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Kristaps Porzingis (Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)

Basketball

Ready or Not, Here Comes the Pressure for Kristaps Porzingis

With Carmelo Anthony off the Knicks, can Kristaps Porzingis handle the pressure of leading a team?

“If you need anyone to take care of your Rolls Royce, I’m here for you.”

That was, according to Kristaps Porzingis, the last thing he told Carmelo Anthony after the trade that sent the former Knicks star to Oklahoma City. The irony of the comment by Porzingis is that he now has the keys to a shiny new car. A franchise rather, that has had multiple drivers over the past few decades. Unfortunately, it has been driven down the same struggling road repeatedly. After months of the franchise making it clear that they wanted to go in a younger direction, the time is now. The young Knicks star, who is entering his third year, now has no shield to defend him from Gotham’s madness. The question now is whether the 22-year old Porzingis is ready for it.

Kristaps Porzingis has had a honeymoon of sorts in this town. After a 2015 draft day where New Yorker’s were ready to run him out of the state before he even stepped foot on the floor, he has been a revelation. It has by in large been a love affair between him and the starving fans of the Knicks. The first few months of the 2015-2016 season proved to be an eye-opening experience for Knicks fans and media who thought he wouldn’t even contribute his rookie year. Game after game, Porzingis showed his skill and versatility. He also displayed a charm about him that endeared him to Knicks fans everywhere. Most importantly, he became a beacon of hope.

“Hope” is a word Knicks fans are feverishly a proponent of because for them they know words such as pessimism and disaster are potentially not too far around the corner. But there was something different about Porzingis. He was not a fading star that was traded to the Knicks that only had a few good years left. No, much like Patrick Ewing, the ultimate Knicks franchise star, Porzingis was drafted by the team.

Every 20-point game and every thunderous dunk led Knicks fans wanting to see more and more of the young star. This even led to an outcry from the fans claiming Porzingis should be the focal point instead of Carmelo. For two years, every ill-advised shot and poor defensive effort by Melo was viewed as an impediment on Porzingis’ success.

In all honesty, Melo became a scapegoat for most of the Knicks’ on-court problems. Porzingis on the other hand, in the eyes of the fans and some media members, became the shiny new toy that was being suppressed because of the old, selfish star. Many fourth quarters of Knicks games were a hot topic on Twitter because of Porzingis allegedly not getting enough shots. That was especially true given the offensive mismatches he would have. Whether it was Arron Afflalo, Derrick Rose, Melo or even the multitude of head coaches he’s had, there was apparently always someone else to blame for Porzingis not getting his extended opportunities to shine over the past two seasons.

It became clear that the fans wanted Porzingis to be “the man” and felt he was ready to be labeled as such. The reality is, he wasn’t. The first two seasons of Kristaps Porzingis’ career have had some common trends. First one being his impressive burst out of the gate in the regular season and then his slow decline in February, March and April.  His stats all across the board dipped after both All-Star breaks, including his efficiency numbers. The spectacular showings that he would display in games earlier in the season would dissipate as the long arduous season grew on. Games like the 35-point one against the Pistons last November, or the 28-point game in San Antonio against the Spurs his rookie season would come few and far between as the season went on.

His slender frame also became a growing problem. What resulted was an inability to exploit mismatches against players that were shorter then him. He struggled to get deep post position against guards that were as small as 6 foot 3. Then there were the injuries. Porzingis played 72 games his rookie season and in his sophomore campaign played even less, 66. For the people who like the to criticize Carmelo Anthony for monopolizing the offense, the truth is he made it a lot easier for Porzingis. Think about it: even at an advanced age, Melo was still the center of attention for opposing defenses. Porzingis definitely benefited from the attention Melo was getting on the offensive end.

The expectations of a franchise player have not changed, even in a city and organization that recently hasn’t had any sustained success. As the franchise player, there is no abdicating media responsibilities. Otherwise, you will feel the wrath of the relentless New York media. The decision to skip the Knicks exit meeting in April was met with lukewarm reviews. Imagine if Porzingis were to do that after taking the responsibility of being the franchise player. He has always been friendly and gracious in terms of his dealings with the reporters. Now, it will only multiply.

After every win and every loss, and there will most likely be a lot of the latter this year, there will be reporters migrating towards his locker for a more extensive media session. How you deal with the spotlight will translate towards how you are perceived. Look no further than the star wide receiver currently playing for the New York Giants, Odell Beckham Jr.

Kristaps Porzingis has most definitely had a honeymoon period in New York City up to this point. A much maligned draft pick who then shocked the public with just how quickly he can be a star for the Knicks. He will most definitely get better just as he has over his first two seasons. The only difference is the magnifying glass will be more on him now, entering his third year, than ever. His strengths and weaknesses will be the number one topic for the team. He’s come in looking stronger and dominated in the FIBA tournament this past summer. So, “hope” will soon have to turn into results. Getting the keys to the franchise is one thing. Whether that leads to success or not will be the ultimate question.

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