TORONTO — Kristaps Porzingis posted a picture on his Twitter page on Thursday afternoon that featured the Knicks rookie with the four most important people in his life flying to Toronto to share the NBA All-Star Weekend experience.
Porzingis wore the biggest smile in the photo as he sat in the cabin of a private plane with his parents and two brothers on the short trip from New York to Toronto for tonight’s Rising Stars Challenge, an exhibition between the best rookies and second-year players.
The flight wasn’t just a family get-together. Porzingis, 20, lives with his parents and two brothers in Westchester, and they also have a place in Manhattan.
“We’re a basketball family,” Porzingis said.
The Porzingis family does everything together, and Kristaps wouldn’t have it any other way.
They’re a big reason the Knicks’ 7-3 Latvian forward is not only in this rookie game but soon could become a perennial All-Star.
“You’re talking about a kid that’s playing for his family,” said Scott Roth, who was Kristaps’ coach at Seville in Spain’s ACB league last year. “They’ve sacrificed a lot for him to get to where he is. Now he’s in the position to take care of his family. That was the biggest thing I saw — not a dunk, not a shot, not a game-winning play, but just his interaction with and the love for his family and trying to repay them by doing the best he can.”
The wonder years
Kristaps’ father, Talis, was a 6-4 power forward who played semipro basketball in the Soviet Union. His mother, Ingrida, was on national youth teams in Latvia and later coached. Brothers Janis, 33, and Martins, 30, played professionally overseas.
Kristaps started playing basketball in the first grade and wanted to be like his brothers. But Janis, a 6-7 forward who bounced around several European leagues, could see that Kristaps would be much better.
Janis is Kristaps’ most influential family member and helped groom him the most for a life in professional basketball. Janis, who also is Kristaps’ agent within Andy Miller’s company, won’t take credit, but a person close to them described Kristaps as “Janis’ masterpiece.”
Janis hired a trainer to put Kristaps through tough workouts when he and Martins weren’t available. Janis made him take English classes so he could communicate no matter where he played.
Kristaps said he didn’t grow up with PlayStation or any other gaming systems. When Kristaps was 13, Janis rewarded him for reading 20 books with a hand-held game. But Kristaps described it as “really, really old with terrible pixels.”
For the most part, it was school, basketball, reading, English classes and more basketball.
At the time, Kristaps didn’t understand, but he does now. He said Janis “was always thinking 10 steps ahead,” and Kristaps followed his direction.
“I didn’t fight it,” he said. “As a kid, you just want to spend time with your friends. You don’t want to take extra classes. From that perspective, it was not as fun, but I realized that it’s something that I need.”
Porzingis also picked up some English from his American teammates with Seville. He speaks English and Spanish fluently and handles himself well in interviews.
76ers coach Brett Brown said he’s “blown away at how sophisticated his delivery is.” Indeed, Porzingis is polished as a player and person, just as his family wanted.
“If me and my other brother would be knuckleheads, he wouldn’t be drafted fourth, simple as that,” Janis said. “All these things come into play but it’s impossible to take a guy and make him something special. He’s just doing some special stuff for 20 years, even if he looks 16.”
Janis said he expected his brother to establish himself as an NBA player, but not this soon.
“He has exceeded my expectations at every stage,” he said of Kristaps, who is averaging 13.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.94 blocks. He’s won all three Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
“I thought he’s going to be an NBA player; I didn’t know he was going to be this,” Janis said. “Six months ago, I thought he’s going to be a good player, maybe really, really good. I didn’t know he was going to do this in his first year.”
Janis helped show Kristaps the ropes by having him watch tapes of NBA big men LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. The videos were very detailed, focusing on footwork, how they were shooting, the trajectory on their shots and how they got open.
“It’s more about little things,” Janis said. “Why this matters, why one inch matters when you do certain things, because at this level, all of that matters. He understood. He picked it up.”
Kristaps watched tapes of guards, too. Kobe Bryant was his idol, he said. Porzingis’ turnaround fadeaway can be traced to Kobe.
“The way he plays, he’s not really a big man,” Janis said. “He’s like a guard in a big body.”
Porzingis played point guard when he was much younger. Although he was the biggest player, he was the playmaker on his team. So he has shown only parts of his game thus far in the NBA.
Janis said more is coming. He also said it’s Kristaps’ makeup that has allowed him to become the player and person he is, more than anything he’s done.
He said he fully realized that Kristaps could “push over the limit” last month, when he played through shoulder and foot injuries and jammed fingers that were worse than he would admit publicly.
“He does not complain about anything, doesn’t even think about taking a day off,” Janis said. “Then I kind of understood for the first time — his mental makeup is at the level where I didn’t even expect, which is great. You can’t teach him that. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”
“We all have done in the family certain things that influenced him. But he deserves all the credit for what he’s done.”
Porzingis stood in front of a group of reporters after a recent shootaround when Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin screamed “KP! KP!” and took a selfie when he turned.
He fit in the locker room immediately. It’s easy for his teammates to have fun with him because of how well he has acclimated himself.
“That’s a perfect way to phrase it,” Knicks center Robin Lopez said. “He’s very at home in the locker room. He’s great around the guys. Everybody loves hanging around him.
“Just his demeanor, the way he carries himself and the way his mind works. On the court, he has such great instincts for a 20-year-old. I don’t often recognize how young he is.”
Porzingis called being able to communicate with his teammates and coaches immediately “a huge advantage.” He said that’s allowed him “to connect” with them right away.
“Coming into the league first year, everybody expects you to be European, not be able to speak English, not fit in very well,” Porzingis said. “I think that showed them I’m not just here to play a little bit. I’m here for real. I’ve been preparing for this, and that’s why I’m here.
“What Janis did for me earlier, he saw it coming, so I have to say thanks to him.”