Lottery prospects who enter the draft but opt out tend to downgrade their stock with another season on the radar. Cody Zeller is the rare exception, and so is Kristaps Porzingis.
The Latvian teenager surprisingly declared for the draft as an 18-year-old last year and was expected to rise up the boards once teams started familiarizing themselves with his physical profile and skill-set. However, he eventually pulled his name out of the process 10 days before the draft, despite generating strong interest from a number of teams.
That turned out to be a wise decision.
As I mentioned in his profile from January, Porzingis didn’t necessarily widen his skill-set with another full season of pro ball but more firmly established the things he does well. His playing time doubled in comparison to 2013-2014, and his team (Cajasol Seville) made a splash in the Eurocup – the continent’s second-tier league, a notch below the Euroleague.
Cajasol weren’t very good. They lost 22 of 34 games in the Spanish ACB and nine of 16 games in the Eurocup. Veteran NBA assistant Scott Roth started the season as head coach and did a fairly poor job, trying to pin the entire problem on an ACB rule that prevented him from pacing the sidelines or give in-game instructions while standing. He was fired mid-season and his replacement did a far better job, eventually helping the team avoid relegation with a strong finish.
Porzingis played stretch four the entire season, with a couple of other so-so NBA prospects (Guillermo Hernangomez and Ondrej Balvin) splitting time at center. They ran decent motion offense with Roth as the coach, with some emphasis on moving the ball from side-to-side to bend the defense before getting into the eventual pick-and-roll that focused on getting the ball into the lane.
Porzingis was for the most part used to space the floor.
Porzingis’ top skill entering the NBA is his shooting. While he looked like a capable shooter in a competitive environment two seasons ago, taking just 53 3-point shots in 531 minutes, he doubled his 3-point attempts last season. There’s no longer doubt over what his role is going to be in the NBA.
Porzingis looks like a legit pure shooter, fully extending himself on catch-and-shoot opportunities, elevating off the ground with ease and exhibiting textbook mechanics. Standing at 7-1 with a 7-6 wingspan, his shot is unblockable. His release is noticeably quicker and he’s become more willing to pull the trigger without consciousness.
But what separates Porzingis from the average 7-footer who can shoot is his ability to shoot on the move. He’s proven capable not only of working out of the pick-and-pop, adjusting his body position naturally once he runs to an open spot after screening, but also running off pin down screens. According to Synergy Sports, Porzingis hit 53 percent of his shots coming off perimeter screens last season.
Porzingis does not have a great handle and is prone to getting the ball stripped, but has proven able to attack closeouts well enough to generate decent bail-out looks from mid-range. He uses the hop to get good elevation and create space for his fade-away pull-ups. Due to the high point in his release, he doesn’t need a lot of separation to avoid challenges. And when he decides to put his head down and attack the basket, he’s drawn shooting fouls at an appealing rate: 4.6 free throws per 40 minutes, converting them at a 75.2 percent clip.
It must be mentioned, though, that while he does look good shooting, Porzingis hit only 35.8 percent of his 117 3-point shots and failed to hit a 3-pointer in 22 of his 40 appearances. Shot creation on his team was iffy, even though one of his point guards is also likely to be drafted (Nikola Radicevic). His shooting percentages could improve simply by being around NBA-caliber playmakers, but the impact of his shooting might depend on the looks created for him.
What separates Porzingis from the average 7-foot big man is his mobility. He moves naturally in space, which manifests in his ability to sprint up the court, fill lanes in transition and get off the ground to finish. He can play above the rim as an option for lobs and his teammates have a huge target to work with.
That combination of fluidity and leaping ability also make him an option for runs at the rim out of the pick-and-roll, though it’s something he needs to work at. Porzingis looks to draw contact on his screens, but on-ball defenders managed to navigate around his thin frame without much of a struggle. He didn’t cut down the lane with the sort of speed that sucks attention and opens shots for others around the perimeter, either. He’s shown soft hands when catching the ball on the move but didn’t often finish strong in traffic or through contact.
