Kristaps Porzingis shines defensively in Summer League debut for Knicks

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LAS VEGAS — When the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, the fans in attendance were extremely vocal in voicing their displeasure.

Their trepidation was somewhat understandable, if only because the casual fan isn’t usually well-versed in the talents of international prospects, and with the disastrous 2013 trade for Andrea Bargnani fresh in their minds, the fans in New York felt justified in letting the boos rain down.

But things were different on Saturday in Las Vegas, where Porzingis donned a Knicks jersey for the very first time. The fans at the Thomas and Mack Center were generous with their praise, cheering Porzingis at every turn during a performance that saw him finish with 12 points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in a little over of 18 minutes of action.

“Finally they saw me play out there, so hopefully now some of those booing fans are now cheering for me out there,” Porzingis said.

The play of Porzingis in his debut confirmed any preconceived notions fans may have had, on either the positive or negative side of the spectrum. For those that believed his frame was too slight, they saw him get pushed around. For those that liked his ability to absorb contact and get to the free throw line, they saw him get there seven times.

But it was his effort on the defense end of the floor which impressed Knicks head coach Derek Fisher the most.

“I think defensively he has the potential to be really special,” Fisher said. “There were some things that he recognized and made adjustments on and supported his teammates in switching out on smaller players, using his length to protect the basket. I thought on the defensive end he impacted the game in a major way.”

Porzingis showed almost immediately that any potential label of him being soft would simply be a flat-out lie. He looked to create contact, both on perimeter screens and on post-up opportunities inside, often times against bigger and bulkier guys.

“He’s aggressive,” Fisher said. “He doesn’t look overpowering, but he plays a strong game. He’s not afraid to go in there and mix it up.”

“I tried to play aggressive,” Porzingis said. “I knew the guys were going to be physical. I tried to play the same way. I got to the free throw line, missed one free throw — gotta make them all, but I think I was pretty aggressive.

“As you can see out there, I’m fighting with the guys although they’re 15 pounds heavier than me, even more. I try to go out there and play as hard as I can, and I don’t have a problem with contact.”

The fans who may have wanted to see more than 18 minutes from Porzingis will get that eventually. He had been dealing with a hip issue, and even though he says it’s completely fine now, the team is obviously going to proceed with caution.

“Coach told me I wasn’t going to play a lot,” Porzingis said. “He told me 18 minutes. I knew I wasn’t going to play a whole lot, just because they wouldn’t want me to go 30 minutes or whatever. It’s step by step, and I just wanted to be me when I go out there, play hard, and play 100 percent.”

When he was out there, he played with a high level of activity, and showed a great awareness for his position on the floor that allowed him to consistently be in the right place to challenge his opponents’ shots.

“I still have trouble calling the defense on the screens and stuff,” Porzingis said. “I try to remember the calls. I’m still having trouble with that. But I try to be as aggressive as I can and help my teammates.”

Porzingis struggled to gain post position at times, due to a 7’1″ frame that appears to be extremely slight on the surface. It’s something he already plans on improving, but he’s taking a wait-and-see approach as far as exactly how much.

“I’ve got to get stronger,” Porzingis said. “I’ve just got to see. Ten pounds, 15 pounds, maybe 0, maybe 30. I’ve just got to see how I feel at 240, 250. Just little by little, putting on the weight, seeing if I have the same quickness, same athleticism, seeing if I can move the same. I’ve just got to see how I feel.”

The fans are already feeling a more positive vibe where Porzingis is concerned, as evidenced by the many cheers that echoed throughout the arena anytime his aggressive level of activity achieved a positive result.

“That’s the opposite of what I heard on draft night,” Porzingis said. “So it was nice to hear some cheers out there.”