Who in the world is Zemgus Girgensons?

Who in the world is Zemgus Girgensons?

If you know the answer to that question, you’re either Latvian, a Buffalo Sabres fan, or play fantasy hockey. As I am none of those things, I had no idea who Zemgus Girgensons was. That name meant absolutely nothing until I began to tease out the possibility that Kristaps Porzingis might have a shot at being a starting player in the 2016 All Star Game. Crazy, you say? I have a simple answer for you: Zemgus Girgensons.

Girgensons is a very league average sort of center for the Buffalo Sabres, but he was a starter in last season’s NHL All Star Game. It seems that his Latvian fan base got their act together to dominate the voting and sent their national hero to play with the big boys. In the NBA, we’ve seen this sort of thing before as Yao Ming dominated the center position out West thanks to votes from the world’s most populous nation. Japanese fans have had a similar impact on MLB All Star voting over the years, and we all might remember the way the Kansas City fan base gamed the system to load the starting AL All-Star team with Royals. It helps in retrospect that the Royals just won the World Series, but you wouldn’t necessarily count their roster among the best players in the sport. They certainly proved themselves to be the best team in the end.

The Knicks find themselves in a perfect storm of Porzingasm thanks to the fresh wounds left behind from a 65 loss season in 2014-15, the disappointment of dropping to 4th in the NBA Draft Lottery, and the general atmosphere of shock surrounding our selection of the skinny Euro from Latvia. The team is playing better than expected, in some ways, the rookie looks like a franchise player, and Kristaps Porzingis is destined to be a much better player in his respective league than Zemgus Girgensons. The fact that he’s in New York City, he’s got tremendous promise, even beyond his precocious neophyting, and that he’s the biggest Latvian export the world has ever seen creates a perfect storm.

There are plenty of quantitative reasons to like what Porzingis has done for the very competitive Knicks this season. His on/off numbers are outstanding. His defense has been better than average and his offense has become increasingly efficient as he’s adjusted to the league a bit. The qualitative aspect of Porzingis’ impact on the sport is what will drive him towards a starting position on the All-Star team. He’s got heart. He’s got intensity. He’s confident, but self-aware. He says all the right things when a microphone is put in front of him. He seems to learn something new every night and he hasn’t once had bad games back-to-back. In fact, none of his performances are what you’d actually call bad.

Porzingis has shown a remarkable versatility in impacting games positively. He’s made mistakes, to be sure, but think about all the things we’ve seen him do. He’s rebounded like a beast, and especially on the offensive end where he’s produced a list of highlight put backs over brand name NBA stars. He’s started to hit the three more consistently, which has always looked like the most likely outcome with that beautiful stroke. He can put the ball on the floor and shoot on the move. He’s shown a Dream Shake. He’s got a sky hook from the left and the right side. He understands how to use his length by going vertical and changing shots around the rim without reaching into the defender. He has quick hands on defense and forces turnovers. Every game brings a new dimension into view and we’re loving it.

There’s going to be plenty of room to analyze Porzingis’ performance via metrics. There will be positive and negative in the snapshot. If the Knicks keep winning games and look competitive, and if he’s continuing the visual fireworks on a regular basis, it just may be Kristaps Porzingis in the starting lineup of the NBA All Star Game, rather than Carmelo Anthony. As a Knicks fan, both would be nice. Certainly, Melo will be on the team. In a way, I sort of dread the possibility that this could happen because it’s just the sort of storyline that drives clickbait pieces about Melo’s jealousy and rifts in the team that are likely to be both false and poisonous to the conversation in the fan base.

Who knows? I may be wrong and it may never come to it, but the name Zemgus Girgensons is out there after all.

Carmelo Through the Years

Historically, statistics suggest Carmelo Anthony has not always impeded ball movement or prevented offensive flow. Over the course of his eight-year career, Anthony has primarily played with three point guards – Andre Miller, Allen Iverson, and Chauncey Billups. When Melo is paired with a point guard able to control the offense, the numbers prove he is not simply a stop-and-hold isolation player.

In Carmelo’s Rookie year (03-04), with Miller running the point, the Nuggets finished 9th in the league in assists per game. ‘Dre averaged 8.5 assists per 48 minutes – not a stellar number, but a solid one.  60% of the Nuggets FG’s were assisted, a number that held true regardless of whether or not Anthony was on the floor. In total, 55% of his baskets were assisted. The offense wasn’t just dumping it off and watching, but rather finding him in easy-to-score situations. Additionally, Anthony averaged 4asts/48 – an excellent number for a “shoot-first” rookie.

The Nuggets only improved in Anthony’s next two years, finishing second and third in the league in assists, respectively, with Miller averaging 10asts/48min. Even more impressive, 63% of Carmelo’s makes were off assists, including 64% of his jumpers. Clearly, he was not solely settling for contested shots. It helped tremendously, though, to have a pass-first guard orchestrating the offense, allowing Anthony to play to his strengths: getting position and scoring.

When “The Answer” (a true shoot-first guard) took over the reins on offense in 2006, Anthony only improved his contribution, averaging 5asts/48min and when he was on the floor. Meanwhile, 62% of the Nuggets FG’s were assisted – while off, this number dropped to 57%. Anthony, it should be noted, had a stellar offensive season, averaging 29ppg.

With Chauncey Billups at the helm in 2008-2010, the Nuggets fell to 18th in the league in assists. Billups averaged under 8 assists per 48 minutes (the lowest of any PG Anthony had played with, including Iverson), and thus Melo’s isolation habits began to show. 64% of his FGA’s were jumpers, as opposed to his usual number somewhere in the mid 50s.  Even more shocking, his scoring was only assisted 42% of the time, a far-cry from the 60% he was used to.

This year, playing without any semblance of a point guard thus far, Carmelo’s stats paint an ugly picture: Only 30% of his FG’s have been assisted, and his 42 eFG% similarly marks a career low. A whopping 77% of his shots have been jumpers – a 20% increase over years past — while a mere 1% have been dunks. Currently, the Knicks are 20th in the league in assists. Needless to say, however, it seems as though help has finally arrived.

In terms of guards, Anthony will soon be playing with arguably the best pure passer he’s ever called a teammate in Jeremy Lin, with the second year Harvard man averaging 14asts/48. As such, the perennial All-Star won’t be forced into point-guard duties – as he was for much of this season’s first stretch – and the ball movement won’t start with him. Now, Melo’s main concern will be moving without the ball, running the pick and roll, finding open spaces, and finishing at the rim.

Jeremy Lin has proven he will reward hustle and persistence.  Statistics prove Carmelo performed well in an up-tempo, fluid offense in Denver. Since his pairing with Billups, the isolations have drastically increased. Now, with a smart, young point guard, it’s time to prove everyone wrong.