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Knicks season weighs on a physically, mentally drained Kristaps Porzingis

Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis has missed six games this season. (AP)

Kristaps Porzingis is carrying too heavy a load for the New York Knicks.

It may be the load they need him to carry to compete for a playoff spot this season and loftier heights down the line, but it’s too heavy for Porzingis nonetheless, and that’s a reality New York must weigh moving forward. The Knicks’ hopes of rising from mediocrity are tied to the Latvian phenom, and his ability to shoulder that burden would make them more comfortable about a max extension in 2018.

Sorry to sound so fatalistic, but when your 22-year-old franchise cornerstone is complaining of fatigue 32 games into his third season, I’d call that a red flag, especially when he stands a slender 7-foot-3.

“I’m tired. I’m so tired right now,” Porzingis told reporters, via ESPN.com’s Ian Begley, after a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, the Knicks’ sixth defeat in seven games and second in as many nights. “I have one day now to rest my legs and then get back and play better and have more energy, and also try and bring the team’s energy up.”

Granted, Porzingis was playing on the road for the second night of a back-to-back, having played 36 minutes in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs the night before, and his role has expanded in the month-long absence of shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., but if he can’t handle the NBA’s less strenuous schedule at this early career juncture, then it’s hard not to have real questions about when he can.

After an MVP-caliber start to the season, his splits are in steady decline, even if he’s still fourth among frontcourt players in Eastern Conference All-Star voting. Porzingis has battled nagging injuries all year, including tweaks to both ankles, back tightness and left knee soreness, all of which cost him games. That may lend to his fatigue, but mounting ailments for a young big man are no less of a concern.

He has played in five back-to-backs this season, and three of them have come in the past two weeks. This is a brutal stretch of the schedule, so that’s something to hang your hat on if you’re the Knicks.

His 32.3 minutes per game rank a conservative 56th in the league and 12th among bigs, but his usage rate (32.7 percent) ranks fifth among NBA regulars, behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and Joel Embiid. There is hope that more talent around him could lighten his load, but that rate has actually declined a couple percentage points in Hardaway’s absence, as the Knicks have remarkably relied more on Michael Beasley and his 31.5 percent usage rate over the past month.

Porzingis is doing solid work, leading the Knicks within a game of the playoffs despite far lower expectations, and he’s taxed more than most, but the “tired” bit isn’t the only eyebrow-raising quote from his postgame media session on Wednesday. There was this on the Spurs, via the New York Post

“They were all focused [on] what I was doing. Wherever I went, there was contact, boom, boom, bumping me.”

… which will only lead more teams to body him all night. And then there was this, via ESPN.com again:

“We’re in a tough stretch. The mental part doesn’t help at all. When it’s mentally tough, you just don’t have it in you.”

Yikes. Hopefully, we can chalk all this up to one bummer of a night for Porzingis and not a window into a player who essentially just detailed his own physical and mental weaknesses in one presser.

There are ways to improve the strength and conditioning part, especially for a still-developing 22-year-old, but history hasn’t been kind to young 7-footers with mounting injuries and a heavy workload, and I’m guessing it’s even less so to those who can’t meet the mental demands, either.

Porzingis may change his tune by next week, when the Knicks have a couple off days before a home game against the Chicago Bulls, but he just provided a few bullet points for the new Knicks brass to raise when it comes time to negotiating an extension during the offseason. And there are plenty more back-to-backs between now and then. No rest for the weary. Not in the NBA. Not for budding All-Stars.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!