Don’t Call Him Zinger: Kristaps Porzingis Is Set To Prove Phil Jackson Wrong

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NEWARK — It’s a pristine day as we walk on a pathway adjacent to the Passaic River in Newark’s “Down Neck” neighborhood, a four square mile stretch nicknamed after the curve the river makes as it meanders towards Newark Bay. We’ve just gotten off a train, then a subway car and finally a bus snagged in commuter traffic, and we’re running late as we wonder how the hell Shifman Mattress Company is going to construct a bed big enough to fit New York’s 7’1 first-round pick, Kristaps Porzingis, and all the out-sized expectations fans and Knicks brass have for him.

The warehouse we’re going to overlooks the river with Red Bull Arena gleaming in the sun on the opposite bank. The “Ironbound” neighborhood in Newark’s East Ward has seen a huge influx of Portuguese residents throughout the 20th and the 21st century, and a Shifman worker tells us English-speaking denizens are now in the minority. Those same workers gaze up at Porzingis as if they aren’t quite sure he is from the same species.

While New York City is a great place for celebrities to become one of the masses, that’s not really the case when you’re over seven feet tall.

“One day, I was walking around the street and had a New York Knick t-shirt on,” Porzingis tells us later. “And people come up to me ‘Oh, you play for the Knicks. I know you’re Kris Porzingis.’ And the trainer tells me, ‘Pick up your hoodie so they can’t see.’ I’m like, ‘That’s not gonna help, man.’”

While New York’s first-round draft pick is going to stick out wherever he goes, he’s at least capable of adjusting. He doesn’t know any Portuguese yet, but he speaks fluent Spanish, so much so he even dreamed in Spanish after playing five years at various levels for the ACB team, Cajasol Sevilla.

“Sometimes I used to dream in Spanish because I was just around Spanish-speaking people,” Porzingis says when we ask him which of the three languages — he’s fluent in Spanish, English and his native Latvian — he dreams in. Right now, though, “I don’t dream,” he says.

Knicks fans certainly do, at least those who weren’t too busy booing Porzingis’ selection as the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. That’s part of why we’re in a mattress warehouse in Newark on a beautiful September day. The Latvian big man could end up being many things, including a big bust.

Once we’re buzzed inside, we climb some stairs and come out into a large room where we can see machinery and mattresses in the adjoining space. The atmosphere reminds us of our our shop class in high school, and it smells like lumber and sawdust.

Someone leads us into another, smaller room where media are gathered and Porzingis is sipping a bottled water that seems close to scraping the ceiling. More mattresses are in the room, and assembled chairs are bunched together. A/V equipment is scattered throughout for outlets hoping to get some video time with the much-discussed European import who could be New York’s first long-term building block since they drafted Patrick Ewing more than 30 years ago.

We’ve missed the mini-tour of the warehouse, which Porzingis is about to start. In another missed opportunity, we’re left behind as the Shifman staff brings the big Latvian around so he can try out their hand-tufting services that make them a premium mattress company, one that custom crafts the 80’ by 98’ Athletic King Porzingis will rest his weary frame on at night.

Kris is clad in a white button-down, slim-fitting khakis and white Timberland boat shoes without socks. He looks comfortable, and perhaps a little sleepy, a symptom of the venue. After the tour, we get down to a group Q&A session primarily about the bed, with company president, Bill Hammer, flanking Porzingis on his right.

“It really isn’t much of a challenge,” Hammer says when asked what it was like constructing a bed for someone as long as Kristaps. “Ordering some special materials, a spring that’s large enough to handle the size that we need to make. But we really approach every mattress we make as a special mattress, one at a time.”

The Shifman CEO admits, “It’s the largest one we’ve ever made,” even though they’ve made three beds for Dikembe Mutombo’s stops in Atlanta, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Mount Mutombo’s King-sized bed was 80 x 90, so Kristaps has an additional eight inches of length. Except it’s not Porzingis’ length that concerns Knicks fans. It’s his willowy build.

After our group chat, a few of the basketball-specific writers crowd around for some more focused back-and-forth about the game and Porzingis’ changing body.

Pre-draft measurements had the 7’1 Latvian at around 220 pounds, and his brother Janis — no shortie himself at 6’7 — admitted to us that Kristaps was actually at that reduced weight after all the stress of the draft. Since then, Kristaps has gained a reported 11 pounds, and it’s obvious most of that weight was affixed to his upper-body; his white shirt is taut against his pectoral region, and he doesn’t seem nearly as flimsy as he looked at Barclays just a couple months earlier.

Porzginis’ reps at ASM Sports say he’s on a diet of about 5,000 daily calories, which he does by “eating a lot of steaks.” Food plays a large part in his life these days.

His day-to-day routine is centered on weights, food and basketball. He wakes between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m. each morning and gets breakfast before heading to the gym. He gets in a lift before meeting with teammates for some group instruction on the Triangle offense followed by some five-on-five scrimmaging. After that, it’s more working out on the athletic field outside of New York’s training facility in Westchester (Porzingis is staying in a luxury apartment in White Plains, where most new Knicks stay when they’re not making Melo money). Then there’s even more food and some light napping. He returns to the gym to lift again at six that night and after that he gets into the ice tub.

Rinse, repeat.

