A quarter of the way through the 2015-2016 NBA season, some of the top picks from the draft have already produced solid results. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, who shined at their prominent colleges last season, have proven they can adjust to the professional ranks after some impressive games on both ends of the court.
However, it’s the success of the New York Knicks’ rookie Kristaps Porzingis that very few saw coming and has the league buzzing. Porzingis, a relative unknown before his debut, is currently the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year at 5/6 odds, according to the betting website Paddy Power.
New York drafted Porzingis with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, a selection viewed widely as a project and which famously resulted in a chorus of boos from Knicks fans in attendance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The history of European prospects talking years to acclimate to the NBA game confused fans and pundits alike as president Phil Jackson and aging star Carmelo Anthony appeared set in "win-now" mode.
But as it turns out, Porzingis was further along than many experts thought. He had developed quickly in 92 games over three seasons playing in Liga ACB, considered to be one of the top professional leagues outside the United States. In the NBA, the 7-foot-3 Latvian has made his presence felt with a well-rounded arsenal that has won him plenty of respect among New York's demanding fan base.
"I think Kris' size and length and the fact that he could shoot the ball from wherever he is on the floor, you have to respect that,” head coach Derek Fisher told the New York Daily News in November. "That sets up a lot of opportunities to make moves, countermoves, and he'll develop those things as he matures and kind of learns how to play offense in the NBA."
Porzingis has already shown how fast of a learner he can be. Through 22 games, he leads all rookies with 10 double-doubles and ranks in the top three among qualified rookies in points (14.6), rebounds (8.9) and blocks (1.9). The 20-year-old has also shown marked improvement since his young career has progressed.
In his first 11 games, Porzingis averaged 11.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 38.2 percent from the floor and 21.8 percent from three-point range -- a modest but bright start for a player deemed a "project." In the next 11 games, Porzingis averaged 17.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, while shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 51.7 percent from beyond the arc. Arguably his most impressive game came on Nov. 21 in Houston when he scored 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked seven shots en route to a Knicks win over the Rockets.
While it's still early in the season, the results are quite encouraging. The Knicks have been lacking in production from their big men for quite some time, and Porzingis has already sparked optimism in the Big Apple.
“There's the magical element to this young man that has caught the admiration, I think, of the fan base here in New York City and people around the country that do follow the Knicks,” Jackson said on Sirius XM NBA Radio last week.
Perhaps the most positive element of Porzingis' presence is the attitude he brings to the Knicks. While many rookies begin their first season with concerns about their individual production, Porzingis has maintained his focus on team goals. After outscoring his idol childhood idol Dirk Nowitzki on Monday, the well-spoken first-year starter told reporters, “it really doesn’t matter because we still lost.”
Porzingis has wowed fans, teammates and opponents alike with a series of put-back dunks, blocked shots, long-range jumpers, double-doubles and most importantly, raising a Knicks team that won all of 17 games a season ago. The Knicks (10-12) grabbed win No. 10 on Dec. 4 over the Brooklyn Nets. New York didn’t record their 10th win last season until Feb. 1.
Porzingis leads the Knicks in overall field-goal shooting and three-point shooting, which has been a helpful boost for a team that finished No. 28 in field-goal percentage in 2014-2015. He's also tops on the squad in rebounds, blocks, player efficiency and is just second in scoring to Anthony. The statistical and emotional impact has prompted league-wide praise, and helped raise his stock among his rookie peers.
But the season is still young, and Porzingis is expected to face stiff competition for the Rookie of the Year award. Okafor and Towns are currently ahead of Porzingis in scoring, and Towns is ahead of Porzingis in rebounding, with Okafor not far behind. Odds makers have Towns (7/5) and Okafor (3/1) in the mix for the award, and other rookies have come on strong. Despite some uneven performances, point guards Emmanuel Mudiay and D'Angelo Russell have both shown promise.
Unlike the other rookie candidates, Porzingis entered the league with a heavy dose of skepticism and vocal detractors who seemed convinced he wasn't ready to make the transition to the NBA.
"I think I've surprised a lot of people," Porzingis said, according to ESPN. "The stereotype of European players is that they take a couple years to adjust to the league. Well, it's been easier for me. I've been preparing for this since I was a kid."