Through the first month of the season, there have been few bigger stories in the NBA - literally and metaphorically - than Kristaps Porzingis. A skinny 7’3 beanpole from Latvia who was supposed to be a long-term project has walked into the league as a 20-year-old and been a huge part of the New York Knicks return to relevancy. He probably wouldn’t be getting this much publicity in a smaller market but there’s no denying his talent or ability to impact the game.
It all starts with his ridiculous physical dimensions. At 7’3, 240 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis is an outlier even at the NBA level. He’s in the 1 percent of the 1 percent, towering over the average player in the same way the average player towers above the average fan. He’s not much more than an average athlete by NBA standards but he’s incredibly athletic for a guy with his size. The only two other 7’3+ players in the league - rookie centers Walter Tavares and Boban Marjanovic - are lumbering giants who can only play in the paint. Porzingis is taller than every starting center in the NBA and he has the skill-set to play on the perimeter on both sides of the ball.
What he has been able to do as a rookie reminds me of what happened with Giannis Antetokounmpo, another freakishly proportioned European teenager who took the league by storm. Before coming to the NBA, Porzingis was a role player on a bad ACB team and Giannis was on a junior team in Greece. How could they thrive right away at a much higher level of competition? It helps when you have a significant physical edge on your opponents.
Porzingis is the longest power forward in the NBA and his length impacts the game in a number of different ways. He can block shots by sticking his hands straight up in the air and he can play a step or two off his man and still contest their shot. His release point means he can almost always get a clean look at the basket and defenders have to be glued to him on the perimeter to even get a hand in his face. Putting a body on him on the glass is a must or he can just reach over the top of the other guy’s head and pluck the ball out of the air. His mere presence on the floor creates passing lanes on offense and covers them up on defense.
Combine the ability to block shots with a legitimate three-point stroke and you have the foundation of a guy who can already be a very good NBA player at the age of 20. Protecting the rim and spacing the floor are the two most valuable skills a big man can have in terms of making is his teammates better and every line-up with Porzingis has more shot-blocking and three-point shooting than it would otherwise. The Knicks offensive rating is six points better with him on the floor and their defensive rating is 4.2 points worse without him. In terms of net rating (+10.3), he is by far New York’s most valuable player.
The crazy part is that he is only scratching the surface of what he can do. He’s not an efficient shooter - 42.3 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from 3 - and he can improve as a post scorer, a face-up scorer, a passer and a finisher. If he doesn’t become anything more than a volume three-point shooter who blocks shots and rebounds at a high level, he would be an incredibly valuable player for the next decade. If he keeps adding things to his game, the sky is the limit.
The obvious comparisons for any European 7’0 are Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki, but Porzingis is very much his own guy.
Pau had the skill-set to play on the perimeter but he was most effective in the paint on both sides of the ball. Pau was much thicker than Porzingis and he had a wider base which allowed him to put smaller players on his back and bury them under the basket. Smaller players can use their lower center of gravity to create a see-saw effect and push Porzingis out of the paint. The sheer length of his body means he’ll probably never have the same type of mass that would allow him to win pure shoving contests.
Comparing a 7’0 who can shoot to Dirk is like comparing a 6’3 guard who can shoot to Steph Curry. Porzingis is a good shooter for a guy with his size - Dirk was a transcendent shooter who happened to be 7’0. Dirk was a guard with the size of a center who was the primary option of some of the most efficient offenses in NBA history. Asking guys to be like Dirk is why a whole generation of European big men busted out of the league
Porzingis may never have Pau’s post game or Dirk’s face-up game, but he has the chance to be more mobile than Pau and more of a two-way player than Dirk. Maybe the most intriguing thing about him is that he has the block rate (4.5%) and rebound rate (18.2%) of a center and the skill-set to play next to another center. A team with Dirk at power forward wouldn’t have the same type of length and defensive activity and Pau’s inability to shoot 3’s or slide his feet on defense has made it difficult for him to play as a PF in the modern NBA.
The difficult part about playing two rim protectors is that one of them has to be able to stretch the floor and guard on the perimeter. The Knicks' offense can still function with a Twin Towers line-up because defenses have to guard Porzingis 25+ feet from the basket and their defense can still function because he has the length to survive on the perimeter. Even when smaller players get around him, he can come from behind and still block their shot. It’s hard to exploit a slower player when they have one of the longest wingspans in the league.
Given the way the league is going, everyone expects Porzingis to eventually end up as a small-ball center, capable of protecting the paint, guarding out on the perimeter and opening up the floor for a bunch of wing players to slash to the rim. However, I wonder if Phil Jackson sees potential for a dynamic similar to what Lamar Odom and Pau were able to do if he keeps Porzingis at PF. Pair him with an elite big man who can score around the basket and the Knicks can play high-low basketball and devastate smaller teams.
Porzingis has the versatility to play either way, which gives New York a lot of different options when it comes to building for the future. People like to focus on individual stars but the best teams are defined by combinations of players and what they allow each other to do. A lot of different teams playing a lot of different styles could be built around Porzingis, whether it’s a more traditional group that plays two big men and tries to control pace or a faster group with a bunch of smaller players around him that wants to push the ball.
New York has been surprisingly frisky this season but they still have an awkward combination of players in a group of young guys - Porzingis, Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway - and a bunch of older veterans who are ready to win now, if they aren’t already on the downside of their careers. By the time Porzingis is approaching the end of his rookie contract, Carmelo Anthony will be far past his prime. Would it be possible for the Knicks to re-align their team and move some of their older players for more young guys who could grow with Porzingis?
They don’t have their first round pick this year so they have to hope that Porzingis can attract free agents in an environment where everyone has copious amounts of cap space. The question is what types of players should they target as they build a young core around him. A point guard who can create easier shots for him? Wings who can defend and shoot 3’s? A combo forward who can play as a small-ball 4? Another 7’0 who could form a Twin Towers line-up? The possibilities are endless. The Knicks have a franchise player. Now the real challenge begins.