Phil Jackson makes huge gamble on Kristaps Porzingis

ByIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer ESPN logo
Friday, June 26, 2015

NEW YORK -- Adam Silver announced the pick at No. 4, and suddenly a tree grew in Brooklyn. The 7-foot, 2-inch stick figure known as Kristaps Porzingis rose out of his seat in his absurd maroon suit, planted a New York Knicks cap on his head, and made his way toward the NBA commissioner under the kind of welcome Reggie Miller used to receive at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks fans old enough to remember Frederic Weis, with children old enough to recoil at the sight of Andrea Bargnani, were apparently expressing their lack of faith in another international big man of mystery. Maybe, Porzingis said later on the MSG Network, "they don't want a European on their team."

No matter what inspired this sad scene of men in faded Knicks jerseys moved to the brink of tears, the sentiment was misguided. Nobody has any idea how productive Porzingis will be in the NBA, or how long it will take him to max out his upside, including the $60 million executive who drafted him, Phil Jackson.

"Hopefully he's going to contribute to us," the Knicks' president said.

Hopefully he's going to do a hell of a lot more than that.

Jackson later made a move shaped by greater clarity and certainty, trading Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Washington Wizards for the rights to Jerian Grant, the explosive guard familiar to basketball fans for spending all that TV time at the home office of American sports mythology, the University of Notre Dame. Really smart move by Jackson, finally, and yet one that probably won't define his legacy half as much as his gamble on a teenager from Latvia.

And here's the good news on Porzingis for Knicks fans in dire need of some after enduring a 17-65 season: The kid gets it. He wants to win acceptance. He wants to be a New Yorker. He wants to embrace the challenge of restoring the Knicks to relevance, a challenge that has scared off so many older, more established recruits before him.

"A lot of fans weren't happy that they drafted me," Porzingis said. "But I have to do everything that's in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping fans."

People who care about the Knicks can go ahead and feel giddy about this perspective. Nobody can look at his play in Spain, or at his pre-draft workouts before wowed scouts and scribes, and determine that the defense-challenged Porzingis was a better bet with the fourth pick than the other available contenders, Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow.

We know he is tall, and we know he is athletic, and we know he can shoot the ball from the perimeter.

We also know he is thinner than a geometric side of your average triangle, and vulnerable to getting bumped and thumped into oblivion when he tries to find his spot inside Jackson's one and only offense.

"I'm not ready to be on the court yet, knowing all the little details about triangle offense," Porzingis said. "But for me I don't think it'll be a problem to adjust to that offense."

Or to the marketplace. Porzingis was born in Liepaja, Latvia, population of 75,000 or so, and yet he very much wants to play in America's biggest and loudest town.

His agent, Andy Miller, initially expressed concern weeks ago that his client might not be a perfect fit for New York. "But as soon as he touched down here," Miller said Thursday night, "he fell in love with the city. He didn't really care where the Knicks were picking in the first round; he just knew he wanted to stay and play for them."

For a few minutes at the draft, after the Los Angeles Lakers picked D'Angelo Russell at No. 2, it appeared Jahlil Okafor might be available if the Knicks were so inclined. But when the Philadelphia 76ers took the Duke center at No. 3, Jackson could've dealt his pick, or selected the safer option in Winslow, or decided that Mudiay was the relative unknown who made the most sense. (Mudiay had told people he was confident the Knicks wouldn't let him slide past No. 4).

Jackson acknowledged that he was tempted by some trade offers, but that none offered him a return more appealing than Porzingis' upside, which he called "terrific." Jackson called his guy "an eye-opening athlete" and compared him to a young Pau Gasol, though with a better J. The team president predicted the fan base would ultimately take to him, and declared his pick ready to lead with his chin when confronted with his first round of Madison Square Garden jeers.

"We thought the risk-rewards were the greatest with this guy perhaps in the whole lottery," Jackson said.

So he had the commissioner, Silver, announce Porzingis' name at 8 p.m. on Willis Reed's 73rd birthday, hoping the Latvian would grow into the Knicks' first championship-winning big man since Reed, and its first franchise-altering centerpiece drafted in the first round since Patrick Ewing in 1985.

Maybe Jackson, newbie executive, found the most talented player in the draft Thursday night, or maybe he just made a catastrophic error in judgment. One time when he was head coach of the Chicago Bulls, the team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, allowed Jackson to make a draft pick against the front office's wishes, and that 1995 pick, Jason Caffey, taken 20th overall, was enough of a disappointment for the Bulls to trade him two and a half years later.

Twenty years later, Jackson faced much better odds at No. 4 long before he acquired the 19th pick and the nephew of one of his dynastic Bulls, Horace Grant. Jerian Grant got the cheers that Kristaps Porzingis will have to earn, and the Latvian sounds more than willing to earn them. He spoke of honoring New Yorkers' world-famous work ethic, and of doing all the "dirty jobs" on the court to prove himself a worthy teammate of Carmelo Anthony's.

"For me it's a dream come true to play for the Knicks," Porzingis said as he held up a white home jersey carrying his name and the No. 15. "I wanted to see myself in this situation. I've been visualizing it. ... I think I have enough talent to be that special player, you know, who can help the franchise get better results."

Following his Barclays Center news conference, Porzingis walked the hallways with a Knicks publicist and asked if he could wear jersey No. 6, his number from overseas. The publicist, Gregg Schwartz, told him No. 6 belonged to a restricted free agent (Travis Wear) and asked if he had another preference.

"I'll give it some thought," Porzingis said.

He has already given this whole New York thing a lot of thought and decided he wants in, all in. The fans shredded him on introduction, and he didn't even blink.

From Latvia with love, Kristaps Porzingis acts and sounds like a winner. Phil Jackson had better hope he plays like one, too.

Related Video