Knicks: Does Kristaps Porzingis’ Future Lie at Center?


Kristaps Porzingis has been sensational at power forward, but does he have a future at center?

When the New York Knicks made Kristaps Porzingis the fourth overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft, no one quite knew what to expect. The Latvian was a near unknown entity; someone who numerous onlookers touted as either a probable flop or a future superstar.

One thing seemed to be a given, though. Even if Porzingis did develop into a franchise player, it would take him at least a couple of seasons to reach that level.

This obviously hasn’t been the case.

Porzingis has taken the league by storm, averaging 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in addition to a generally fantastic overall level of play. In particular, his unexpected strength and tenacity allow him to compete against some of the league’s toughest big men—something most pundits agreed would not be the case during his rookie campaign.

From the put-back dunks over LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love to the six double-doubles, Porzingis has seemingly made it his mission to prove that he isn’t going to let anyone push him around.

Nov 15, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) shoots over New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

With this in mind, Porzingis now finds himself as a premier candidate to take the reigns as the Knicks’ long-term center. While he has mainly been fielded as a power forward since entering the league, his uncommon skill set makes his potential in the 5 role limitless.

Offensively, Porzingis represents one of the most unique players the NBA has ever seen. At 7″3 with an albatross-esque wingspan, the Latvian possesses both the size and length to terrorize defenders on the low block.

When you factor in his butter-smooth jump shot and the ability to put the ball on the floor, he also represents a scoring threat from virtually anywhere on the court.

As a center, he would act as a mismatch for virtually any defender tasked with guarding him. His unlimited shooting range would create all sorts of nightmares for big men used to battling traditional post players, while his size and extensive arsenal of silky post moves would allow him to bully the opposition down low.

He can even dribble coast to coast if need be. How is your average NBA center supposed to guard that?

While his offensive exploits have dazzled even the staunchest Porzingis optimists, the most surprising aspect of his game so far has been on the other end of the court. Many European big men initially struggle defensively during the early stages of their NBA career, leading many to believe that he would share a similar fate.

Contrary to those beliefs, Porzingis’ largest contributions have arguably been on defense, with opponents’ offensive rating being 101.4 when he’s on the court and 106 when he’s off it.

And while he may not have the ability to consistently guard centers just yet, he displays all the attributes necessary to do so once his body fills out.

This, in part, is due to Porzingis’ unprecedented length. His 7″6 wingspan enables him to both deny opposing big men room to maneuver, and to protect the rim with his shot-blocking ability. This season, he has averaged 1.5 blocks per game, tying the Knicks’ rookie record with seven rejections against the Houston Rockets last Saturday night.

Once he tacks on extra mass, he’ll be able to upgrade his impressive length into a genuinely overpowering physical presence.

In addition, his natural defensive instincts will allow him to simply outsmart most of the centers he faces. This was best displayed during Summer League, when he was tasked with guarding fellow rookie sensation Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor, who is renown for his forceful, bullish style, began the matchup by overpowering Porzingis throughout the first quarter. Not to be deterred, Porzingis adjusted his game plan, using his length to front Okafor and prevent him from receiving the ball in the first place.

Many big men lack the necessary acumen on the defensive end of the floor, even if they are blessed with enviable physical traits. This, however, does not hold true for Kristaps Porzingis.

While the Kristaps Porzingis center project would almost certainly not be fully utilized until next season, he has occasionally been given the chance to display his potential as a 5. In particular, it’s been when the Knicks have rolled out a small-ball lineup, with Carmelo Anthony as a stretch 4, Arron Afflalo as a 3 and a backcourt of Jose Calderon and Langston Galloway. In just under 15 minutes of fielding this particular group, the Knicks have outscored opponents by 6.3 points over 100 possessions, while out rebounding them by 1.9 per 100 possessions.

New York’s performances have looked noticeably promising during the rare moments when Porzingis has filled in as a center, further adding to the narrative that his future may very well be in that position.

Nov 17, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) and guard Langston Galloway (2) react against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks defeated the Hornets 102-94. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

At the very least, Porzingis has given Derek Fisher something to think about. With Robin Lopez starting his Knicks career in sporadic fashion and the team lacking legitimate alternative options, it may make sense to commence the process of converting Porzingis into a center sooner rather than later.

All the signs are there that the Knicks’ rookie can eke out a fantastic career in such a role, representing a multifaceted modern day big man with the potential to terrorize the league for years.

Don’t be surprised to see him there with increasing regularity as the season wears on.