On the night of the 2015 NBA draft, Kristaps Porzingis shrugged off the scorn that cascaded down from the fans in the stands at Barclays Center who felt ill at ease after the New York Knicks used the fourth overall pick on a thin giant from Latvia.
"I mean, a lot of fans weren't happy that they drafted me, but I have to do everything that's in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping fans," he said.
This week — after doing precisely that, becoming an early-season fan favorite with his poise and putbacks — Porzingis said that this is, y'know, what he was looking for when he decided to head to the States after spending the first four seasons of his pro career in Spain.
"I wanted to be in New York because I love pressure,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports senior NBA writer Michael Lee. “I knew we could do big things here in the future. If you can succeed in New York, you can succeed anywhere.”
Porzingis' success reached new heights on Tuesday. Those cheers reached a new volume. And those boos? Well, nobody's heard one of them in a while.
Porzingis produced his best NBA game to date on Tuesday, scoring a career-high 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting in 31 minutes of work to propel the Knicks past the visiting Charlotte Hornets, 102-94, at a raucous Madison Square Garden. One week after coming a millisecond shy of beating the Hornets at their gym, Porzingis made sure to leave nothing to chance in his own. He poured in lefty floaters, elbow jumpers, baseline shake-and-bakes, tough finishes through contact, pull-up fadeaways and putbacks in traffic (albeit none of the dunking-on-someone's-back category).
He made both of his 3-point attempts, marking his first multi-triple game as a Knick, and all seven of his free throws. He pulled down 11 rebounds, notching his fifth double-double in 12 games. He worked on defense without fouling, picking up only two personals, which allowed him to stay on the floor and in rhythm. He earned loud chants of "POR-ZING-IS!" from the fans in attendance at MSG.
He was tremendous, and his effort — capped by a rebound of a missed 3-pointer by Hornets swingman Nicolas Batum and a pair of free throws that gave the Knicks a six-point lead with 11 seconds remaining — helped New York hold on after going stagnant for the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, as the efforts of Knick-killing point guard Kemba Walker (a season-high 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting) and the reserve backcourt of former Knick hero Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb (a combined 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) cut what was once a 13-point lead down to within two buckets of disappearing.
It didn't, though, sending the Knicks to 6-6 on the young season. It took last year's Knicks 42 games to log their sixth win. This is better, and it's better thanks in large part to the 7-foot-3 20-year-old who just keeps proving that he belongs.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Perhaps the most exciting thing for Knicks fans, though: that after having his first huge game in a Knicks uniform, he sounds less eager to celebrate than he is to go get his second.
“The easy part is playing one game like that,” he said, according to Scott Cacciola of the New York Times. “The hard part is to keep playing at this level.”
That'll be tough, of course, if only because the level at which Porzingis produced on Tuesday has been so rare for a player of his age and experience level.
Porzingis is just the 21st player in the last 30 years to put up 29 and 11 before his 21st birthday, joining future MVPs (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal), future All-Stars (teammate Carmelo Anthony, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Chris Bosh, Elton Brand, Luol Deng, Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Rashard Lewis, Amar'e Stoudemire, Antoine Walker, Chris Webber), current rising stars (Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Nerlens Noel, Tobias Harris) and Lamar Odom (Lamar Odom). He is the youngest Knick ever to put up 25 and 10. He is the first Knicks rookie to put up at least 27 and 10 since Patrick Ewing, who got an up-close-and-personal look at Porzingis from the Hornets' bench, where he served as Steve Clifford's associate head coach.
Porzingis' huge night obscured, perhaps somewhat unfairly, a strong overall outing from Anthony, who struggled with his shot, going just 6-for-18 from the field, but who turned in an excellent floor game. He looked to find teammates, and especially Porzingis, early and often, tying for the team-high with five assists while matching the rookie's 11 rebounds, blocking a pair of shots and only turning the ball over once in 37-plus minutes of work.
His all-around effort helped set the stage for Porzingis' explosion, and he was all too happy to let the rookie enjoy his career night.
"It's still a learning process for him but tonight was a big game, a big way to step up and take control of the game offensively, knock down shots, be aggressive out there, and I'm pretty sure it'll be the first of many," Anthony said, according to Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press.
Well, he let Porzingis enjoy it to a point, according to Newsday's Al Iannazzone:
[...] his breakout performance didn't let him pass on his rookie responsibilities. Afterward, Porzingis had to make sure the veterans had towels.
"He had a big game, but you got to get them towels, man,'' Anthony said. "You can celebrate later.''
But Anthony, who was more of a facilitator [on Tuesday], seemed genuinely happy for his young teammate.
"It felt good, man,'' Anthony said. "He picked it up for everybody. Offensively he came through big for us. It felt good to hear his name being chanted in our arena. I'm proud of him.''
He wasn't the only one in the World's Most Famous Arena to feel that way on Tuesday, a fact that became evident during Porzingis' postgame interview with MSG's Rebecca Haarlow, who asked what it felt like to turn in such a productive performance in front of the home crowd.
"I want to try to put [up] those numbers every game, to help the team win," Porzingis said, prompting the Garden faithful to roar, which seemed to sincerely affect the rookie big man:
"It always feels better to do that at home," he said after a moment's pause.
Half a world away from the city of his birth and the arenas in which he began his professional career, Kristaps Porzingis got comfortable in his new home on Tuesday, giving New Yorkers a glimpse of the Knicks' hoped-for future while extending their surprisingly satisfying present. He's not yet what he could be, but what he already is can be awfully fun, and awfully productive, to boot.
More NBA coverage:
- - - - - - -