Ettore Messina, an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, was only vaguely familiar with Kristaps Porzingis until this weekend. Messina, of course, had coached against Porzingis in two games this season, both wins for the Spurs. But Friday was their first meaty opportunity to get to know each other.
“I think everybody’s absolutely believing that he’ll be a great, great player in this league,” Messina said.
Talk of Porzingis’ potential has been a consistent theme around the New York Knicks this season, and he found a decent-size stage when he played for Messina in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night at Air Canada Centre. Afterward, Messina tried his hand at making a comparison — a popular pursuit for people who want to give Porzingis’ unusual skills some perspective.
Messina, a longtime coach in Europe, said Porzingis reminded him of Toni Kukoc, the former forward who once played alongside Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. At 6-foot-11, Kukoc could create offense and shoot 3-pointers — a matchup nightmare for defenders who were unaccustomed to roaming out to the perimeter.
“He’s got a lot of Kukoc in him, in my opinion,” Messina said. “Toni was probably, at his age, a better ballhandler and could do more things off the dribble.”
Messina was not being critical of Porzingis. Rather, he was suggesting that he hoped to see Porzingis further develop that part of his game. Imagine the delicious possibilities for a 7-foot-3 power forward capable of dribbling past defenders in the open court. Who would be able to stop him?
“I’m just talking as a fan and a lover of the game,” Messina said.
The game itself was devoid of defense, which meant that Porzingis had a blank canvas. He drove to the basket for dunks. He launched teardrop 3-pointers. He collected 30 points and five rebounds while shooting 12 of 16 from the field and 5 of 8 from 3-point range. Mostly, though, he was upset that his World team fell to the United States team, 157-154.
“It never feels good to lose,” Porzingis said. “So I’m not too happy about the loss.”
At the same time, Porzingis appreciated his seat at the kids’ table ahead of Sunday’s main event, the NBA All-Star Game. Many pundits (and opposing coaches) believe that Porzingis, 20, will be a staple at All-Star weekends for years to come, and he seemed to make the most of his first experience here.
At his pregame news conference, Porzingis fielded questions in English, Spanish and Latvian. He did meet-and-greets with fans. He went on social media to do some heavy lifting on behalf of his sponsors. Porzingis has a way of handling all of his obligations with ease, a rare quality for someone his age and for someone so new to the league.
“It’s fun to kind of relax a little bit,” he said before Friday’s game, “but at the same time, you want to stay focused. You don’t want to look bad out there, you know?”
Carmelo Anthony, his teammate with the Knicks and an All-Star selection for the ninth time, said he had advised Porzingis to take a lot of photos.
“This is a lot different from anything he’s experienced,” said Anthony, who, clad in a maroon blazer, was courtside for much of Porzingis’ appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Anthony’s experience here — well, it has been more complicated, a product of the Knicks’ recent tailspin. Anthony has repeatedly dismissed trade rumors, and did so again Saturday.
“Just get tired of hearing something all the time,” said Anthony, who has a no-trade clause in his contract and is dealing with a sore left knee. “I’m not on the run. I could’ve ran somewhere when I was a free agent, you know what I’m saying? I came back for a reason. I came back because I wanted to do this.”
Porzingis remains an unqualified source of optimism for the Knicks, although he has labored through some predictable growing pains this season — mostly the result of fatigue, he said.
“There were a few moments when I wasn’t playing that well and my energy wasn’t that high,” said Porzingis, who is averaging 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
He also said he felt some responsibility for the firing of Derek Fisher as coach last week, citing his up-and-down play — an unfair burden for a first-year player.
“I felt guilty for that happening,” Porzingis said. “But we have to move forward.”
On Saturday, Porzingis left for a short vacation with his family — somewhere warm, he said. He wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to rest and recover. He has a lot of work ahead of him.
“I just want to have a fresh mind,” he said, “especially after this bad streak that we had at the end. I think that we all needed to disconnect a little bit.”