Because of his role as a floor spacer, Porzingis has below average numbers crashing the offensive glass, but he plays with good energy when he’s below the rim fighting for tip balls. He can reach the ball at a higher point than the average opponent and outside of his area due to that massive 7-6 wingspan.
Porzingis’ defensive rebounding has noticeably improved since 2013-14. He looks to box out more diligently rather than relying on his athleticism to track the ball off the rim. His lack of strength still hurts him (he can get pushed off his spot at times), but Porzingis still has a big rebounding area even if he doesn’t have a wide frame. According to RealGM, he collected 18.7 percent of opponents’ misses last season, compared to 14 percent the year before.
Porzingis is an aggressive help-defender and can play above the rim as a shot blocker rotating off the weak-side, but he’s not the sort of volume shot blocker his highlight clips suggest — he blocked 52 shots on 40 appearances in 2014-15 and 31 shots on 35 games in 2013-14.
That magnificent one-on-zero workout held in Las Vegas has unfortunately given some people the wrong impression of Porzingis by hiding some of the gaps in his game. These gaps, in my opinion, make him a less appealing prospect than the top three shot creators (Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay) and the top two rim protectors (Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein).
Porzingis is not any sort of direct shot creator, for himself nor others. His handle is good enough for him to attack closeouts on straight line drives, but he’s susceptible to getting the ball stripped in traffic. It’s a big reason why he averaged 2.6 turnovers per 40 minutes. He hasn’t shown the ability to pass on the move when the defense converges on him, either, assisting on just 5.2 percent of Cajasol’s scores when he was on the floor last season.
Porzingis’ shooting is valuable, but it would have been more valuable three years ago. We are seeing more and more teams go small and simply play wings at his position, and Porzingis isn’t versatile enough to force teams out of playing small lineups. Due to his lack of strength, he’s not a threat in the post, mostly relying on his turnaround jump shot as go-to move because he is unable to set deep post position and back opponents down.
On defense, Porzingis does not have the strength to hold ground against bigger opponents and is only so-so guarding drives. He showed enough lateral mobility to stay in front of slower types in space, like Andres Nocioni and Will Thomas, but couldn’t contain dribble penetration through contact. He’s always going to be a threat for chase-down blocks, but in the NBA, once they get by you, it’s far more likely they’ll get to the rim before you get back to them.
Porzingis is 19 years-old, so there’s plenty of time for him to close these gaps on his game or for his future team to find a way to play him in a way that minimizes his weaknesses.
My issue with how he’s been covered these last two weeks is that he’s being perceived as the sort of difference maker a team can expect out of the second or third pick in a loaded class like this. I disagree, based on the direction the NBA intends to go and because of what Towns, Okafor, Russell, Mudiay and Cauley-Stein bring to the table.
One thing Porzingis does better than the average wing masking as a stretch four is help with additional rim protector. While he has not blocked shots in volume at the pro level, he is aggressive rotating off the weak-side and has the quickness needed to make plays at the rim. He’s done that to a fault at times, with smarter teams taking advantage of him to get his man open 3-pointers. Even so, his center (Hernangomez) was a poor rim protector and Porzingis likely felt the need to help inside at the expense of getting burned.
But the real upside with Porzingis relies on his ability to develop into a center. He didn’t guard all that many pick-and-rolls with Cajasol — opponents always focused on exposing Hernangomez — but he has shown the ability to contain-and-recover, moving from side-to-side fluidly.
I don’t think Porzingis is the sort of presence that intimidates opponents from driving, but if absorbs the principles of positional defense, he has the agility and athleticism to cover a lot of ground. Porzingis will obviously have to continue gaining muscles (he’s up 10 pounds in comparison to his listed weight last season) but we have seen in the likes of Joakim Noah how effective a lean 7-footer with great feet can be on defense.
If Porzingis can develop into a center on defense, the level of shooting he provides would make him a huge difference maker. After all, if Pero Antic has value as a stretch five, imagine someone who can actually shoot.
