Wagner: Porzingis Forced to Learn the Hard Way without Hardaway

A new calendar year, same old problems for the New York Knicks’ franchise player.

Hoping to put his shooting woes toward the end of 2017 behind him, star forward Kristaps Porzingis’ results were no better during his team’s first game in 2018, while going a dismal 5-for-19 from the field as the Knicks (18-19) — who were defeated in San Antonio last Thursday night — lost to the San Antonio Spurs (26-12) for the second time in six days, 100-91, at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

Although Porzingis wasn’t alone (with San Antonio shooting just 37.8 percent, and New York only slightly better, at 40.2 percent from the floor), another off night continued a mildly troublesome trend for the 22-year-old Latvian whom the Knicks are rebuilding around presently and possibly over the next several years.

A number of varied factors have put an extended halt on a once extremely hot start to the Knicks becoming Porzingis’ team in Porzingis’ third NBA season, his first in the post-Carmelo Anthony era.

Gaining the attention of the entire league, Porzingis’ name was deservedly mentioned in some very early Most Valuable Player talk, when the Knicks’ biggest current hope for their future took the league by storm, shooting 51.3 percent (including 41.8 percent from 3-point range), while averaging 30.4 points per game and scoring at least 30 points eight times (including a career-high 40-point game) over his first 11 contests of the season.

However, as word quickly got out about Porzingis’ big jump forward off of a pair of initial eye-opening seasons — and there was enough film on his great start to this season — the league starting paying a lot more attention to stopping Porzingis with a combination of increased physical play and more double teams.

Additionally, injuries — both to Porzingis, and his most important sidekick, the Knicks’ second-leading scorer (behind Porzingis), small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. — have also derailed Porzingis, who has missed six games this season, five of which came since his good start to the year, due to a myriad of issues dealing with each knee, his ankle, lower back.

The converse to the way Porzingis’ season has gone, Hardaway Jr. had an awful start over his first four games prior to heating up and mostly playing well over his next 17 games before a sudden stress injury in his lower left leg forced him to miss New York’s last 16 games with no definitive timetable for his return.

And finally, given Porzingis’ recent comments about referees not calling some subtle touches on his arms and elbows which he said “had a big effect” on his shot, to the point where he might have to consider “changing his game” a bit, there’s the mental aspect of adjusting as a young, budding star trying to learn and grow as some of the world’s best coaches and players are trying to key on and stop Porzingis.

As a result, Porzingis has drastically cooled off ever since, aside from what have become only very infrequent solid performances. Following his initial dominant start to the year, Porzingis has shot just 39.5 percent overall, including 34.4 percent over his last 20 games.

Not counting a 2-for-2 game in which he played only three minutes before leaving with an ankle injury, Porzingis  has shot at least 50 percent in only four games (while surpassing that mark only once) over that stretch after shooting over 50 percent in seven of his first 11 games this year. Things hit rock bottom for Porzingis with a one-point, 0-for-11 game in a home loss to Boston on Dec 21.

However, Porzingis noted in the Knicks’ prior game before hosting the Spurs (only New York’s third win in 15 road games this season), “Against New Orleans, I had 30 (on 11-of-22 shooting). I’m okay.”

Still, Porzingis fully acknowledges the challenges he’s been facing while trying to get to level he was playing at early in the season.

“Sometimes, I force shots,” he admitted. “I take shots over people, but I feel like I can make those. Even tonight, how many shots were in and out? It’s just a little adjustment I have to make, a little better balance… if I hit two or three of those shots early on, the game could have went completely different, but at the end, it was just an off night for me offensively.”

Those certainly can happen from time to time, even with the league’s best stars. But Porzingis’ lack of production and efficiency has reached a sustained period of decline, despite only the occasional big games he’s had over that time.

Noting the way the Spurs harassed Porzingis with fronts and double teams at the Garden, head coach Jeff Hornacek hinted that part of Porzingis’ issues are team-related.

“That’s something we’re going to have to look at, deal with and learn from,” Hornacek said. “[Opponents] will switch a small guy off [of Porzingis] and we try and throw [the ball] to him and they get into his legs, and they come from the weak side on the dribble, and we’re just going to have to continue to maybe not settle for just looking for him [in those spots]. Maybe swing the ball to the other side and let the play happen… but we have a tendency to say, ‘K.P.’s our guy, so let’s throw it to him,’ and that’s when we end up standing around.”

Reserve forward Michael Beasley — who has effectively and efficiently filled the scoring void for Porzingis at times, in spot starts when Porzingis was out with injuries, or simply by providing a needed spark off the bench when Porzingis was sent there — said, “We’ve got to get K.P. going a little easier than we did tonight… we tried to force a lot of things. We’ve just got to be better at getting him easier shots… we have to get the defense moving… when a guy like [Porzingis] gets going, it makes it easier for everyone [on our team] throughout the game.”

Without Porzingis able to carry the Knicks to the finish line against the Spurs — as he did so impressively during the Knicks’ consecutive wins (each at home) from 19 and 15 points down, against Indiana and Charlotte, respectively, in early November — New York lacked the offensive firepower needed to compete with high scorers LaMarcus Aldridge (29 points) and Kawhi Leonard (25 points) who carried the Spurs while sending the Knicks to consecutive home losses first time this season after New York started the year 15-5 at MSG (even after the Knicks overcame Porzingis’ 3-for-9 first-quarter shooting and an early 14-9 deficit to lead, 34-25, two minutes into the second quarter).

A 29-18 third quarter broke open a three-point game at halftime and put San Antonio up, 81-67 after three quarters, and with Porzingis going scoreless in the final quarter (on just two shots), the Spurs — despite shooting just 4-for-21 in the period — never allowed the Knicks to get closer than seven points in the quarter.

While there might be at least modicum of concern with Porzingis’ fall-off, it’s far too soon to worry much.

And despite Porzingis’ earlier thoughts that he may have to adapt his own game due to the non-calls he feels he should be getting, Hornacek doesn’t believe that Porzingis’ difficulties have anything to do with his go-to player feeling any extra pressure or that Porzingis is perhaps mentally pressing too much with his shot.

“I don’t think so,” Hornacek said. “He’s a tough-minded kid. He wants to do well, he wants to be one of the best players in this league. I don’t know whether he’s thinking about changing his game, I think it might be a little less [of] trying to back a guy in and then turning around and shooting it.

“A lot of times, we tell him, ‘Just turn and shoot before they can hit you on the arm.’ He’s 22 years old… everybody knows he’s our main guy, so I think he’s doing great so far. He’s going to have some ups and downs, but this is all a growing process.”

Likewise, Porzingis is wisely looking at the longer-term view in a more patient and pragmatic way, while still admitting that lacking a key complementary scorer, with Hardaway Jr. Out of the lineup for so long, has been a strain on him.

“It happens,” he said. “It’s normal, especially now that Tim is out, there’s a lot of tension on me. When I was getting all those 30-point games early on in the season, the double-team wasn’t coming [and] I was getting touches in the post much easier.

“But I’m learning. When the double-teams come, I’m trying to make the right pass [or] the right play, and it’s an adjustment. Every game, it’s something different, and you have to be able to adjust quickly. Every game, you learn something and you grow.”

Eventually, the types of trials Porzingis has been facing might indeed be viewed as nothing more than early career growing pains on an ultimate path toward greatness. But particularly without Hardaway Jr., it may tough for a while to watch Porzingis learn the hard way.


About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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