NEW YORK -- He is 20 years old and was born in Latvia, a place that sends a lot of Americans running to Google Maps for a clue to its location. At first glance, New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis' grasp of NBA history, like his perfectly accented colloquial English ("It's on, dude") and knowledge of American culture (he's a Drake, Rihanna and Trey Songz fan), seem at odds with his faraway background.
But some of the shock about the overnight sensation Porzingis has become in New York is justified only if you forget that the European invasion of the NBA has been underway for a good 20-some years now.
In many ways, Porzingis -- the youngest son in a basketball-playing family -- has been meticulously preparing for his NBA close-up all of his life. And now that his hard work, shrewd decisions and natural skill have combined to make him a hit around the league -- not just with his Knicks teammates or success-starved, justifiably paranoid Knicks fans -- Porzingis seems good-naturedly surprised that everyone else is surprised.
"Everyone was saying I was a project, and I am going to get better, but I am ready to play right now," Porzingis said last week after he unspooled his first breakout game -- a 29-point, 11-rebound night against the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden with ex-Knicks greats Patrick Ewing and Willis Reed in the house. By the end, Knicks fans were repeatedly chanting his last name.
By the next day, the NBA reported that Porzingis' No. 6 game jersey had sold out.
And that was before he came back Saturday with an even more remarkable night: a 24-point, 14-rebound, seven-block performance in a 107-102 win against the Houston Rockets. The Knicks improved to 8-6, giving them nearly half of last year's final win total of 17. Porzingis was so terrific, nobody even dwelled much afterward on the fact that the Rockets gave center Dwight Howard a rest night. At 20 years, 111 days, he became the youngest player to post numbers that high in the three categories for a single game, edging Shaquille O'Neal. Porzingis' seven blocks tied the franchise record for a rookie set by Lonnie Shelton in 1976-77.
"I'm not scared -- I'm not scared of anybody," Porzingis said before leaving for the Knicks' four-game road trip that continues Monday night in Miami. "I'm skinny and I'm light. Strong guys can still push me around. But I will fight back, and be aggressive and never back down from anybody. If I want to succeed at this level, I can't be scared of anybody. I can't have fear. I've got to be fearless out there on the court."
So far, Porzingis has kept his word.
Just 14 games into the young season, Porzingis is the biggest on-court sensation the Knicks have had since Jeremy Lin and Linsanity followed Carmelo Anthony's arrival in town. But Porzingis comes with this happy caveat: Hardly anybody is warning he's some flash in the pan, as plenty of cynics did with Lin.
Nor will anybody be surprised if weeks from now the Madison Square Garden crowd again chants Porzingis' name over and over. The belief is there are more great nights for him to come.
"Things are kind of crazy for me right now," he's allowed.
The New York Post has reported that Anthony already has told friends that in Porzingis he may finally have the kind of do-everything wingman who can help him win an NBA championship.
"Everyone was saying I was a project, and I am going to get better, but I am ready to play right now." Kristaps Porzingis
Knicks shooting guard Arron Afflalo is highly impressed, too.
"He's so smart and committed, he's got God-given gifts to play this game in terms of rebounding and scoring, he's tall and skilled, but more importantly he's mentally prepared for a kid at 20," Afflalo rattled off.
"That's very impressive."
And Porzingis? He doesn't deny he noted the critics who booed him vociferously or even burst into tears when the Knicks took him on draft night. But five months later, there's not a bit of I-told-you-so in him. He genially says he has a long way to go, but then quickly adds he always thought he'd affirm Knicks president Phil Jackson's decision to make him the fourth overall pick. And so far, he's been right.
Porzingis volunteers that after he tweeted a photo from his Charlotte performance, he picked up 15,000 followers on Twitter.
In one night? "In one night," he repeated. "But I was a little active, too," he added with a smile. "I wanted to keep the momentum rolling, you know?"
Even Porzingis' little shows of ego like that make him irresistibly likable. Because of the ways he backs it up.
Porzingis had no compunction telling an interviewer earlier this year that he thinks the NBA player his game most closely compares to is New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis -- with a better 3-pointer. But his play is making people forget their worries that his narrow shoulders still look thin as a coat hanger. They're saying, yeah, but look at his sweet shot instead. And the 11 pounds he's added in the past few months. And how even at 7-foot-3 and listed at 240 pounds, he runs the court like a gazelle and plucks rebounds out of the air before shorter players get a finger on them.
