The Phil Files: Draft day
Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the Continental Basketball Association, spent a day with Jackson in every month of his debut season with the New York Knicks, during which the Hall of Fame coach-turned-executive talked frankly about his roster and his new role as team president. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7. Check back next week for the final edition.
The losses kept coming for the New York Knicks, even after every game on their schedule was finished. Though they ended the 2014-15 season with the second-worst record in the NBA (17-65), the results of May's draft lottery dropped the Knicks down to the fourth overall selection in the 2015 draft.
But despite the franchise's many struggles in recent history, any lottery pick is a rare commodity in New York. And after strip-mining his roster throughout the course of his first season as team president, Phil Jackson saw the No. 4 pick as a great opportunity to continue rebuilding the team into the winner he envisions.
The only question was who that player would be.
"When we wound up with the fourth pick, I was hemming and hawing about how to choose," Jackson says. "I knew there were several outstanding prospects that would be available, but I was focused on getting a big man. My decision was essentially made when Clarence Gaines, my primary adviser and a super scout, told me there was a game tape I had to watch. This turned out to be a Spanish League contest between [Baloncesto] Sevilla and a team from Barcelona, a game that Sevilla had to win to avoid being downgraded from Division I to Division II status."
The main player Gaines was promoting was Kristaps Porzingis, or "KP," as Jackson says he liked to be called.
"What I saw made up my mind" Jackson says.
"Although the competition in the Spanish League is more physical, more consistent and more advanced than even the best D-I college teams over here, KP more than held his own. He had a long, lively body, a well-developed basketball IQ, a soft shot with terrific range and he didn't back down from anybody. Plus, he showed an amazing athleticism for somebody his size."
Primarily powered by the heroics of Porzingis, Sevilla won the game. "The young man certainly stepped up," says Jackson.
Jackson's seconding of Gaines' endorsement was confirmed during a pair of individual workouts, as well as Porzingis' performance in the Las Vegas Summer League after the Knicks had selected him fourth overall. "He can score," says Jackson, "but his natural bent is to be a team player. On defense, he can block shots from behind and is quick enough to stay in front of guards in screen-roll situations."
Jackson projects that Porzingis will add at least 10 pounds of muscle before his first season commences, yet concerns still linger over his prize draft pick. "Like Shawn Bradley, who was nevertheless a pretty good player, KP might almost be too tall for the game. What I mean is that his core strength might never be good enough, and that he might not be able to get low enough to get himself into prime defensive position to body power rebounders or drivers."
So, then, what does Jackson foresee in Porzingis' rookie season?
"It's entirely up to [coach Derek Fisher], but it would be great if KP could get as much as 20 minutes a game early in the season, plus maybe a few more later when he's acclimated to the NBA game. It also has to be determined whether he'll be more comfortable at power forward or center."
Overall, Jackson feels that Porzingis will inevitably evolve into a star-quality player. But he feels that Jerian Grant, the 22-year-old point guard whom the Knicks obtained via a draft-day trade with the Atlanta Hawks for Tim Hardaway Jr., is more NBA-ready.
"He knows the game and has a certain flair for it," Jackson says of Grant. "He's quick, has 3-point range, knows how to pass, can break a defense down with his handle, knows how to get through screens and is comfortable getting people involved on offense."
Equally as impressive as Grant's game, Jackson says, is his demeanor. After he was declared academically ineligible for the second semester of his junior year, Grant could have moved on from Notre Dame.
"But Jerian fessed up, took his punishment and, despite being urged to make himself available in the NBA draft, went back to school," Jackson says. "To me, that reveals a lot about his character."
Jackson thinks Grant will be able to play both guard spots. "I anticipate his competing with Langston Galloway for playing time."
In their last move of the night, the Knicks traded for the 35th overall pick and selected Guillermo "Willy" Hernangomez. "Willie was a teammate of KP's with Sevilla," says Jackson," and they're best friends. I love this kid! I'd compare him to a stronger version of Luis Scola. He needs to stay in Spain for another year, as he has a contract with [Real] Madrid, but I can definitely see him becoming a solid NBA player."
And with that, Jackson's second draft, and the start of what he hopes to be a new era for the Knicks, was in the books.
"I won't give myself a grade or anything like that," he says. "All I'll say is that I'm happy with these three young men and, both sooner and later, I believe Knicks fans will have the same reaction."