By Reinis Lacis (@LamarMatic)
It would be foolish of me to try and characterize the state of today’s NBA better than it has already been done by Zach Lowe. As written by Lowe in this great article, the advantages of three-point shooting have created an environment in which skill can overcome size deficiencies.
The ability to shoot, pass and dribble opens up an offense for the most efficient shots in basketball – threes and attempts at the rim. Chris Baker and Steve Shea did a fantastic job at mathematically proving that the more three-point threats a team has out there, the less help defenders a team faces when penetrating. More long-range threats on the court evidently also improve a team’s offensive rating.
Plodding post-up bigs are slowly becoming extinct. It’s harder to get bigs the ball in the post than it used to be due to smarter defenses and them being able to play zone, while on the other end of the court they can be massive liabilities against skilled small-ball line-ups.
Even a team like Charlotte, which used to live and die by Al Jefferson, has slowly started to move on from its Jefferson-centered efforts. This year we’ve seen a drop in his post touches on offense. Meanwhile, smaller opposing teams have forced coach Steve Clifford to outright bench Big Al for the full duration of some fourth quarters as he’s incapable of stepping out to the perimeter and keeping up with smaller players.
In such a world, the big who has the necessary perimeter skills on offense and who can not only stay on the floor but also affect the game on defense is a game-changer. Standing 7-3, Kristaps Porzingis at center could be said game-changer against any modern small-ball team.
The Rasheed Wallace Stat
When thinking about the way to put Porzingis’s versatility into perspective I got drawn back to Zach Lowe’s past work. And, hey, why not have your writing influenced by maybe the best NBA writer out there!? Once upon a time Lowe mentioned this tidbit he’s heard when having conversations with various people around the league (one, which, for some reason, I can’t find in Grantland’s archives, yet which is quoted plenty of times on various message boards… might have something to do with the closing of Grantland):
This is why Rasheed Wallace was both so valuable and so frustrating. Seven-footers who can protect the rim on defense and hit a league-average percentage from 3-point range, as Sheed did six times in an eight-year span at the peak of his career, basically do not exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an executive say, “You know who Team X or Team Y really needs? Someone like Rasheed Wallace.” And without missing a beat, that executive/coach/scout will say, “But you know what? There really aren’t any of those guys. Damn, Sheed was valuable.
Porzingis is currently making 30.0% (0.8/2.8 per game) of his three-pointers, which is below league-average. However, his shooting last year in Europe (35.9% from three) suggests that one should give him the benefit of the doubt. Other European marksmen, like Nikola Mirotic who has improved from 31.6% to 35.1%, have also had trouble shooting from the NBA three-point line in their rookie years, not to mention the fact that Porzingis is still 20 and could improve as a shooter.
Given the rise of his minutes (up to 31.4mpg in the last ten games, after 23.7mpg in the first eight), I wouldn’t be exaggerating when saying that he could possibly reach the one three-pointer made + one and a half blocks per game mark his rookie year.
During this last stretch of ten games he actually has made a three per game and achieved that while shooting 37.0% from three. So there you go.
So where does averaging 1.0 3P/1.5BPG put yourself historically?
This list is the reason for that quote by Zach Lowe. Sheed’s versatility hasn’t simply been matched.
Moreover, you can’t even say that it was approached by everyone on that list. Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion and Eddie Griffin weren’t exactly dreaded long-range shooters and would suffer if a filter for shooting percentage was applied.
It’s a truly unique combination of stats to achieve and we’re already seeing Serge Ibaka struggling to repeat such a performance (largely due to an odd increase in shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line). The Zinger has a real chance of making this list in his freaking rookie year!
(Shout out to Robert Horry, a jack of all trades in his youth, and Raef LaFrentz, whose career unfortunately was cut short due to injuries.)
Porzingis’s Impressive Defense
The aspect of the game which definitely caught me off guard is him being a capable defender right off the bat. Porzingis has shown some real flashes of being able to offer the needed rim protection and keep players in front of him on drives from the perimeter.
After an impressive start to the season (38.3 opponent FG% at rim in the first 8 games, better than Rudy Gobert‘s league-leading mark of 40.5% last year), his raw rim protection stats have fallen off a bit, however, they are still very solid for a supposedly “soft European rookie”. Porzingis ranks 29th among 75 players who have faced 4 field goal attempts at the rim per game, as of December, the 1st.
The Zinger seems to have the understanding and chops to be great at dropping back on pick-n-rolls. His quick feet allow him to keep ball handlers in front of him before meeting them at the rim thanks to some great use of verticality:
If need be, he can do the most difficult thing about this dance and control both the rim runner and the man with the ball. Just ask Terrence Jones who got smothered by the Zinger’s two-handed defense more than once in this game:
It is encouraging to see how early he has adopted the two-handed verticality play, popularized by Roy Hibbert.
Moreover, the last example of pick-n-roll coverage in the first clip is in essence him defending against LeBron James on the perimeter on an isolation play due to the fact that Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony so willingly switched.
It speaks to his ability to defend on the perimeter as well. Teams that have bigs who can freely switch on smaller players and not get into a mis-match can smother the opposition by doing so. You run two pick-n-rolls, get nowhere and suddenly you’re facing the dangers of the shot clock winding down. There’s no better example than what Draymond Green and four perimeter players around him are doing at Golden State.
Now, imagine if four capable 6-6, 6-7 athletes are anchored by the 7-3 Porzingis who not only protects the paint but can also step out and defend on the perimeter…
Just like in the play against LeBron, keeping up with fours who try to take it at him off the dribble hasn’t been a problem for Porzingis.
