It's officially OK to feel good about Porzingis, Ntilikina and the Knicks' future

NEW YORK -- About an hour after his Los Angeles Lakers lost 113-109 in overtime to the New York Knicks, Magic Johnson sent out a tweet with an observation about Kristaps Porzingis & Co.

Johnson and Knicks president Steve Mills have known each other for a long time, so it would be easy to chalk this up to Magic helping out a friend.

But that would ignore what happened on the court Tuesday night.

The Knicks needed strong performances from many on the roster to beat the Lakers, but two players they see as foundational pieces were exceptional in the overtime win:

  1. Porzingis, who had 37 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks, and made some NBA history along the way.

  2. Rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, who had a career-high 13 points to go with five assists and five rebounds and helped slow down Lonzo Ball late in the game.

If nothing else, what Porzingis and Ntilikina showed on Tuesday is that, for the first time in a long time, it's OK to be optimistic about the Knicks' future. Yes, Magic is on to something.


Let's start with Porzingis. The 22-year-old became the first player in NBA history to have at least 35 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and five 3-pointers in a game. His night against the Lakers was the latest piece of evidence that he has the chance to be a transformative player in the NBA. Just ask Jeff Hornacek.

"This is probably, hopefully the tip of the iceberg for him," the Knicks' coach said. "This is only his third year in the league, [and] at 22 years old, to put up these numbers is something else. ... And again, he's going to get better and better every year too."

Porzingis' stat line itself is impressive. But what he said about his night after the game was even more revealing.

"It's an honor that I'm capable of doing something that has never been done. But that doesn't help us make the playoffs," he said. "And at the end we want to make the playoffs and do something big as a team."

The Knicks (14-13) will wake up on Wednesday in a four-way tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. We're only one-third of the way through the season, so it's way too early to say anything definitive about the Knicks' playoff chances. But if Ntilikina -- who, like Porzingis, was drafted by ex-Knicks president Phil Jackson -- continues to show the incremental improvement he has displayed so far, it would go a long way to helping the Knicks reach the playoffs.

On Tuesday, Ntilikina's defense helped neutralize Ball late in the game. Ball had 17 points and six assists on the night but only two points and one assist in the fourth quarter and overtime -- when he was guarded by Ntilikina for long stretches. The Knicks' rookie had seven points and four assists in the fourth quarter, making several plays that were critical to the outcome.

Ntilikina, 19, is often laid back and soft-spoken when dealing with the media. So he would never say that it was important for him to play well against Ball.

But Hornacek said the rookie was indeed looking forward to playing the No. 2 pick in his draft class.

"When we were lining up for the anthem, I looked over at Frank and said, 'Are you ready to go?' He said, 'I'm ready. Are you ready, Coach?' You could tell he was ready."

Ntilikina's early career numbers don't match Ball's, Dennis Smith Jr.'s or Donovan Mitchell's. But the Knicks are enthused by what they've seen from Ntilikina, particularly on the defensive end. It would surprise no one if his playing time increased as the season progressed. (It helps that when he and Porzingis are on the floor, the Knicks are outscoring teams by 14 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.)

Ntilikina has also been low maintenance, which isn't something the Lakers can say about the Ball family. It's meaningless now but still interesting to note that, prior to the lottery (before it was clear that they wouldn't be in position to draft Ball), some in the Knicks' organization had serious concerns about the negative impact LaVar Ball might have if the club drafted Lonzo Ball, according to sources.

As an aside -- and unrelated to any concerns the Knicks might have had about LaVar Ball back in May -- cameras for the "Ball In The Family" show were denied access to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, ESPN learned. The cameras, which had followed Lonzo in other visiting arenas, were not on hand to record behind-the-scenes footage of LaVar, LiAngelo Ball and LaMelo Ball sitting courtside at the Garden. The camera use was denied because it would have required additional resources from arena staffers; those resources were needed to handle the nationally televised game and for other matters.

So there might not be any behind-the-scenes footage of Lonzo Ball's first night at Madison Square Garden. And that's OK. Because Tuesday night revealed more about the young team in New York that Magic Johnson tweeted about than it did about Ball.

For the first time in a long time, there seems to be a light at the end of what has been a long, dark tunnel for the Knicks.