A foreign-born player is selected by the New York Knicks with a high draft pick. Fans boo the selection on draft night, fearful of the gamble on what’s seen as a high-risk, high-reward project. They would have preferred another well-known quantity still sitting on the draft board. Tears are shed, heads are held, hands are wrung. The media uses these images to build on the narrative of an organization in disarray. Then the games begin. In short order, the foreign-born player woos an entire city with a game that is much more NBA-ready than it first appeared. With a series of eye-popping performances he inspires hope and establishes himself as an indispensible piece of hypothetical future success. Love is declared.
This is the Kristaps Porzingis story but, with all due respect, the original version starring Danilo Gallinari was pretty good too. The run time on the Gallinari version is a little bit longer—he missed much of his rookie season with a back injury. His second season was the breakout campaign to win the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, and by his third season he was the central piece on a talented young team eyeing the playoffs. And then, mid-way through that season, he was gone—made centerpiece, not of the Knicks’ future, but of their acquisition of Carmelo Anthony.
Since the beginning of January, Gallinari is averaging 25.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He is shooting 46.3 percent from the field, 36.0 percent on three-pointers, and has gone to the free throw line 55 times in five games. It has been the most impressive stretch of what already looked like a career-best season and certainly the best collection of basketball games he’s played since he missed the entire 2013-14 season recovering from ACL surgery.
If you designed a perfect basketball player on your computer, Weird Science style, it might not be far off from the reality of Gallinari. The skills of a guard—shooting, handle, athleticism, vision—in a power forward-sized package. He was in and out of Denver’s lineup last season as he worked himself back into game shape after more than a year on the sidelines. Gallinari showed flashes in the spring, including a pair of 40-point performances, that delivered on the promises his potential had been softly whispering in our ears. But it wasn’t until this recent stretch that we’ve seen the complete and consistent unfurling of his skills, post-injury. Gallinari has been an absurdly efficient low-post scorer, lights out as a catch-and-shoot three-point shooter, and one of Denver’s most consistent on-ball shot creators. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he creates for others and even throws his body around on the glass. If you’ll forgive a smidge of hyperbole, he’s like a copy of a copy of a copy of Kevin Durant, clear enough to make out the image, just a little blurry around the edges.
The Denver Nuggets had this Gallinari for a time—12 games post-trade, a lockout shortened season, and then a 71-game campaign that ended with his ACL tear. In those bits and pieces, fits and starts, they had something. They won 57 games in 2013-13, with Gallinari as the centerpiece of a menagerie of above-average complements. They were the egalitarian, populist Atlanta Hawks, long before that All-Star starting five was assembled. Those Denver rosters had talent and balance, but it was his offensive skill and versatility that acted as a fulcrum. They lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round that season but had Gallinari been healthy, it could easily have been the launching pad for a Denver run of dominance. As he rehabbed the roster withered around him, injuries and stagnation took their toll. Veterans were rolled over into youthful potential and now Gallinari, the presumptive star, is mighty and healthy and ready, but surrounded by a team on a different timeline.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic are the future of the Denver Nuggets. Gallinari could be, which is one of the biggest decisions for Denver to make in this lottery-bound, develop-the-youth season. He is 27 years old, just entering the theoretical prime for your average player. If Gallinari is this version for another few seasons, then he may be the perfect scaffolding to hold up the young’uns around him. This may also be the absolute peak of his trade value, another opportunity to convert his talent into something different and potentially longer-lasting may not come.
At some indeterminate point in the recent past, Gallinari became an NBA veteran. The years spread between his youth and maturation are probably not what he envisioned. He has twice been denied the opportunity to be a franchise savior, growing into the best player among a group of players growing into one of the best teams. In New York, he was victimized by a lust for shiny objects and a lack of vision. In Denver, it was a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament and circumstance piled upon circumstance. Gallinari is not the singular force that Kristaps is, or Anthony was, but he was always in the middle of a stew of talent—in large part because the Anthony trade sent that stew with him from New York to Denver. Even at the height of his powers, he’s not quite good enough to carry what the Nuggets have now to the next level. But he would make for one hell of a boost once those pieces, individually, start to come into their own.
So here’s hoping Gallinari finally gets his chance, to be his own kind of star, and lead his own kind of elite team. That that Gallinari we’re watching right now stays potent and healthy long enough for Mudiay to sprout and Nurkic to blossom. Here’s hoping that the Nuggets decide to hold onto what they’ve got and that fate finally pulls things together in front of our Italian hero, instead of pulling them apart. The Rooster is ready. Here’s hoping dawn is coming soon.