NBA draft prospects are games of chance. Once in a generation, a royal flush arrives, a Lebron, a Shaq, a Kareem. Karl-Anthony Towns could be a straight flush. He could be a straight. Kristaps Porzingis is a game of poker where everything's wild, from deuce to ace. He could be the best player this year. He could join the Tskitishvilis and Olawakandis in the Multisyllabic Busts' Pantheon of Illustriousness. 7'1", with a quick release, a wet jumper, infinite range, the athleticism to beat bigs off the dribble, the hops to finish strong, the height to post the sub-84-inchers of the world, and an unholy amalgam of wingspan and footspeed on defense feeding on the souls of NBA offenses...and yet, more than one scouting report included the phrase "the new Bargnani."
Porzingis grew up in Latvia and moved to Spain in 2011, where he signed with CB Sevilla in Liga ACB, reaching the senior team (the major leagues) at 17. Last year he was considered a late-lottery pick but didn't feel ready to make the jump and waited one more year. Well played. This year he won the Eurocup Rising Star Award (prior winners include Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas), having doubled his shot attempts in consecutive seasons while raising his shooting percentage from 40% to 47% to 50%.
|2012-13 *||All Teams||15||6||197.7||37||93||.398||15||31||.484||14||19||.737||70||15||37||52||6||7||15||23||15||103|
|2014-15 *||All Teams||50||27||1072.3||207||417||.496||42||117||.359||94||125||.752||368||69||161||230||27||45||52||131||71||550|
Porzingis also speaks Spanish and English fluently, as seen in this mini-interview that touches on New York City and playing for the Knicks. It's impossible to quantify how much that could ease and accelerate transitioning to a new job/home/hemisphere/life, but it's implausible to think it wouldn't help the man, and therefore the player.
He's said his favorite player to watching growing up was Kevin Garnett, and you can see some Garnett in his game, being that tall yet also that quick and skilled, a mega-small forward. You can see a lot of guys in his game. At the 00:29 mark in the clip below, he echoes Pau Gasol setting a pick on the arc and rolling to the basket for the one-hand dunk; at 00:35 he catches and shoots a three looking like Arvydas Sabonis; at 1:02 he follows a follow-up with some Kenyon Martin body language; at 1:16 his post-up/bank shot is straight Tim Duncan; his strong finish on an end-one at 2:33 has hints of Garnett.
You notice you didn't see highlights of Porzingis passing? His assist percentage was only 5%, which would rank among the worst in the NBA last year, the same range as Ryan Anderson. If you like your glass half-empty, Porzingis weighs 20 pounds less than Anderson; it's possible the physical battles he'll consistently lose as a rookie result in lower numbers across the board, including his assist count; on a team with Carmelo Anthony coming off surgery looking to re-establish his dominance and veteran free agents A and B sure to shag their share of shots, Porzingis may struggle to make an impact for a while. If you like your glass half-full, Ryan Anderson is 27. Porzingis is 19 and hasn't filled out yet. Ceiling is big, man.
Zach Lowe wrote of the growing belief that the NBA game has already evolved beyond the notion of the stretch four:
"A few executives have dumped the term 'stretch 4' and replaced it with 'playmaking 4'...[s]hooting is nice, but it's not enough anymore as defenses get smarter, faster, and more flexible working within the loosened rules. Spot-up guys have to be able to catch the ball, pump-fake a defender rushing out at them, drive into the lane, and make some sort of play. If they can't manage that, a possession dies with them."
In the Space and Pace Age, Porzingis does enough things well on offense that he could be a player whose gravity impacts the total floor, who can flourish in an up-tempo game or a Tuesday-in-March-second-night-of-a-back-to-back-at-Charlotte slugfest. His length and agility could force disruptions all over the defensive end, from arc to rim.
More than most prospects, not only does his game need a safe space to stumble while finding its legs, his body needs time to grow, too. This is not a drive-thru, fast-food talent. This is talent you let marinate. The payoff's almost certainly due later than sooner.
And what if he is the best player in the draft, but it'd take 4 years to show? One reason New York's the city that never sleeps is because there's always someone somewhere volunteering a narrative on someone else. Drafting any player in hoping they become a superstar is a gamble. Gambling on a superstar project requires the fans commit to patience and faith with no promise of deliverance, which for some will feel eerily like what going 17-65 felt like; requires Derek Fisher invest minutes in a player who'll be overmatched most nights while more immediately serviceable veterans are available; requires Phil Jackson build the Knicks, the team infamous for Frederic Weis then and Andrea Bargnani now, around a skinny teenager from a country whose greatest basketball exports are Andris Biedrins and Gundars Vetra; requires the blessing of James Dolan, who's paying Phil a lot of money for results after two years of losing games and ratings and who's just welcomed Isiah Wormtongue back in the fold.
One final Porzingis comparison...the only one scarier than "the new Bargnani."