Jackson himself initially fed some of the post-draft skepticism about Porzingis by cautioning in an ESPN.com story that there was a chance Porzingis might be "too tall" and spindly to develop into anything more than a latter-day version of Shawn Bradley, the 7-foot-6 BYU star who never dominated in the NBA. That only fed the idea that Porzingis' slight frame might snap like a bread stick once he got into the NBA trenches, even if he's playing power forward for now and not center.
Porzingis' reaction: "Yeah. I saw it. ... It fired me up."
"I guess that's what Phil does, gets guys to work hard and [get fired] up," Porzingis said in September. "That fired me up. I'm like, 'I'm not Shawn Bradley, you know.' ... I want to be better than Shawn Bradley, obviously, and be stronger than him, but I'm a different player."
Plenty of people still hold on to the aged-out gripes that Euro players are all somehow "soft," especially big men. They still fall into the habit of comparing Porzingis only to other international players, usually Pau Gasol of Spain or German-born Dirk Nowitzki.
But Porzingis has the potential to be better than both men.
Porzingis already has a terrific shooting touch out to 3-point range, but he moves far better than Nowitzki and he's a far better rebounder and shot-blocker.
"He's for real. Sky's the limit," Nowitzki himself has said.
Knicks coach Derek Fisher believes there is going to come a time, if it hasn't already arrived, when Porzingis is compared to great players, period, and not the cause of amazement simply because he's good for a European. There were 100 international players on opening-day NBA rosters this season, and they hail from 37 different countries.
"I don't know if there's still a bias or not, and I don't think they care, honestly," Fisher says. "I think [Porzingis] is continuing to learn how to navigate all the situations that come with having, at times, lower expectations -- which were initially the case. ... [But] in my opinion, international players have long proven they're some of the best players in the world.
"I don't even like to say 'them,' like they're separate somehow. They're NBA players, and we're fortunate to have them."
If you watch Porzingis' game closely, you can tell how watching the NBA since he began playing at 6 allowed him to steal from some of the best. Both of Porzingis' older brothers played basketball, as did both of their parents, who began sending Kristaps to an English tutor as a grade-schooler because they believed his height might allow him to play overseas someday.
Porzingis says his eldest brother often made him mix tapes or highlight reels of NBA stars. And to this day, Porzingis tries to nick a little from everyone he admires.
Already, Porzingis can shoot a hook shot with either hand, the same skill Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made famous. He's got a little funk in his game, too. There are already YouTube compilations of Porzingis flying to the rim to throw down put-back dunks, including one against San Antonio that brought his Knicks teammates literally leaping off the bench and staggering around in mock amazement, pretending to hold each other back from rushing the court.
Porzingis can mimic how Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, another idol, takes the ball at the top of the key and puts it on the floor to shake the defender flying at him before smoothly launching a pull-up jumper. ("I like him because he's a great scorer. And he's skinny like me," Porzingis says about Durant with a laugh.) And he spent a lot of time this summer scrimmaging with Anthony to pick up some much-needed post-up moves, including a slower-motion version of the "Dream Shake" that Hakeem Olajuwon made famous.
In Houston on Saturday, Porzingis even debuted his version of the step-back, one-legged jumper that Nowitzki has made a living on in Dallas. But Porzingis insisted afterward that the move still needs work.
Knicks point guard Jose Calderon says that kind of humility and work ethic has made Porzingis a quick favorite inside the locker room. He arrives three hours early for games and is often among the last players to leave the practice court.
Even Anthony, who rarely hid his disdain of the phenomena surrounding Lin, has fallen hard for the new kid.
"I knew he was going to be good from way back when I first met him and talked to him this summer," Anthony says.
The hype isn't likely to stop. The Knicks beat Houston even though Anthony had an off night because Porzingis' all-around game was so spectacular, particularly in the final two minutes when he blocked James Harden twice and sank two free throws, nudging his percentage from the line to 83.0.
Then, looking ahead to Monday's game in Miami -- a place he's never been -- Porzingis said something sure to endear himself to his team and Knicks fans even more.
He was asked what he was looking forward to most, and he said, "Getting another win."