Kristaps Porzingis: A Portrait of the Put-Back Artist as a Young Man
Kristaps Porzingis is 20 years old, 7'3", and the veteran of just 14 NBA games. We don't yet know what he'll be, but it's fun to watch him figure it out.
Illustration by Robert Silverman
Say you're painting a portrait. Much as you might like to, you're not going to jump immediately to the eyes that betray mountains of anguish or the dappling of light caressing a pearl earring. That's not how it works.
You start, instead, with sketches on paper—quick drafts to find the right staging and positioning, the interplay of positive and negative space, gesture and expression. When you do finally put brush to canvas, you repeat this process with heavily thinned oils, using the broadest gestures and near-colorless hues to lay out the image. Only then do you begin to carve away, adding sculptural heft, the paint growing thicker and the subject becoming more clearly defined with each brushstroke.
It takes time and patience and no small amount of luck, is what I'm saying. Still, at the beginning of this process, if you step back and squint, sometimes you can see a finished work—a good one, even—in a picture that's still lumpy, undefined, and unfinished. You know, like this.
We're 14 games into Kristaps Porzingis's pro career and, despite a minuscule sample size, it's hard to resist the desire to bound ahead into the future and admire what the completed work of art might look like. This is especially true after a couple recent games when all of Porzingis's varied talents seemed to click into place. On Tuesday, he let loose with a beastly 29-point, 11-rebound, two-block effort, and followed that up with an even more dominant 24-14-7 torching of the Rockets, a stat line previously accomplished by only one other 20-year-old (Shaquille O'Neal) and one previous Knick (Patrick Ewing).
Therein lies the reason Knicks fans are absolutely losing their minds and the tabloids are trying to cram an unwieldy, square-shaped portmanteau of recent vintage into Kristaps-sized hole. We'd all do well if the Daily News stopped trying to make "Zingsanity" happen, but this is a thing, this is happening. The Knicks might've stumbled upon a potential franchise guy, and everyone in the Knicks' orbit has more or less forgotten how to process good news.
What's been so utterly thrilling is that every single aspect of Porzingis's game that fans had been led to believe would be a weakness has been revealed as a plus. During the run-up to the draft, the general consensus was that he'd fall somewhere on the Nowitzki-Bargnani Tall Euro Who Can Shoot But Might Be Charmin-Soft scale, even if Porzingis himself tried to warn everyone that wasn't the case. He was right, as it happened, and everyone else was dead wrong.
Even after these boffo performances, though, the Latviathan is still shooting .427 from the field and is only hitting about 30 percent of his threes. Porzingis's stroke is too pretty not to start consistently finding the bottom of net sooner or later. He's putting up .149 Wins Shares Per 48, though, and is sporting a Net Rating of 6.5. This is because he's been a monster on the glass and an incredibly effective defender, whittling the Knicks' defensive rating down to 97.5 when he's on the court, compared to 104.4 when he sits. And he's all of 20 years old.
During the NBA Summer League, he was bullied badly on the boards, a 7'3'' version of the skinny kid getting sand kicked in his mug at the beach before getting swole with the Atlas home regimen. Since the start of the regular season, however, Porzingis has been a supremely aggressive and potent rebounder, partially because he's a very large adult human who also has a pair of Go-Go Gadget Arms.
There's also something—dare I say it? Yes, I dare—reminiscent of 1999 Playoffs Marcus Camby about his work on the glass. He doesn't have Camby's ability to repeatedly pogo above and around a scrum, but he'll knife through a missed or half-assed box out with swaggering determination, and clearly believes that every carom is his by birthright.
Just watch this. Let's watch it again. For fun.
On defense, Porzingis gets put on skates by a slithery guard from time to time. He's still trying to figure out how to best utilize every inch of length, but his footwork is more than solid. Again, Porzingis seems to have firmly grasped that being an incredibly tall dude is already a huge advantage here, even if all he does with that height is lag close to the rim with his hands raised high up into the air.
Porzingis sets screens that are hard and purposeful: whether he's jumping out for an open heave or crashing hard to the rim, he's aware that performing this standard basketball move with determination is enough to set the defense off-kilter and create an open shot or lane elsewhere. His offensive arsenal, especially in the post, remains fairly limited, and he definitely struggles to finish strong at the bucket. That said, his pick-and-pop jumper from fifteen feet is dripping with butter, and in every game you'll see one moment where he unearths something that'll make your heart go pitty-pat, like the nascent Dream Shake that totally pantsed Frank Kaminsky, or this willowy dive to the rim from the top of the key, or a midcourt steal and dancerly spin move, or even this oh-so-pretty running skyhook. It is entirely too easy to forget that the person doing all this is somehow two inches taller than Shaq.
Taking this as a whole, you get the exhilarating sense that Porzingis just knows what to do out there. The monstrous put-back dunks key social media explosions, but you can see this bigger and more encouraging thing in the game-winner that wasn't two weeks ago in Charlotte, a designed play for Melo that got gunked up somewhere in the vicinity of the free throw line. Instead, Porzingis deftly hopped out well behind the arc and buried a would-be buzzer-beater. The buzzer beat him this time, and it didn't count, but that's less important at this juncture than his having the wherewithal to suss out what needed to be done in the hurly-burly of a last 0.6-second play.
And then there's the calm, utterly self-possessed manner with which he's handled the unrelenting crush of the New York media. Booed on draft night? No big deal. "That's how it is and I'm ready for it," he said.
Why fret when he's having the time of his life, rapping along to "Riding Dirty" or giggling at old photos of Extremely Young Lurch sporting cornrows. After his career-best outing, check out Porzingis's shy, bemused grin as chants of "POR-ZING-IS" rain down from the rafters. And yes, it may be so much performative humility, but even in the midst of a media throng our man from Latvia went out and dutifully engaged in some fine Rookie's Gotta Learn His Place theater, happily schlepping soggy towels for the vets. Making the perpetually wrong and never in doubt Stephen A. Smith pull a flip-flop is just gravy.
It was almost too perfect that last Tuesday a slew of Knicks ghosts of greatness past—and near-greatness, and fleeting, never-to-be-repeated greatness—were in attendance, as if at a coronation, or a sitting for the painting of Porzingis that is still taking shape. In one corner there's Jeremy Lin, darting and knifing through blown pick-and-roll coverage and finishing a passel of off-balance, vaguely Steve Nash-y layups. Scribble a paunchy Patrick Ewing, scrunched into an ill-fitting chair with his familiar dour look, clutching a clipboard with a giant "Why the hell can't I ever get a head coaching gig?" thought bubble dangling just over his head. In the background, we'll throw a few Gotham hoops saints, Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed, just to hammer the idea home. They belong in this composition, but Porzingis is in the middle of the frame.
This is something else entirely. Maybe Porzingis will end up resembling Ralph Sampson with three-point range, or Arvydas Sabonis prior to shredding his knees, or some combination of skills and talents that we've never seen before. We don't know—his career is a mere fourteen games old .
Most important, though: he's fun, and the Knicks are fun, particularly because the Porzingis Moment so upends recent Knicks history, the vast bulk of which—from the brief duckfarts of goodness to the 15-plus years of howling tire fire—has felt utterly and wholly preordained. All these fumbling comparisons are a means of trying to define something that's barely begun to take shape. This Porzingis painting is not done yet, but watching it take shape sure is fun.