Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis not fazed by Big Apple expectations: ‘I love pressure’

NEW YORK – Kristaps Porzingis didn't even need a dozen games for those same fans who rudely greeted his arrival at the NBA draft with resounding boos to suddenly turn him into New York's latest sensation, a 7-foot-3 Latvian fascination, carrying the hope of the future every time he steps on the court.

Kristaps Porzingis has the height and length to be a dangerous shot-blocker. (AP)
Kristaps Porzingis has the height and length to be a dangerous shot-blocker. (AP)

Already, Porzingis finds himself drawing the loudest cheers at Madison Square Garden when he is announced at Knicks home games – in the prestigious second-to-last spot before current franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony – and gathering admirers from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, plus notable celebrity fans who have quickly recognized that he might actually be more Dirk than Darko. Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who provided his team's lone World Series victory last month, recently sat courtside and left the arena with a special request for a Porzingis No. 6 jersey on his way out.

But even more than his spin move around Paul Millsap for a dunk in his home debut or his soaring-from-the-rafters putback dunks over LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love, or his almost game-winning 3-pointer in Charlotte on Nov. 11, Porzingis showed his potential to become a truly international star after a recent loss to Cleveland – away from the theater lights and roaring crowd. Holding court at his locker-room stall, Porzingis coolly sat down and conducted a postgame group interview in English, a one-on-one in Spanish and a final one-on-one in Latvian. Porzingis managed each session in quick succession with poise and confidence, two traits that have come to define the 20-year-old rookie in his first few weeks in the NBA.

“I’ve done two,” Porzingis said, with a laugh, about conducting interviews in different languages. “That is the first time I’ve done three. Crazy.”

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After completing the worst season in franchise history, Knicks fans were eager for something to rally behind, which explained their disappointment when the draft lottery only yielded the fourth pick and team president Phil Jackson used that selection on a relatively unknown prospect from Europe. The lasting image of that night won't be Porzingis hugging his family before meeting commissioner Adam Silver, but rather that devastated little boy who reacted to the choice by crying into his cellphone as he took a selfie.

The Knicks hadn't used a top-15 pick on a 7-footer from Europe since 1999, when they famously took Frederic Weis one spot ahead of Queens native Ron Artest. Weis never played a game in New York, and is most known for being hurdled by Vince Carter in the 2000 Olympics, so the expectations for Porzingis weren't especially high. Porzingis wouldn't let the response cloud his moment because playing for the Knicks had been his "dream." But Porzingis immediately came to recognize what it means to play in New York – a city that has devoured All-Star studs, never-was duds and everything in between during a championship drought that dates to 1973. Porzingis was 3 years old the last time the franchise reached the NBA Finals.

“The first day I got drafted, I felt the fans were really passionate about basketball and there was going to be a lot of pressure. I knew that, but I wanted to be in New York because I love pressure,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “I knew we could do big things here in the future. If you can succeed in New York, you can succeed anywhere.”

Porzingis already has an advantage over most international players because he has been speaking English since he was 7 and embraced American culture at a young age. At the urging of his older brothers and to the delight of the girls at his school, Porzingis decided to have his long hair braided into cornrows so that he could resemble Allen Iverson. Porzingis’ oldest brother, Janis, a former professional basketball player, even bought Kristaps a powder blue headband like the one current Knicks teammate Anthony wore while sporting an identical hairstyle as a member of the Denver Nuggets.

“I grew my hair and one day, I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ My brothers said it looked cool,” Porzingis said with a laugh, while suggesting he was probably the only 10-year-old in Latvia with that look.

Porzingis is hardly intimidated by the challenge of New York, having already overcome homesickness when he was 15 and left his family to pursue a basketball career in Spain without any knowledge of the language or culture. The first few months in Seville were so difficult, Porzingis said, that he contemplated not returning when he went home for Christmas. Wisely, Porzingis returned and fully immersed himself into the game, mastering his skills until he could navigate his surroundings.

Porzingis has made a splash early in the season with his put-back dunks. (AP)
Porzingis has made a splash early in the season with his put-back dunks. (AP)

“His culture is basketball,” said famed Las Vegas-based trainer Joe Abunassar, who prepared Porzingis for the draft in each of the past two summers. “What he does at night is basketball. He trains in the morning and shoots extra at night. Whether you’re in Seville, Spain, New York or Vegas, when you talk about the cultural differences, he’s not much of a, ‘Hey, let’s go experience the culture.’ It’s. 'Let’s go to the gym.' If you keep your culture tight like that, it’s easy to adjust.”

In a family in which parents Talis and Ingrida, and brothers Janis and Martins all played the game, Porzingis didn't have much choice. Porzingis remembers crying when his mother took the then-6-year-old to his first practice at Liepaja State Gymnasium, where his first coach, Edvins Sprude, angrily screamed out instructions until his players got it right. As Porzingis grew, his love for the game mushroomed and created a passion that Janis believes will benefit him through the inevitable tough times under the league’s largest microscope.

“I think this is the thing: Once the level of talent goes up, the laziness goes up also. He doesn’t have that,” Janis Porzingis said. “He loves it. It’s not like he goes home and thinks, ‘Oh my God, this is so difficult.’ He actually enjoys it.”

