Predicting NBA’s Top 10 International Players in 2019-20: Kristaps Porzingis (7)

Kristaps Porzingis didn’t play a single minute last season. He tore his ACL the year prior and opted to spend the entire 2018-19 calendar rehabbing in hopes of returning back to action fully healthy.

In the midst of all that, New York’s crowned prince was jettisoned out of the Big Apple.

Porzingis was famously booed by Knicks fans when his name was called during the 2016 NBA Draft⁠—the city had their eyes on Jahlil Okafor (hindsight “yikes”), but he was selected one pick before. The Latvian forward immediately became a fan favorite as a rookie, however, when he proved worthy of that top-five choice. He rose quickly to stardom and was briefly a primary face of New York sports. 

The organization couldn’t make good on the promise of the original NBA “unicorn”, and after a taste of the losing and dysfunction that has come to define the Knicks franchise, he made it clear that he wanted to be somewhere that prioritized winning.

Owner James Dolan had his eyes on bigger fish (that he would ultimately miss out on), and General Manager Steve Mills quickly put together a deal that sent the team’s best asset in 20 years to the Dallas Mavericks for a combination of young players, expiring salary and future first-round draft picks.

Porzingis went from one of the worst-run teams to a Dallas Mavericks team that has been at the head of innovation in league circles since Mark Cuban became its owner. He also saw an immediate upgrade in talent. Besides spending his first two seasons with Carmelo Anthony⁠—who coincidentally can’t get on an NBA team right now⁠—arguably the best player he shared the court with is past-his-prime Derrick Rose.

If Porzingis played in the late 2000s, that would have been quite the tandem of teammates. But by the time he became an All-Star in 2018, it had been five years since either player made an All-NBA team (2011 for Rose and 2013 for Anthony).

Jan 31, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) shoots over Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris (13) during the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Now he’ll get to team up with someone much closer to his career trajectory: wunderkind Luka Doncic, who is fresh off winning Rookie of the Year in a landslide victory last season.

It is easy to see why the Mavericks were so quick to pounce on Porzingis. 23-year-old All-Stars aren’t readily available on the open market. Pair that with the opportunity to put two of the top up-and-comers together, and it was a no-brainer.

The hope is that the new duo can emulate some nostalgia deep in the heart of Texas. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki once were the dynamic duo that turned around this franchise in the early 2000s, and the team surely envisions these two youngsters as its next great partnership.

Doncic is four inches taller than the former MVP playmaker from Canada, but they play the game in a similar way. Both are at their best working out of high ball screens and flashily facilitating for others while also threatening to shoot or drive effectively. This ability is what helped push the Slovenian guard to the top of last year’s rookie class.

He also got a year with future Hall of Fame member Dirk Nowitzki under his belt, and now he’ll get what is likely the closest thing to the German sharpshooter in Porzingis.

Replicating what the best player in franchise history brought is a tough ask, but if the Latvian is to become the player many expected, he will be compared to the greats of the past and the present for the remainder of his career. He simply has the rarest of skills for someone who stands 7’3”.

Porzingis’ outside shooting has been evident since he entered the league. Along the way, he has seen his percentages rise each season (33.3 as a rookie, 35.7 in year two and 39.5 in 2017-18). Having someone that big who also can stretch the floor is a commodity not many teams can rely upon.

He entered the league as a string bean, but if recent photos tell us anything, Porzingis spent a lot of time in the weight room during his year off. It’s a common refrain whenever a new season starts that a player has put on 15 pounds of muscle, but we might have proof it actually happened this time. 

The increased muscle mass should allow for him to operate as a center more often. He’s made brief appearances as a stretch-five already, and the results are often good. Even when he was skinny, Porzingis was still one of the league’s better rim protectors and weak-side defenders, not to mention a rather savage putback artist on the other end.

If that timing and athleticism remain, the ceiling for Porzingis’ game just got raised a couple of floors. 

Surprisingly, he won’t be the only 7’3” player with the Mavericks after they brought in Boban Marjanovic this summer. As much as people are looking forward to what Doncic and Porzingis can do together, this team can zig while the rest of the league continues to zag. The mammoth pairing won’t last too long defensively⁠—though Dallas has some heady wing defenders to help stem the tide⁠—but the Porzingis’ stretchiness and Marjanovic’s sheer size and skill will be a matchup-induced nightmare for short stretches.

The Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back titles on the strengths of twin towers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the late 2000s, and perhaps that’s a template Dallas could re-create here.

As good as we saw Porzingis play prior to getting hurt, it’s easy to place him right back on that pedestal now that he is returning to the floor. Yet, we haven’t seen him play actual basketball since February of 2018. Will he come back the same player?

If the answer is no, then we could be in for a big letdown given the hype he once received.

However, the Mavericks have had him in-house for the last six months. On the first day of free agency, they offered him a five-year $158 million maximum contract. Cuban might have money to blow, but a team doesn’t usually make that type of monetary commitment to a player they are unsure about.

Once upon a time, Porzingis looked like the next evolutionary figure in basketball, but now he’s been out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the last year and a half. He’ll come back ready to reclaim his spot as an elite NBA talent, equipped with a better body, a better-run organization and a better running mate.

Of all the players on this list, he’s the one most likely to outperform his position this season.

Read Part 8 here: