D’Angelo Russell was reportedly their top choice, the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the second pick. Jahlil Okafor would have been the ideal pick, the Philadelphia 76ers made him their third big man lottery pick in the last three years. With the fourth pick in the draft, the New York Knicks still had multiple options, some that would have helped make an immediate impact on a team that won 17 games last season. Emmanuel Mudiay, Justise Winslow, and even Frank Kaminsky’s name all were rumored to be among the Knicks top choices but in the end, Phil Jackson chose 19-year-old Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis with his most important draft selection in his short tenure as team president. While the others were thought to be more polished, Porzingis has been considered to be a project that could take two or three years to develop, with most feelings he has the most upside of any prospect in the draft.

imageskpHis athleticism, outside shooting and ball handling skills have drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, and while he is also a good shot-blocker, he does need to gain some upper body strength as he stands at 7’2″, 230 pounds. This is the epitome of a high risk-high reward pick, one that is going to require time and patience if Prozingis has a shot at tapping into his potential. The problem is neither the Knicks as a franchise or Phil himself have ever shown a knack at patience in developing prospects. The Knicks have a history of wasted first round picks and of not allowing rookies room to grow into quality players. Patrick Ewing is still the only Knick first round pick to make an All-Star team since 1985, with the only players who went on to successful careers including Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, and Danilo Gallinari (before his major injuries that have destroyed his last two seasons). They also have a history of giving up on first round picks too soon, with highlights from the last 10 years including Channing Frye before he developed his three-point shot, Jordan Hill (traded as part of a salary dump that saw the Knicks trade an additional first round pick in exchange for Tracy McGrady), and Trevor Ariza (traded for Steve Francis).

Adding another element to the uncertainty of Porzingis’ development is how few international players have actually blossomed into top NBA players after being taken with a lottery pick. Since 1985 only Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Yao Ming have become All Stars, out of a total of 23 players. It’s a thin line between Porzingis becoming the next Dirk or the next Darko Milicic, but the odds seem to lean more towards Darko than Dirk. And while there have been some players who have turned in solid careers since their lottery selection, for every Ricky Rubio there’s a Nikoloz Tskitishvili and a Fran Vazquez. For every Jonas Valanciunas there’s a Jan Vesely, Yi Jianlian, plus a DeSagna Diop. And while the Knicks did see Gallinari play well for them before he was shipped to Denver as part of the package for Carmelo Anthony, they have their own history of futility with international draft picks, mainly Frederick Weis, Maciej Lampe, and Slavko Vraneš– none of whom worked out in New York (though they did sign Timofey Mozgov originally, and then he was traded for Melo).

dm_150625_phil_jacksonSo with the odds entirely against him, Phil Jackson chose Porzingis with the fourth pick in the draft. He did this after his first season was a complete disaster, with every trade he made blowing up in his face every way imaginable. Tyson Chandler looked rejuvenated while Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert flopped. JR Smith and Iman Shumpert became main cogs next to LeBron James in the NBA Finals after seemingly forgetting how to play basketball while in New York. But Phil was largely given a pass because it was only his first year, and Anthony was hurt for most of the second half. But with over $27 million in cap space the grace period is just about gone for Jackson, and with a crop of decent free agents, but no real franchise cornerstones available, this was Phil’s chance to add a true building block for the future, as Anthony truly is closer to the end then his prime. Porzingia may ultimately be that building block, that cornerstone, but it was a huge risk taking him during an offseason where so much will be expected and the pressure will be on in full force for Jackson to put together a winner next season. This pick does not take any pressure off of this free agent period, which is dangerous considering next year is when Kevin Durant leads an elite crop of players who expect big pays if the salary cap gets inflated (as is the expectation with labor negotiations set to alter the CBA next year). So the Knicks not only have to spend enough to field a remarkably better team than last year, but also maintain the flexibility to pursue big names in 2016. And the Knicks took a project. Good luck Kristaps, at least you have a good attitude, you will need it.

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