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Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t been the same unicorn Knicks injury

In a flash, in an eyeblink, five years have rushed past and it is almost impossible to remember what it was like in those days and nights at Madison Square Garden when Kristaps Porzingis was learning on the fly how to be a genuine cornerstone for the Knicks.

Kevin Durant had, quite famously, already weighed in.

“He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line,” Durant, still with Oklahoma City, had said of Porzingis during Porzingis’ rookie year. “That’s rare. And block shots — that’s like a unicorn in this league.”


It was a high compliment that became something of a burden for Porzingis, especially as his career with the Knicks developed. In his third season, at age 22, he was enjoying his finest year — 22.7 points per game, 2.4 blocks, 40 percent shooting from 3 — and had been selected for his first NBA All-Star Game.

The Garden, which for two years had blushed and swooned over every incremental step he took, had begun to view Porzingis with a more critical eye by then. There were some nights he even heard some boos cascading from the seats. It’s tough enough trying to meet expectations; it’s damn near impossible when your ceiling has been established as “unicorn.”

Kristaps Porzingis (r.) of the Knicks shoots against the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo on Feb. 6, 2018.
Kristaps Porzingis (r.) of the Knicks shoots against the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo on Feb. 6, 2018.
Paul J. Bereswill

Still, on the night of Feb. 6, 2018, the Garden was smitten once again. The All-Star Game was in 12 days. The Bucks were in town that night, with their own unicorn, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Porzingis was fully engaged. He made four of his first five shots. He blocked three shots.

With 8 minutes and 50 seconds left in the second quarter, he planted his right foot near the foul line, sprinted back door, took a feed from Kyle O’Quinn. And threw down a vicious one-handed dunk, posterizing Antetokounmpo in the process. The Garden, a full house that night, exploded in a spontaneous spasm of glee.

And, just as quickly, the crowd hushed.

Porzigis had landed wrong, and he was grabbing his left knee with his left hand, pounding the Garden floor with his right hand.

Kristaps Porzingis clutches his knee after getting injured with the Knicks on Feb. 6, 2018.
Kristaps Porzingis clutches his knee after getting injured with the Knicks on Feb. 6, 2018.

Immediately, it was clear that this was bad.

What wasn’t apparent until much later was how completely the destinies of both Porzingis and the Knicks were about to be upended. It would have been unimaginable on Feb. 6, 2018, to believe that dunk would end up being the last thing Porzingis ever did as a Knick.

But that’s how it worked out. Less than a year later, Porzingis was shipped to the Mavericks. What seemed like a dream pairing with Luka Doncic never came close to that. He is a Wizard now, on a team that feels on the verge of being blown up, and is visiting the Garden on Wednesday night. His first few appearances at the Garden were met with vitriol and venom; a lot of Knicks fans didn’t like the way Porzingis and his brother, Janis, engineered his exit from New York.

All these years later, it seems that Knicks fans aren’t the only ones who harbor regrets.

“Could I go back and do things differently? For sure, from our side,” Porzingis told last week. “I was hurt. If I kept playing, it would’ve been completely different. I’m young and listening to people and what they’re telling me on what I should do with my career. You don’t know any better. That’s how things went at that time.

“I can only say really good things about [the Knicks] because I enjoyed it so much playing there in New York and playing in front of those fans. It was a dream come true. In the moment, I didn’t realize it’s not like that everywhere. New York is a special place. Madison Square Garden is the most special place I had ever played in. But at that moment, I thought it was like that on every team. I had the most fun playing in the Garden.”

Kristaps Porzingis plays for the Wizards on Jan. 13, 2023.
Kristaps Porzingis plays for the Wizards on Jan. 13, 2023.

Porzingis has become a nice NBA player, and he is averaging 22.2 points for the Wizards, but he is 27 now, and nobody looks at him any longer and sees unicorns. On the right team, in the right situation, he could be a big help. The Knicks’ ship has passed; they’ve got different leadership now and an entirely different blueprint back to relevance. It is hard to imagine that fit being here.

Once upon a time, it would have been impossible to believe there would ever be a better fit anywhere else. Five years rush by in a flash, in an eyeblink. A player goes up for a signature dunk as a unicorn and comes down as just another player with skills. A team moves on. And so does a city.

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