OKLAHOMA CITY — When Kristaps Porzingis was about 13 years old, his brother asked about his motivation for playing basketball.
“I want to make money,” Porzingis responded.
The older brother, Janis, who is always grooming and preparing Porzingis for stardom, jumped to the inevitable next step.
“He said, ‘When you make money, where are you going to find the motivation?'” Porzingis, the son of a bus driver in Latvia, recalled. “So I started thinking about it. From that point on, I just changed my mindset where for me, it’s not about the money. If I do the right thing and I play the right way and I have the vision of who I want to be, then the money is going to come. And all that is going to come with winning.”
The money for Porzingis — the real upper echelon NBA money — could be guaranteed soon. Or not. It depends on the Knicks, more than anything, because this season is also about convincing a star player there’s hope while losing.
In less than nine months, Porzingis is eligible for the designated rookie scale maximum extension, the same one Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins just signed at five years, $ 148 million apiece.
If such an extension is either not offered or not signed by Porzingis, the Knicks will have next season to convince the Latvian to sign as a restricted free agent. If that doesn’t happen, Porzingis is as good as gone.
But there remains a chasm that requires bridging after last season’s dysfunctional plummet. Asked if he still needs to see changes from the Knicks before committing long term, Porzingis told the Daily News, “Yeah.”
The 22-year-old then paused, smiling, before realizing it’s best not to air the issues.
“Yeah. That’s it.”
Porzingis has declined to discuss the specific reasons for skipping his exit interview in April, but it’s clear they weren’t all eradicated with the departure of Phil Jackson.
Understandable apprehensions remain about a team that just cut Porzingis’ best friend on the roster, Willy Hernangomez, out of the rotation.
The Knicks, unlike Embiid’s team in Philly or Wiggins’ squad in Minnesota, aren’t inspiring hope about their future contending prospects. Thursday’s blowout defeat at OKC, where Porzingis operated for much of the game as New York’s lone offensive threat, only reinforced the belief the franchise is heading toward an arduous rebuild.
At best, the direction calls for years of development before contention. At worst, the Knicks don’t have a direction. Carmelo Anthony, a mentor to Porzingis, understands why the decision on a contract extension will be difficult.
Porzingis faced off against mentor Carmelo Anthony Thursday night in Oklahoma City.
(Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)
He broke down the options to the following choices: either stay in New York to bask in the challenge of leading a team, or leave for a better chance to win.
“He’s young. He’s young enough where if he wanted to take that deal, take it. You still got years. New York is his now,” Anthony told the Daily News. “But on the flip side, with the way the game is going, people want to win. And there’s going to have to come that point where he makes that decision. As players, we all go through that.
“It’s a tough decision because you want to be there, you want to commit to him. The ball is in your hands. The onus is on you now. But on the flip side, I know him personally, so I know how bad he wants to win by any means.”
A little more than three years ago, Anthony made the mistake of signing longterm with the Knicks. He got $ 124 million out of the deal — which was more than the competition could offer — but always maintained that Phil Jackson’s plan held sway.
His faith was misplaced.
“At that time, it was the money and also it was an opportunity to do something. So it wasn’t just about the money, it was about trusting the organization and trusting Phil and trying to make something happen,” Anthony told the News. “And I got stuck there.”
For Porzingis, a decision based on money will keep him in the Garden. That starts with a rookie max extension that could be offered as early as July.
But a player of Porzingis’ caliber has options, which includes waiting to see whether the organization gets its act together before committing more years of his career.
“One thing about these young guys, they’re becoming smarter and smarter,” Anthony said. “They’re seeing how we do it, and they’re like, ‘We might wait and see how things are going.’
“And at this time, guys want to compete. At the end of the day, guys want to compete. And if they want to go to a place where they want to compete. And if it’s that team, they’ll stay. And if not, then it’s elsewhere.”