both worth watching and worth the wait. The good, the bad, the great, the benchings. All of it.

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“I guess (coach Derek Fisher) wanted to rest me,” the rookie told reporters after his brief appearance Wednesday. “You can definitely feel the altitude. The air is different. Now I know what I have to be ready for.”

Rookie watch

Bee columnist Ailene Voisin’s take on the NBA’s five best rookies:

  • Kristaps Porzingis, PF-C, New York Knicks: His first West Coast trip could be a struggle; he appeared to be playing on fumes Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. But he can get stronger and gain weight. As for his combination of size, skill and feel for the game? And the fun factor? They love him in New York for a reason, or actually several of them.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves: After a hot start and mini slump, he seems to be regrouping. He leads rookies in rebounds and blocks and is second in scoring and free-throw percentage. He could tussle with Porzingis all season for top rookie honors.
  • Jahlil Okafor, PF-C, Philadelphia 76ers: Off-court issues are a concern, and his rebounding is inconsistent, but he scores like a true post player and affects a game on the interior.
  • Justise Winslow, SF, Miami Heat: The fact Erik Spoelstra is giving the former Duke standout significant minutes, particularly in the fourth quarter, for one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference is your first hint. Then there are his defense, savvy and court sense.
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SG, Brooklyn Nets: He’s out because of a broken ankle, but he looks like a steal at No. 23 (by Portland and traded on draft night). He led rookies in steals and was a major contributor in most significant categories before the injury.
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