It gets a little troublesome though when the match-up in question is a capable three-point shooter. Maybe it’s something that he’ll improve upon as he spends more time in the league but so far he’s looked uncomfortable when having to close out on a three-point shooter.
Whether he does or doesn’t, the bottom line is that he’s freaking 7-3 and he shouldn’t be moving around so fluidly on defense in the first place. Moreover, when (if) he starts playing more at the center spot, he should see less of such shooters as his assignments and more time at contesting shots with verticality in the paint.
Bringing him along somewhat slowly, as far as playing center is concerned, probably is the right move at this point. Even if he is capable of stopping the occasional low-post brute by the use of his out-stretched arms, it would seem like an unreasonable level of punishment for a man of his weight in his rookie year. Not to mention the fact that he will foul to combat physical play on some occasions and playing center could just get him into foul trouble.
Robin Lopez has helped the rookie hold down the fort on defense a great deal. Porzingis has been the most impactful Knicks defender as far as on/off splits are concerned. New York has given up 99.7 points per 100 possessions with Kristaps on the court, while without the Latvian they allow 105.6 (the equivalent of the 10th best defensive team in the league becoming the 25th best).
However, whenever Porzingis is playing out there without Lopez the team has recorded a poor defensive rating of 106.0, per nbawowy.com (yet put up 108.2 on offense thanks to the sudden space on the court). The encouraging part though is that the Knicks defensive rebounding percentage hasn’t suffered at all from the two being split up. So far, after 135 minutes of Porzingis time on the court without Lopez, it has actually improved. That says a lot, given the fact that Lopez frequently does the diligent job of boxing out opposing bigs so his teammates could get uncontested rebounds.
With the days of repeated post-ups gone, if there’s any place Porzingis could be quite vulnerable as a center, it could be when faced against heavier bigs who often crash the glass.
If that isn’t a problem then there isn’t a place where you’d rather have a man with such a high standing reach than protecting the rim in the paint. The block parties he has served and his ability to be vertical speak for themselves. To put his reach into perspective, he’s capable of blocking an Anthony Davis jump-shot when he’s moreso trying to close out on it than jump to block it.
The Game Opening Up On Offense
The other part of the argument is the fact that playing the center position will simply open things up for him on offense.
He’s still learning how to put the ball on the floor in order to create a solid look. Per NBA.com, his field goal percentage drops from 47.0% (70/149) on shots after zero dribbles to 31.7% (20/63) whenever the attempt is coming off at least one dribble.
The man definitely has good handles for his size and will throw Knicks fans into a collective gasp when pulling off a nifty post move or making a sweet hook shot. However, those moments come at the price of him dribbling himself into trouble from time to time.
He lacks the court vision when handling the ball to successfully close out the play when the right answer isn’t right in front of him. Sometimes it will manifest itself in weird and awkward layups at the rim. Sometimes he’ll launch a telegraph pass not knowing what to do next after his own dribbling journey has failed.
And that’s where being faced up against more traditional centers will help him. He might not have the court awareness (as evidenced by his passes out of difficult situations) or handles to regularly be relied on when handling the ball against fours. But put him in the position of a secondary attacker, who receives the ball after a creator has driven into the heart of the defense and opened things up a bit, and Porzingis has enough speed to drive past a slower center on the kick-out.
That’s why ultimately he should be just fine at the 5 position, even given his off-the-dribble woes. Obviously, to reach the level of a Dirk Nowitzki-like number one guy there’s improvement to be made but the makings of a terrific second option are there.
Such shooting at the center position should be enough for a line-up which thrives on its infinite spacing and for Porzingis himself. As crazy as it might sound, we haven’t even properly seen him being used as a pick-n-roll option due to New York’s reliance on the Triangle.
Someone like him could be devastating as the man against whom you just have to hedge in the pick-n-roll. Jerian Grant should go to sleep every night wishing that he stays there for all those pick-n-rolls off of which he could drive freely past the three-point line just because the defender of the roll man is so concerned by Porzingis.
One might worry about what happens when a small-ball team tries to put a wing on the Zinger. That could be an interesting option for an opposing coach.
His finishing at the rim could definitely be better, however, he does have the tools to punish such an action. Porzingis will always be capable of hurting you as a stretch-five floor spacer. Shooting over a wing could even make life easier for him as no one can pretty much bother his jump-shot. He already has shown the capability of using his length to make post jumpers and hooks over smaller defenders stuck on him after a switch.
Additionally, he could always possibly abuse a smaller player with the way he aggressively crashes the glass.
And even if he does get pulled away from the rim on defense and has trouble tracking a three-point shooting wing on the other end, his body of work suggests that he’s quite above average as far as his foot speed on the perimeter is concerned (as already previously stated) so he should never be an unplayable big due to that reason.
In closing, I just want to say that once upon a time NBA announcers, like Marv Albert, became real good at pronouncing Andris Biedrins‘s name (the last Latvian to play in the NBA before Porzingis).
You could sense the switch from a confused “BEE-drens” to the more correct “BEE-uh-drinsh” after he had played a couple of seasons in the NBA.
I wonder whether the same will happen with Porzingis. The truth is that there are a couple of sounds in his surname which probably are completely foreign for a native English speaker. You might be in for a hard time trying to repeat what I said:
The challenge at hand, I guess, is for him to become a player whose name deserves to be pronounced properly.
And he has that potential. The league is heading into a pace-and-space era perfectly fitted for him. With the size he has, he might be capable of doing everything that an opposing 6-8 small-ball center can do or, perhaps, do it even better.
Let’s see how good he can become.