Kristaps Porzingis has been one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season.
Taken with the fourth pick of the NBA draft by the New York Knicks, the 7-foot-3, 20-year-old Latvian rookie was deemed a project, a player whose growth might take a few years.
Instead, Porzingis has stormed out of the gates, wowing the NBA world with his versatility, athleticism, and overall talent.
Through 22 games, he’s averaging 14.6 points on 46% shooting, 36% from three-point range, just under nine rebounds and two blocks per game. These would be solid numbers for any player, let alone a rookie who almost everybody deemed as a raw prospect.
Perhaps even more intriguing is that the baseline to compare Porzingis has been thrown out. That is, finding a player who mirrors Porzingis is essentially impossible – the NBA hasn’t seen a player like Porzingis before.
Naturally, as a European prospect with the ability to hit three-pointers, Porzingis has been compared to Dirk Nowitzki, who he faced for the first time Monday night. Porzingis, naturally, aspires to be like Dirk, telling reporters before the game, “Dirk’s just amazing. I want to be as great as a shooter as he is one day, hopefully … I’m just trying to walk in his footsteps. I would like to be as great as he is.”
Nowitzki recognized the comparison, but also noted it’s off-base.
“Every tall European now who comes over and can shoot is going to be compared to me, but he looks like he’s for real,” he said, noting Porzingis is more athletic and “tougher” than him.
After Porzingis scored 28 points on 13-18 shooting, 2-4 from downtown, with only two rebounds and two blocks in a Knicks loss to the Mavs on Monday night, Nowitzki heaped more praise on Porzingis, saying:
[The comparison is] more than fair. He’s probably way ahead of the curve. When I was 20, I was scared to death out there. … He’s almost averaging a double-double, so he’s way better than I was at 20. So the comparison’s probably unfair to me … He’s for real.
While Porzingis should aspire to be a scorer like Nowitzki, the comparison is a stretch outside of their height and ability to stretch the floor. Porzingis’ defense may already be ahead of Nowitzki, as he’s got the length to be a truly elite rim defender and the quickness to cover multiple positions. Furthermore, Porzingis may already be ahead of Nowitzki as a rebounder: His 8.9 rebounds per game are higher than Nowitzki’s career average.
This is what makes Porzingis so intriguing and baffling when it comes to comparing him to other players. There are other 7-footers with smooth jumpers and the ability to stretch the floor, but most don’t have the defense or athleticism like Porzingis. Porzingis has been compared to some stringy, springy dominant power forwards with his defense and athleticism, like Kevin Garnett and Anthony Davis, but both lack Porzingis’ size and ability to be a true three-point threat.
In fact, when comparing Porzingis’ rookie season per 36-minute numbers to players like Nowitzki, Garnett, and Davis, his growth is not only ahead of theirs but he stands out as a better shooter, rebounder, and shot blocker, too:
- Via Basketball-Reference
And a look at his advanced numbers:
- Via Basketball-Reference
There have been other comparisons, but those fall short as well. Knicks coach Derek Fisher mentioned Porzingis playing like Lamar Odom, but Porzingis lacks Odom’s playmaking abilities. Phil Jackson mentioned Porzingis and Pau Gasol, but Gasol is a far more polished post player and far less versatile and capable from the perimeter. Jackson’s mention of Shawn Bradley – in physicality only – looks way off.
In an ESPN 5-on-5 discussion, NBA writers tried to label Porzingis’ ceiling, with Dave McMenamin, somewhat sarcastically, trying to fit all of the apt comparisons for Porzingis into one combo: “A combination of Nowitzki’s shooting, with Mark Eaton’s shot-blocking, combined with Kevin Durant’s body control and the put-back dunk ability of a young David Lee? Or, in other words, his ceiling is unlike any player’s we’ve ever seen.”
It becomes even harder to compare Porzingis to other players, because he flashes a new skill, seemingly every game. He’s shown his athleticism already:
- Via YouTube
He can obviously hit threes, but he’s shown the ability to create shots for himself inside the arc:
- Via YouTube
And recently, he’s shown an increased ability to find open players, even though he only averages one assist per game. This pass to Carmelo Anthony shows impressive court vision:
- Via YouTube
This is not to say that Porzingis will have the careers of Garnett, Nowitzki, or even Davis, who many expect to be perhaps the best player five years from now. It’s simply that comparisons to them are off-base and Porzingis is, frighteningly, ahead of where they were their rookie years.
Porzingis is probably helped by playing on a semicompetitive team with several veterans, but he’s also having a profound impact on the team. The Knicks are better on offense and defense with Porzingis on the floor, outscoring teams by two points per 100 possessions – impressive considering the Knicks have lost more games than they’ve won, and he’s only one of two Knicks with a positive on-court net rating.
It’s these things that make Porzingis such a thrilling player to watch, not only for Knicks fans, but the rest of the league. There simply aren’t players that mirror all of Porzingis’ skills, and as he flashes new skills and improves game by game, figuring out the kind of player he might become is exciting.