Kristaps Porzingis is already a unique and terrific player. Here's how the New York Knicks center can unlock his full potential in the NBA seasons to come.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Kristaps Porzingis has been one of the NBA's main attractions since he first stepped on the court at Madison Square Garden last October. His combination of size, shooting, and defense make him the poster child for the new, three-point-shooting era of NBA basketball, where even centers are as likely to spot up from behind the arc as they are to post up on the low block.
Several bigs before Porzingis have extended their shooting range beyond the arc. Dirk Nowitzki entered the league in 1998, and since then, 7-foot shooters have become as common in the NBA as designer suits. However, none have been as tall as Porzingis. At 7-foot-3, the New York Knicks center truly is a basketball unicorn thanks to his fluid movement and soft touch.
Let's take a closer look at what makes Porzingis so special—and more importantly, what he can do to maximize his talent.
Spot-Ups and Pick-and-Pops
If there's one offensive skill that sets Porzingis apart from every other giant player in NBA history, it's his ability to knock down open catch-and-shoot three-pointers. This season, he's attempting 4.8 catch-and-shoot threes per game, the 10th most in the league. Overall, he's taking 5.4 three-point shots per game, more than Nowitzki attempted at any point in his career.
Despite the high volume, Porzingis is shooting a scorching 42 percent on those attempts, better than Eric Gordon, J.R. Smith, and—really!—Klay Thompson. Only two other power forwards are in the same ballpark as Porzingis when it comes to volume and efficiency: Kevin Love and Ryan Anderson. Anderson in particular makes for an interesting comparison, since he's more of a pure spot up shooter and spends most of his time on the offensive end floating behind the perimeter. At 6-foot-10, Anderson is a prototypical stretch four. He has the height to shoot over smaller defenders, and the touch to justify spending so much time behind the arc.
Porzingis, of course, is five inches taller. Put another way, there's as much of a height gap between Porzingis and Anderson as there is between Anderson and shooting guards like Courtney Lee and Bradley Beal. This creates a huge advantage for Porzingis and the Knicks, because height + shooting = offensive gravity. Lots and lots of gravity. When a defender is guarding a smaller opponent, he can allow a small cushion of space and still challenge a shot. But when you're matched up against someone who is the same size, that cushion becomes a bit smaller.
Porzingis is the tallest player in the NBA, along with Boban Marjanovic. Everyone has to stick very closely to him in order to contest his spot-up three-point shots—and even then, it's sometimes not enough. In the clips below, watch how Porzingis is able to knock down contested shots thanks to a quick and high release:
The Knicks utilize Porzingis' gravity by spotting him up for catch-and-shoot attempts off kick-outs on drives or post-ups. The idea is to encourage New York's opponents to defend the ball one-on-one—if Porzingis' defender instead tries to help, he can make them pay by knocking down open shots or making smart cuts to get open near the basket.
In theory, this makes a lot of sense, especially if players like Carmelo Anthony can make quick decisions in isolation or in the post. In practice, however, this hasn't been the best way to utilize Porzingis' unique gravity—mostly because New York's more ball-dominant players are not inclined to hunt for kick-out opportunities. Anthony is averaging his second-lowest assist percentage since joining the Knicks; Derrick Rose is averaging the lowest assist percentage of his career. On far too many occasions, Porzingis is an afterthought, functioning as a giant decoy for much less efficient scoring options.
As well as Porzingis can work as an off-ball player, the best way to take advantage of his gravity is to use him as screener in pick-and-pop. When Porzingis sets a ball screen, his defender is forced to provide help on the ball-handler for a split second to stop him from turning the corner and attacking the paint. That sets off a chain reaction that immediately scrambles the defense.
Sooner or later, this action will become the staple of Porzingis' game. Build the Knicks playbook around it, and it will open up shots everywhere on the court—Porzingis' height, touch, and quick release make it impossible for any two players to contain it properly. In addition to helping get Porzingis more involved, it will set up everything else that the team wants to accomplish on offense, form Rose attacking downhill to Anthony scoring on spot-ups and drives to the rim.
