Kristaps Porzingis: International Man of Mystery

Be intrigued by the sharp-shooting 19-year-old Latvian seven-footer. Be very intrigued.

With so much attention being paid to the point guards — D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay — expected to be available when the Sixers select third overall, there was bound to be a curveball thrown into the mix before next Thursday’s NBA draft.

That curveball came in the form of a 7-foot Latvian big man with a sweet perimeter shot.

Classifying Kristaps Porzingis as a curveball isn’t entirely accurate, as he’s been a highly regarded prospect for quite some time. Back in March, reported that the 76ers had requested that Porzingis keep his name in the 2014 NBA draft. I then mentioned about a month ago that Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie had been a frequent visitor to Spain to see Porzingis play.

Still, while Porzingis has been known in NBA circles for quite some time, he has been playing in relative obscurity over in Sevilla, Spain. Is he a realistic option at No. 3?

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Key information

Age: 19 years old

Measurements: 7′, 230 pounds.

Stats: 11.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks per game in 21.4 minutes per night (combined ACB and Eurocup play). He shot 49.6% from the field and 35.9% from three point range.

Chance of being available at No. 3: Good. There have been rumblings that Porzingis could be an option for the Lakers with the second overall pick, but my gut tells me that is more the Lakers doing due diligence. I would guess that some combination of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell will go in the top two picks.

Why should you be interested?

Ever since the interpretation of hand-checking rules was changed starting in the 2004-’05 season, defending the perimeter has become increasingly difficult, and as such, point guards who can get into the paint have been at a premium.

This increased emphasis on guard play, along with the increased presence of analytics around the league, has led to teams prioritizing shots at the rim, and three point shots, above all else. When a guard gets into the paint it forces defenses to make a decision: Either allow a high percentage shot at the rim, or collapse to the paint and allow perimeter players open looks.

In that NBA, big men have become almost supporting pieces to perimeter ball handlers. A big man who can force his defender away from the basket and give a guard more room to drive, either for an isolation or on a pick and roll, becomes an incredibly valuable commodity.

The problem is, many power forwards and centers who had that skill set didn’t provide much else. Whether they were a liability on the defensive end, weren’t good rebounders, or were limited to just standing in a spot and shooting from the catch, elite shooting big men had their role, but brought deficiencies that had to be covered up.

In this era of versatile big men, Kristaps Porzingis is potentially the white whale of the modern NBA.

The intrigue around Porzingis starts with that perimeter jump shot. Standing somewhere between 7′ and 7’1″, Porzingis has a silky smooth jump shot with a virtually picture perfect, repeatable shooting motion, excellent mechanics, and a high release point that makes it difficult for anybody to contest.

Two abilities that make Porzingis really intriguing as a shooter, however, are how well he shoots on the move, and how he maintains his efficiency when contested. Because Porzingis was such focal point of Sevilla’s offense this season the vast majority of his jump shots, even catch-and-shoot jumpers, were contested. The 36% Porzingis shot from three-point range was good, especially for a 19-year-old playing in a professional league with a three-point shot about halfway between the college line and the NBA line; when you factor how frequently those looks were contested, it’s a very good percentage.

That ability to make contested shots has two benefits. First, if Porzingis comes over and is less an offensive focal point (say, because teams are focused on Joel Embiid in the paint), his effectiveness should go up as a result of the increased space he’d receive. If he does continue to attract constant defensive attention at the three-point line, however, it should open things up for the rest of the Sixers offensive options. It’s a win-win.

Another thing that makes Porzingis interesting as a shooter is just how good he is at shooting when coming off screens, and when shooting on the move in general, including pull-up jumpers off the dribble. The easiest way to break down a defense is to force multiple defenders into making split-second decisions. When a big man is running off of a screen on the perimeter he forces both his own man and the man defending the screener to do just that, and it has the potential to open things up for his teammates. Porzingis does an excellent job getting his feet under him and maintaining his balance when coming off a sceen, and is very quick, and accurate, when shooting in these situations.

Porzingis is also a very good athlete who can attack the rim off the dribble when defenders close out too aggressively on him. This is another benefit of being able to force his man to defend him 20 feet from the hoop, and it’s an area where Porzingis’ excellent athleticism for his size shines.

What could separate Porzingis from other good shooting big men, however, is his potential as a defender. Porzingis moves his feet very well laterally, which allows him to help when defending pick-and-rolls. That’s a huge deal given the way the NBA has played over the past two decades, and especially on a team where they’ll want to keep Nerlens Noel and Embiid in the paint to protect the rim.