One of the things that stuck out during our conversation was how carefully Porzingis selects his words. He only stumbles a couple times — we’ll get to that — but when we interject with a question while he’s recounting his daily schedule, he answers our question then immediately picks back up with his everyday regimen. That’s challenging to do because we’re not even sure the writer who originally asked the question remembers Kristaps still hasn’t finished answering it.

It might be Porzingis’s time with Carmelo Anthony that’s better equipped him for the glare of New York — the #brand speak as it were. When Kristaps first arrived in New York, it was just him and Melo at the practice facilities, so he was able to get some one-on-one time while playing one-on-one with the Knicks star.

“The first few days, the whole team wasn’t really there yet,” Porzingis says. “We were playing one-on-one a lot and I was just asking [Carmelo] about moves as much as I could; how he does that, how he does this. Off the court, too, it’s good to see how he carries himself and just being around him. He never said no to one of my questions, so I can just keep asking. It’s great for me to keep learning.”

When another reporter asks if he ever beat Melo during one of these one-on-one games, his “maybe” drew a laugh from everyone, including Kris — who seems to have mastered the light-hearted deflection necessary when talking to the New York newshounds.

“But Melo, I mean, he’s hard to guard,” Kris continued. “He’s the best offensive player in the league, so I had trouble with him, but I think I got better from it.”

While the compliment might sound like hyperbole from a fawning new teammate, Porzingis is not alone in his assessment of Melo’s offensive game.

The only questions that seem to give Kristaps pause stem from some of the comments Phil Jackson made after Porzingis was selected, specifically the ones comparing him to Shawn Bradley when the Zen Master ironically said Porzingis might be “too tall” to play in the NBA.

“I don’t know what to say,” Porzingis replies. “That’s what Phil does to get guys to work hard. That fired me up. I’m not Shawn Bradley.”

When asked whether he’s aware of Phil’s history as someone who tries to motivate players through the press, Porzingis deferred to the experience of the 11-time NBA champion coach, even if he disagreed with the Bradley comparison.

“[Phil] knows what he’s doing.”

Kristaps’ brother, Janis, a 14-year professional basketball player in Latvia and elsewhere around Europe, doesn’t think the basketball side of things will be an issue for his talented younger brother.

“About 17,” was the first time Kristaps beat his Janis in one-one one he tells us. “I couldn’t shoot over him. I think I still won against him last year, but that was just because he made some mistakes. He got cocky. But other than that, I don’t stand a chance.

“He moves so well that you cannot get him off you just to shoot over. If I can get a shot off then I’m fine. But I can’t. That is the problem. He’s just that good. And then, on offense, what am I gonna do?”

But the physical grind of competing against the giants in the NBA is still a mystery to Janis.

“My basketball education is way worse,” he says. “I would say that me at 25 knows what he knew at 17.

“Now the question is, can you be physical and so on in this league? But understanding of how to move defensively, and what to do on offense and how to develop spacing and stuff like that, he knows that.”

Some sources around the Knicks say fans should expect around 20 minutes a night from their first-round pick, but Kristaps again capitulates to the president of basketball operations when asked if he thinks that’s a realistic aim in his rookie campaign.

“I don’t know. Phil does. He knows,” Porzingis says. “I gotta prove myself in training camp. I’m a rookie. I’ll be happy any time I get on the court, so hopefully I get those 20 minutes.”

The Knicks rookie is tired. We catch him stifling yawns despite how chipper he is with the Shifman staff and media. The disconnect that can happen with European imports and American press isn’t there with Kristaps, though. Every time we joke with him, he picks up the nuances of sarcasm better than we expected. He’s comfortable expressing himself in English, and he understands what reporters are implicitly saying in their questions, as his careful navigation of the Phil queries shows.

For someone who is only 20, Porzingis is a lot more mature-sounding than most of the rookies we’ve interacted with. And he has to be to survive New York.

“Now it’s been calmer,” Kristaps says. “Right after the draft, it was crazy. I really couldn’t walk around; I really couldn’t do anything. Now it’s better. Fans still recognize me, but there’s not as much pressure.”

It’s only mid-September. The real pressure is a few months away, but you can be sure it’ll take more than a custom bed from Shifman’s for Porzingis to fall asleep if he’s still struggling to adapt to the Triangle offense, the grown big men in the NBA, a Knicks team led by a star — Anthony — who turns 32 this season and hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in two springs, and a president of basketball operations with some biased opinions about long, white players who might not provide him the play it’s unfair to expect of someone so young.

Kristaps can sleep easily right now, but the real pressure-cooker hasn’t even started yet. So far, though, he’s doing great, and doesn’t seem overly concerned with anything but getting bigger, stronger, and better on the basketball court.

Just don’t call him “Zinger.”

“Yeah, not a fan,” he tells us when we ask him what nickname he prefers. KP works, we’re told, but regardless of what you call him, it’s way too soon to label Porzingis a bust, even if the crowd at Barclays immediately did so.

Based off our brief interactions with him, we’re going the other way. There aren’t many 20-year-olds who can entertain a grizzled group of Knicks reporters at a mattress warehouse in Newark, and KP handled himself like a pro. While Kristaps hasn’t been dreaming a lot since his big move across the Atlantic, Knicks fans have been dreaming of a return to the playoffs. Maybe Kristaps will have that same dream once he’s sleeping on his Shifman.