Porzingis has an apartment in Manhattan but spends most of his time with his family in White Plains, not far from the Knicks' practice facility. Having a support system in place – his family joined him after the draft – is unusual for Porzingis after learning on his own in Spain, but he prefers having loved ones around to encourage him and keep him grounded. Porzingis' family plans to take short road trips to watch games in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. Talis proudly pulled out his cellphone to record Kristaps stepping on the floor for pregame warmups before the Knicks' win against the Wizards on Oct. 31.

“They make sure, whenever I’m a little too high, they calm me down. When I’m down, they give me some confidence,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “My older brothers, they know how to keep my head straight and be thinking about what I need to do on the court. Now I have that in me, that mentality, that I want to get better and better every game. Thanks to them, they showed me the way.”

The first few weeks of Porzingis' career have generated considerable hype and acclaim, as he leads the Knicks in rebounding (8.4 per game) despite an incredibly thin frame and playing fewer than 25 minutes. Porzingis' rebound put-back dunks have contributed heavily to his exposure; awe-inspiring highlights that are meant to be gawked over in endless Vine loops. They are a credit to his extra long arms and overly aggressive pursuit of any loose caroms. The latter is a trait that cannot be taught and was evident to Abunassar during Porzingis' first summer in Las Vegas, when the frail but fearless teenager was matched up with NBA veterans and tried to dunk on everything in his path.

Janis Porzingis shrugged after hearing a rundown of some of his brother's most buzzworthy plays: "The people of New York haven't seen him. It doesn't surprise me. Right now, those are kind of normal things that he's capable of doing."

Porzingis hasn't shot the ball well – a hair above 38 percent – but his form has been textbook, with Abunassar noting how the ball perfectly rolled off his finger tips in the 3-pointer that didn’t beat the buzzer in Charlotte. Though that shot was milliseconds too late, Porzingis appears to be ahead of schedule.

“I’ve seen so many guys come through and in order for me to say a guy can be great is their mental approach. He’s got what it takes to be great,” said Abunassar, who has worked with NBA champions Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups, among others. “I’m not comparing him to KG, but having been around KG – he’s certainly not there and I’m sure he’d admit, a long way to go – but that’s what you get when you get a combination of passion and skill. You get a 20-year career.

“Twenty years of me doing this, this kid’s got it all. His skill and his size are extremely unique, but what you’re seeing now with the rebounding, a high school coach will tell you that’s about desire. He’s really competitive. He’s a baller. We’ve seen talented guys that didn’t pan out, but he’s got that intangible quality.”

Knicks coach Derek Fisher had no qualms about naming him a starter or with calling his number in late-game situations as New York has gotten off to a somewhat surprising 5-6 start. “I think anytime he’s on the floor, really good things can happen,” Fisher said. “He’s really versatile on both ends, changing shots defensively, rebounding the ball well when he’s around the paint. Offensively, he can do a lot of things. His level of aggression is remarkable for a guy his size, who doesn’t necessarily carry a lot of weight. The one thing you need is just to not be afraid to mix it up, and he’s not afraid to do that.”

Porzingis works against the Cavs' Kevin Love during a recent game. (Getty Images)
Porzingis works against the Cavs' Kevin Love during a recent game. (Getty Images)

The Knicks have a multilingual, multi-skilled and extremely marketable talent, but Porzingis' agent, Andy Miller, said he is looking more for business partnerships – which will surely develop in time – over simple endorsement opportunities for his client. The overwhelming attention has made it increasingly tougher for Porzingis to find a place to eat without being recognized. Some people assume he's important when he enters a room simply by his sheer size.

“It’s not like he can hide, put a hat on and hide,” Janis Porzingis said with a laugh. “He’s going to be seen always. People will question who he is and once they find out, he enjoys that. He would like to have lunch without pictures, but other than that he’s fine.”

Porzingis has a cool confidence but has no plans to allow that to turn into complacency because he has barely started what he hopes to accomplish in a Knicks uniform. He intends to follow the Mets a little closer next season now that Syndergaard showed some respect, but won't let comments from Bryant ("[He] looks pretty damn good."), James ("He has a bright future."), Davis ("It's going to be fun battling him.") or even fans muddle his focus.

“It’s crazy, a lot of games, a lot of stuff going on. I’m still adjusting, understanding everything going on. It’s a lot of hype,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “That’s just people showing love. They appreciate what you do. I try not to take it too serious. The fans will talk about whatever. But when you’re not doing your best, you’re losing, you can’t let all that get to your head. You focus and try to play hard. The fans, they will respect you for that. Sometimes, you have to block that stuff out.”

Anthony has also tossed around compliments for Porzingis but is quick to remind him that he's still a rookie. Ironically, while Porzingis was discussing how he planned to stay level-headed, Anthony shouted from across the visitors' locker room early in the season in Washington, "I know you're doing an interview, man, but don't forget to grab some Gatorades before you get on the bus."

The Knicks' locker room usually closes once Anthony has finished talking with reporters, but on Friday night Porzingis was still hanging around, collecting his clothes to be laundered, checking his phone and joking with team equipment guys long after Anthony walked out with his son, Kiyan. When he finally left for home, Porzingis was asked what he hoped to eventually become.

“What do I want to become? I don’t know,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “Right now, I want to be the best player I can be. And obviously, as a team, we want to bring a championship here and as I get better as a player and we get better as a team, there will be big things coming for us, for sure.”

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