OKLAHOMA CITY — At the ripe old grizzled age of 22, Kristaps Porzingis already has played — endured? — two Knicks seasons in New York.
He became many things to Knicks fans because of his 7-foot-3 length, perimeter shooting skills and explosiveness at the rim. The Future. The Hope. The Cornerstone.
But no matter what role he filled, he was always something else: the second guy on everybody’s scouting report.
When teams played the Knicks, they were determined Carmelo Anthony would not beat them.
“Now Porzingis is the guy who’s getting the best defender,” one scout said. “He’s the guy first on the scouting report, not Carmelo.”
But on opening night, Porzingis started with the 6-8 Anthony going head-to-chin. Anthony is many things. A Defensive Player of the Year is not one of them, although he played tough throughout. Basically, the Thunder used Anthony or Paul George on Porzingis in their 105-84 victory. The first time they doubled Porzingis, he passed the ball to them. Porzingis finished shooting 11-of-25 with 31 points. He also grabbed 12 rebounds.
Anthony had debriefed Porzingis about what to expect on and off the court. He’ll draw defenders to him like relatives to a lottery winner. He is the guy the media will seek — win, lose or draw. It is the stuff Anthony handled for 6 ½ seasons with the Knicks. Anthony was impressed with initial returns.
“I was happy for him, just to see that he’s ready to take on that role,” Anthony said. “He looked aggressive tonight, looked comfortable.”
But this was only one game.
“This is a big, big year for him,” Anthony said. “Last year, the year before, he had a couple pieces around [to] shelter him. Even when things weren’t going good for him, I would always take the blame and take the pressure off of him. Now it’s like, ‘You there, you’re the unicorn.’ You’ve got to embrace it, understand what it’s about, whether good or bad, and be ready.”
Porzingis insists he is ready and knows what’s coming. He is ready to take all critiques. It’s what the Face of the Franchise does.
“I always have the highest expectations for myself,” Porzingis said. “I’m my own critic always in situations where I’m not playing well. There’s nothing I will hear that will surprise me from the fans or whatever.”
Porzingis has known only love from New York — despite that kid in the glasses crying on draft night. He won over a city that wanted a higher-profile pick. Before the draft in 2015, Porzingis addressed having a thick skin.
“I’m not too sensitive,” he said. “I’m conscious that there is a stereotype about white European big men who are skilled, but I love the game, have the passion. Don’t be scared to draft me, I’ll prove with my work ethic.”
Porzingis still flashes work-ethic credentials. That is what will keep him in favor with the masses when he has consecutive 3-of-12 clunkers.
“It’s been positive so far,” Porzingis said. “I play hard and that’s something New York appreciates. It’s a hard-working city, and once they see their sports teams playing hard, they respect that no matter the result.”
Still, he won’t have Anthony handling the load. Anthony was double-teamed entering the building. Open spaces Porzingis found will disappear.
Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, after the game Thursday.Getty Images
“I never doubt myself. I never feel I’m not ready for something, even if it’s the most difficult challenge in my life,” Porzingis said. “I had a great experience watching Melo, how he does stuff on and off the court. … We’re going to realize as we go forward how much pressure he took off of everybody and how valuable a player like that actually is.
“It’s going to be more difficult for sure. There’s going to be more attention on me without him.”
Anthony tried to prepare Porzingis in their two years together.
“He has to embrace that role,” Anthony said. “He has to be ready for what’s in front of him. … He’s going to have to grow quickly, like on the fly, because there’s not going to be time for him to sit back and figure it out. He’s going to have to rely on the guys he has over there … because it’s coming fast.”
And no one knows what’s coming better than Anthony.