Passing and Playmaking
In order to maximize his potential as a screen-and-pop weapon, Porzingis has to become a better passer. Right now, he's averaging just 1.3 assists per game, and doesn't have a great feel at creating open shots for teammates. Porzingis can make standstill passes when double-teamed, but even then, he has a tendency to telegraph his deliveries to wide open cutters. In both clips below, he makes the right read, but fails to make the relatively simple pass to finish the play:
The Golden State Warriors have especially exposed Porzingis' weakness as a playmaker by crowding him whenever he catches the ball, forcing him to make quick decisions. Teams that pressure as much as the Warriors and take away his shot should be left vulnerable to drives and passes, especially when they send a double team. But right now, that's not the case, because Porzingis isn't yet comfortable in that scenario:
The gap between Porzingis' individual playmaking and his ability to make plays for teammates is pretty substantial. He has shown promise putting the ball on the floor for one-dribble pull-ups and line drives to the basket, but has a long way to go before he can be the sort of player the Knicks can play through on every possession.
In many ways, Porzingis is a 7-foot-3 guard. His go-to move is a quick shot fake, dribble left pull-up that creates space almost every time. He's really good at it, and crowds get excited every time he puts the ball on the floor. However, that type of mid-range, pull-up shot should be more of a counter move than a go-to. Porzingis even seems to make up his mind about what move he will use before he catches the ball, at times dribbling right into a defender:
Still, with his height, Porzingis doesn't have to be perfect. He only needs a tiny bit of separation to get a very efficient shot off.
One area where Porzingis can really improve is his footwork with his back to the basket. As smooth as he is facing up from the perimeter, he actually looks fairly awkward when posting up in traditional fashion. In the clip below, he tries a very nice up-and-under move—but butchers the footwork. In order to sell that move, the dribble should lead into a left-right gather, the natural shooting motion for a jump hook or turnaround. Instead, Porzingis never moves his pivot, so the fake never lands:
Here's another example, against the Dallas Mavericks. Porzingis gives a great ball fake to the baseline cutter, which draws the post defender off balance. However, his right foot should reach all the way into the paint on the spin before his dribble ever touches the floor. By dribbling into the move, Porzingis slows himself down and it nearly blows the opportunity for the score:
Porzingis scored on the play, but that doesn't mean that his shoddy footwork is inconsequential. The proper footwork on that simple show-and-go spin move is the key to unlocking so many other post moves and creating opportunities to score or collapse the defense. (If you want to see a really cool tutorial of how this footwork opens up an entire arsenal of post moves, check out the video of Hakeem Olajuwon teaching LeBron James the footwork and all of the moves that spiral off of that first step)
Adding a back-to-the-basket game will unlock Porzingis' full potential. One way to defend that deadly pick-and-pop is to just stick a tall wing player on him, someone who can take away his space. However, a reliable post game will take that option away from opponents, producing even more pressure on the defense.
Porzingis already is a great player. He's great at the things that are hard to teach—shooting, facing up, being ridiculously tall—and we haven't even talked about his defense. Currently, he's probably a better defensive talent than an offensive talent, but his ceiling is so high on both ends of the floor that he is certain to be a two-way player for years to come.
Still, it would be a mistake for him and for the Knicks to limit his game to that of a spot-up shooter. In addition to being one of the greatest shooters ever, Nowitzki was one of the league's best back-to-the-basket players for over a decade. That's part of what makes him different than Ersan Illyasova or Channing Frye—and if Porzingis is going to fully harness his 7-foot-3 frame, he should emulate Dirk, not those two.
Porzingis is only 21. He will improve, and likely across the board. The next few seasons will go long way toward determining what type of player he will become. What skills will he focus on developing during summers? How will the Knicks decide to use him on the floor? The more versatile he can become, the more unguardable he will be.
In a league of versatile big men, Porzingis stands out, largely because of his shooting. Going forward it will be his other skills that help define him as a player—and perhaps make him more than just a unicorn.
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