Porzingis also contributes on the defensive side of the court because of his shot blocking. He has excellent length and gets off the ground very quickly, and isn’t afraid to challenge shots at the rim. His combination of excellent shooting, athleticism, and abilities to defend the pick-and-roll and challenge shots at the rim is pretty much the prototype of what NBA general managers are looking for in power forwards these days, especially a power forward you would want to pair with Embiid.

Why shouldn’t you be interested?

Many people around the league consider Porzingis to have one of the higher upsides in this draft, something that I don’t disagree with. What concerns some people, however, is that he’s not the safest pick in the world.

The main concerns with Porzingis are:

  • Lack of strength / physicality
  • Poor rebounding
  • Lack of passing / court awareness

The lack of strength is, right now, his most striking weakness, and one that ties directly into his poor rebounding. It’s also one that is difficult to project as a long-term concern for 18- and 19-year-old kids. At one time or another, all of Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler, Nerlens Noel and Joakim Noah had “must get stronger” in big bold letters on their scouting reports, and they turned into some of the preeminent defenders of our time.

Some have extended the “lack of strength” concern into “isn’t tough.” Again, this is incredibly difficult to project when talking about young kids. We frequently conflate mental toughness with physical toughness, and a lot of times when a prospect matures physically, that concern goes away. That’s not to say it’s not a concern, just that it’s really hard to gauge.

His strength absolutely does impact his current effectiveness, however. He can get bullied on the defensive glass, as he pulled down just 3.2 defensive rebounds in the 21 minutes he played each night, a very low total. He gives up ground when defending the post, something which will get worse in the NBA (although less of a concern if he’s playing next to Embiid). The lack of strength also comes into play in his offensive game, as he can struggle to finish through contact when driving to the hoop.

What gives me some cause for optimism, outside of the number of young kids who added significant bulk as they entered their physical primes, is that Porzingis’ trainer (who was formerly with the Detroit Pistons) claims the young kid added 15-20 pounds of muscle during the season, a time of the year when most players lose weight. Porzingis was diagnosed, and treated, for anemia when he was 15 years old, and he may now be showing signs of overcoming the impact of that.

The other main concern is his lack of passing, as Porzingis had just 27 assists in 1,072 minutes this past season, a shockingly bad number. I do think part of that was his role on Sevilla, as he was primarily used as an off-the-ball scorer, and one whose offense they relied upon. I did see Porzingis make some creative passes that convince me that there’s reason for optimism in that regard, but when you’re talking about a number that low and that bad, it’s impossible to just explain away as being simply a result of his situation.

The game seemed to move fast for Porzingis at times last year, which wasn’t completely unexpected for a 19 year old kid playing against seasoned professionals, in what is likely the best league in the world outside of the NBA, and on a team that needed his scoring and production to be competitive. That being said, it is something that has to improve.

Fit with the Sixers

Your initial thought when thinking about Porzingis is likely: “Another big man? Really?”

It’s not entirely wrong, especially if all four of Embiid, Noel, Dario Saric, and Porzingis work out down the line. Counting on all four draft picks, who have a combined one season of NBA experience, to become impact players is a little bit optimistic, and probably not a reason to pass on Porzingis if you believe he can be the best player available at the pick.

What’s nice about Porzingis is he fits in almost perfectly with either Embiid or Noel. His lack of rebounding is less of a concern in this scenario, and his shooting and pick-and-roll defense are huge benefits.

Porzingis is frequently compared to other European big men who didn’t succeed in the NBA, such as Andrea Bargnani or Jan Vesely. But Porzingis has more athleticism and defense than Bargnani and a higher offensive skill level than Vesely. He also loves the game. His 32-year old brother, Janis, played professionally in Europe for a decade, and Kristaps grew up around the sport. It’s almost impossible to find anybody who doesn’t speak glowingly about Porzingis’ work ethic, coachability, and love of the game.

Porzingis might not be the safest pick available at third overall, but the upside is absolutely there, and the Sixers might be the right situation for his development. And, when betting on a 19-year-old kid, drafting an athletic 7-footer that’s a marksman from the perimeter, who grew up around the game, and has a great work ethic is a very enticing possibility.

Derek Bodner is covering the NBA Draft at Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Draftland. Read his previous coverage here. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekBodnerNBA.

Previously in Sixers Draftland:

• NBA Mock Draft Roundup: Who the Experts Think the Sixers Will Take
D’Angelo Russell: The Guy Everyone Thinks the Sixers Are Drafting
Jahlil Okafor: One of the Best Low-Post Scorers We’ve Seen

D’Angelo Russell to Work Out for the Sixers After All
• Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get
Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
Welcome to Sixers Draftland