They got a firsthand look at the rookie 12 months ago in pickup games at Impact Basketball Academy, not far from the gym where the 19-year-old Latvian made his summer league debut Saturday afternoon.
“Sometimes, the NBA guys, they’ll come out a little lax when they see a guy like him,” Joe Abunassar, the founder of Impact, said of Porzingis. “But they couldn’t do that with Kris. He came right at them. There was a sequence where he blocked a shot, came down and hit a 3 and then blocked another shot.
“Everyone in the gym was like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be a major player.’ Lowry wanted him on his team every day, but no one really knew who he was at that point.”
Depending whom you ask, Porzingis is now either the perfect building block for Phil Jackson’s Knicks or another European big man destined fall short of expectations.
The No. 4 pick got to the free throw line seven times Saturday in his summer league debut against the San Antonio Spurs. He also set solid screens and showed good instincts when guarding the ball. But he had just three rebounds in 18 minutes.
If Porzingis falls short of expectations, many will likely point to the example set by other European big men employed by New York -- Andrea Bargnani, Frederic Weis, Maciej Lampe -- as reason to doubt him. For what it’s worth, Porzingis is aware of the label he carries because of their failures.
“I’m conscious that there is a stereotype of Europeans -- white European big men who are skilled,” Porzingis said recently. “But the thing about me is that I have a passion for the game. I love to be in the gym. I love working.”
Those who know Porzingis believe his work ethic and passion will separate him from those sort of labels.
“There are some tall players who come into the NBA and aren’t in love with the game," said Scott Roth, who coached Porzingis the past season at Sevilla. "They got put in that position because of their height, and they ended up developing some skills and figured that this was a great way to make some money. But they didn’t really love basketball; that’s not Kris at all."
Roth knows a thing or two about European prospects transitioning to the NBA. He was a member of the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff during Dirk Nowitzki’s first two seasons in the NBA. He also coached with the Memphis Grizzlies during Pau Gasol’s first season and worked with both Jonas Valanciunas and Bargnani while on the Toronto Raptors staff.
“I coached Andrea for two years, and he’s one of my better friends," Roth said. "I’m probably one of the few guys he ended up trusting as a coach. They [Porzingis and Bargnani] are different players. [Bargnani] is a good player, but I think Zinger’s desire to be great, the work to fight through adversity, his toughness, is what will separate him."
Roth first saw Porzingis’ “toughness” in one of his early practices. The teen corralled an offensive rebound, which is nothing special when you’re 7-1. But then ...
“In the past, I’ve been around players of that size, and they try to finesse it in, pump-fake you or take a fadeaway,” Roth said. “This kid, nine times out of 10, would just the take ball and try to dunk it through you. That showed me that there wasn’t any fear.”
Abunassar saw the same approach from Porzingis the previous summer against Lowry & Co.
"Being here, being the fourth pick or whatever, it doesn't matter. Now everybody starts from zero, and I have to prove myself once again. It's a huge challenge, so I'll just have to keep working." Kristaps Porzingis
“He wasn’t backing down. He wanted to compete right away,” Abunassar said. “He was out there to dunk on guys.”
Like Roth, Abunassar has seen the best and worst of European -- and American -- prospects, having worked with several top-10 picks the past few seasons. Abunassar didn’t see the same red flags with Porzingis.
“His dedication, his willingness to work is different,” Abunassar said. “His desire to be physical is there. The guys who didn’t pan out, they didn’t have that same passion.”
Of course, there are more questions than answers surrounding Porzingis as he enters his first season in the NBA. Will he be able to rebound? Create his own shot? Play in the post? Defend the rim? All are valid concerns for a Knicks team coming off the worst season in franchise history.
But if those who’ve worked with Porzingis are correct, one thing the Knicks won’t have to worry about is the rookie’s desire to improve.
“Being here, being the fourth pick or whatever, it doesn’t matter,” Porzingis said. “Now everybody starts from zero, and I have to prove myself once again. It’s a huge challenge, so I’ll just have to keep working.”