Two years later, Porzingis is everything a team, and a city, could want in a player. On the court, he is an ascendant superstar in the midst of a breakout season, part of a group of new-age phenoms whose absurd physical proportions and deft skills are redefining the very notion of assigned positions. Taller than most centers, he has the agility and touch of a smooth small forward, an unprecedented combination that has won him the nickname “The Unicorn.” Off the court, he is fast becoming an icon, enamoring himself of New York and the NBA alike: simultaneously global and local, unbelievable and relatable, a man who can pluck a layup right out of an opposing player’s hand and still be blown away by Disneyland.
Those draft-night groans turned to cheers almost as soon as Porzingis suited up for the Knicks. He averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds during his rookie year and followed that with an 18-point, seven-rebound sophomore campaign, as comfortable shooting feathery three-pointers as he was swatting shots or swooping in for what quickly became his trademark putback dunks. By the start of this 2017-18 season, and especially in the wake of New York trading away incumbent leader Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis has transitioned from a promising curiosity to a full-fledged supernova. His scoring average has ballooned by 67 percent, to 30.2 points per game (second-best in the league, as of Monday), and he’s shooting better than ever, making 50 percent of all his shots and nearly 37 percent of threes. The normal statistical evolution of NBA players—even excellent ones—sees their efficiency drop as their usage rate climbs, but Porzingis has scaled up both at once.
The specifics astound even more than the general. Against the visiting Phoenix Suns on Friday, Porzingis brought Madison Square Garden to hysterics when, in the span of just 11 seconds, he swatted a layup, ran back the other way, corralled a bounce pass, and slammed the ball while drawing a foul. Two nights later, he set a career high of 40 points—on long-armed jams, shimmying pull-ups, and everything in between—as New York overcame a 19-point deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers. “An electrifying performance from Kristaps Porzingis!” shouted announcer Mike Breen, pitching his voice against the crowd; not since the ’80s heyday of Patrick Ewing have Knicks fans given in so completely to a budding star.
Porzingis’s appeal extends past the boroughs. Much has been made lately of the NBA’s unique relevance to the modern consumer; in place of the NFL’s recent controversies and innate violence and MLB’s endless efforts to make its games quicker and its viewers younger, the NBA has a surplus of marketable stars. It is not just that, unlike baseball players who bat only four or five times an evening, basketball players can command an entire game, directing its macro-flow and making its crucial decisions. It is that these players walk off the floor and remain worth following. LeBron James hosts barbershop roundtables and speaks out against racial injustice; Russell Westbrook talks in surly code and wears avant-garde outfits. The trades and signings of the offseason are accompanied by real-time social media dialogue among All-Stars—recruiting one another, predicting and analyzing moves. Even missteps offer intrigue, as when Kevin Durant was caught using an alternate Twitter account to criticize ex-teammates during the offseason. If the NFL has aspired to relevance on every day of the calendar, then the soap-operatic NBA wants to stay on its fans’ minds every hour of the day.