The risk associated to Porzingis is if he does not develop any sort of a post game because teams will go small against him. While wings might not be able to get a hand in his face, they can stay closer when puts the ball on the floor and prevent him from pulling-up in balance or even pulling-up at all. While he’s agile in the context of a big man, he has not proven the ability to guard smaller players.
For example: Channing Frye was valuable his final season in Phoenix because they leveraged his shooting well, especially when they used him as a stretch five. However, he was far less valuable as a spot-up stretch four last season on a poorly coached team in Orlando.
Porzingis can make shots, but he relies on his coaches to put him in favorable positions and teammates to get him the ball. As we saw in Orlando, that isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Some reports have come out that the Lakers are considering drafting Porzingis with the No. 2 pick. Pairing him with Julius Randle would be interesting, considering Porzingis could provide the space Randle needs to work with in the post. But Byron Scott isn’t necessarily a coach that has kept up with the times. Floor spacing is such a foreign concept to him that he played Ryan Kelly on the wing last season. While I don’t think Scott does the same with Porzingis, I could see them pairing Randle with another prototypical big through free agency and utilizing Porzingis as a spots-up shooter on the weak-side.
Draft Express floated the idea of the 76ers taking Porzingis at No. 3 last week, who happen to be one of the teams that pushed for Porzingis to stay in the draft last year. With so much uncertainty regarding Joel Embiid’s future, it’s not crazy for them to draft a third big man for the third straight year seeing as Porzingis could fit in well with Nerlens Noel, who continues to project as a catch-and-finish big.
Chad Ford had the Knicks drafting Porzingis in his mock draft with Jay Billas, but I think that would be a terrible fit. It’s a misunderstanding of who Porzingis is and what the Knicks are looking for. Phil Jackson has re-emphasized that he’s all in on installing the triangle and needs a big man who can initiate offense out of the mid-post. Porzingis is simply not that guy at this point, and New York probably doesn’t feel like waiting to see if he can become that.
The Magic have a decent collection of talent in place, so whomever they draft is going to overlap with someone who is already there. If Orlando takes Porzingis, having Frye on the roster wouldn’t make a lot of sense, but getting rid of him won’t be so easy. Also, selecting Porzingis almost guarantees Nikola Vucevic will spend most of his playing time at center for the next few years, and we have enough evidence to know that isn’t ideal.
The Kings are such a dysfunctional mess that I hope for Porzingis’ sake they don’t take him. The bad news: He would actually be a great fit. He’s a good transition player, matching with the preferred style of play by George Karl, and would provide space for DeMarcus Cousins to work with in the half-court (assuming he’s not traded). Cousins is also such a great passer and mid-range shooter that Porzingis won’t be pigeonholed into a role as floor spacer and can develop his interior scoring with time.
There isn’t much certainty regarding the Nuggets, but they already have Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne as big men, with a good chance Kenneth Farried will still be on the team. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are also options to take some minutes at stretch four. Drafting Porzingis would be confusing.
The Pistons are another good fit. Porzingis does have the skill-set Stan Van Gundy appears to be looking for in the guy he wants to pair Andre Drummond with upfront. He did just trade for Ersan Ilyasova but given the chance to lock up a player who provides higher upside, Van Gundy might take Porzingis if he’s still on the board.
Similarly to the Nuggets, the Hornets also have way too many options upfront — Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh and Marvin Williams are all under contract and there’s a strong assumption that they’ll try to re-sign Bismack Biyombo.
Falling to the Heat is probably the most appealing option for Porzingis. Erik Spoelstra is a creative coach and given the way he has utilized his shooters in the past, he’ll probably make the most out of Porzingis The downside would be pairing Porzingis with another notoriously poor passer in Hassan Whiteside, but both guys can be exceptional finishers in given the looks. Goran Dragic looked like an All-Star a couple of seasons ago, driving off screens by Frye, and Porzingis could have that same effect for him.
If he’s on the board, this seems like a no-brainer for Miami and is probably as low as Porzingis could drop.