This piece is part of SB Nation's week-long appreciation of the 2015 NBA rookie class. Read our full coverage here.
While another Knicks' season is slowly going down the drain, there's no arguing the franchise hit a home run with the selection of Kristaps Porzingis at No. 4 overall in last summer's draft. Porzingis has proven to be everything the Knicks could have wanted and more. He's talented and affable, dynamic and mature. He's the type of player a team can build around on the court and a franchise can market off it.
With Porzingis in the fold, the Knicks' future is bright for the first time in almost 30 years. Maximizing that future will come down to properly managing the seven-foot Latvian sensation. He needs the right coach, complimentary surrounding talent and an organization that makes key decisions with him in mind.
That process should begin immediately. Priority No. 1 should be drawing a clear line separating his development from the team's need to win games immediately.
That means putting his future health ahead of the team's shortsighted goals.
Coming into this season, the 20-year-old Porzingis had never played more than 34 games or seen more than 737 minutes in a year. This year, he's already played in 62 games. More notably, he's played more than 1,700 minutes, all against stiffer and more physical competition. The 27.9 minutes per game Porzingis is averaging may not seem like a lot on the surface, but factor in the stark increase over his previous career high, as well as Porzingis' lanky 7'3 frame, and there's risk of long-term wear and tear.
Even more disconcerting is that Porzingis appears to be slowly wearing down over the course of the season. His three-point percentage is steadily dropping. He's driving the ball to the basket less frequently over the past month, per NBA.com. Gone are the electrifying put-backs that defined his meteoric rise.
And yet, to this point, the Knicks have shown little interest in slashing Porzingis' playing time. (A possible exception: they elected to sit him Saturday against the Pistons with a left leg contusion). Porzingis played about as many minutes in February as he did in November. Shutting Porzingis down for the season is not a prudent or realistic plan, but smothering him in bubble wrap and instituting a Spurs-like maintenance plan certainly is. The Knicks have four back-to-backs left this season, and Porzingis should be given one night off in each of those. His total minutes should also be kept to around 25 rather than 28. For a comparison, San Antonio is only playing Tim Duncan 25.1 minutes per game this season.
More importantly, the time Porzingis does spend on the floor should be used productively
Now's a perfect time for the Knicks to get evidence on their biggest future questions. Among them: can Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony provide enough rebounding and defense to make a small lineup featuring them as the lone frontcourt players a viable option?
Porzingis is spending 33 percent of his time on the floor this season as the Knicks' center, per Basketball Reference. Most of the time, he's done so with Anthony as his power forward. Those lineups have scored more than 114 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com, a mark that would lead the league. Porzingis' shooting helps spread the floor and he's strong enough off the dribble to drive by slow-footed centers.
The issues have come on the other end. Porzingis has been able to use his long arms to swat two shots per game and limit opponents to 47 percent shooting at the rim, which is a solid but unspectacular number. But he's still learning the nuances of the NBA game and often isn't in the right spot at the right time.
These next two months should be viewed as an opportunity to give him much-needed practice at improving that skill.
It would also be wise for the Knicks to use Porzingis is as many spread pick-and-rolls as possible, even if it doesn't fully vibe with Phil Jackson's beloved triangle offense. Porzingis has every skill you look for in screening big men. He can flash to the hoop, catch the ball on the fly or pop out for a jump shot. The 1.1 points the Knicks are scoring per possession on plays where Porzingis sets a ball screen ranks in the 69th percentile, per NBA.com. But for some reason, the Knicks only run such plays 14 percent of the time.
Part of that is the system, but Jackson had no qualms running Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol pick-and-rolls back when he was in L.A. Another part is that the Knicks don't have an ideal point guard for a pick-and-roll, as Jose Calderon can no longer get into the paint and Jerian Grant's crooked jumper allows opponents to sag off of him and drop around screens.
Still, Grant and Porzingis have shown good chemistry in the brief moments when they share the court. Grant's penetration helps create open looks for Porzingis.
Porzingis' ability to step behind the three-point line after setting a screen throws opponents into flux. Looks like this one will be there for Porzingis for years to come.
For the Knicks, the future is no longer some far-off concept.
It's already arrived. While Porzingis showed he belonged in the NBA, any hope for a playoff run ended.
That means it's time for the Knicks to begin managing that future. They must view the final 20 games of the year as a way to both develop and protect their new franchise player. Just because this season won't end with a postseason berth doesn't mean it has to be seen as a failure.
Helping Porzingis' development is now the Knicks' only priority.
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