For months, NBA observers have tried to come up with appropriate comparisons for Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian forward who was preparing to make the leap from playing professionally in Spain to the 2015 NBA draft. Optimists had the temerity to invoke the names of legends Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. More pessimistic sorts wondered whether he'd be more like Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, or perennial poster target Shawn Bradley. (My own uncertain early season contribution: "a more agile Rik Smits with deep range." Hey, what do I know?)
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As everyone grasped for parallels, though, a couple of folks suggested that Porzingis might be something new and almost literally incomparable. Before the draft, ESPN's Amin Elhassan called him "the unicorn of basketball," and reiterated the 20-year-old's magical properties in December. At July's Las Vegas Summer League, where stateside audiences got their first look at Porzingis after the New York Knicks selected him with 2015's No. 4 overall pick, TrueHoop's D.J. Foster also used the term "unicorn" in evaluating Porzingis, noting that his combination of rim protection and ability to operate as a catch-and-shoot option off screens "almost sounds like make-believe."
After Porzingis has spent half a season of proving that his unique talents are all too real, helping reinvigorate a Knicks team coming off the worst season in franchise history, he's turned another just-about-unheard-of collection of talents into enough of a believer to bring back the "u"-word. From Royce Young of ESPN.com:
Kevin Durant lauded the talent of Kristaps Porzingis on Monday, calling the Knicks rookie an NBA "unicorn" because of his combination of size and skill.
"When they made the pick, I texted [Knicks head coach Derek Fisher] immediately and said 'I like this kid, he can play.' A lot of people were down on him, but he can play. He's a skilled guy and I think we've gotten away from enjoying skilled players in this league. We get so many players that are athletic and big and strong, but he's a skilled player." [...]
"He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he's a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line," Durant said. "That's rare. And block shots — that's like a unicorn in this league."
That's extremely high praise coming from the former Most Valuable Player, who missed the Oklahoma City Thunder's first meeting with the Knicks back in November and will get his first up-close look at Porzingis when the two teams square off at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. But it's also, to at least some degree, pretty well-earned.
Through 46 games, Porzingis has dispelled virtually every concern about his readiness to contribute at the NBA level. He has proven capable of battling against bigger and more physical combatants at both the power forward and center spots. He has shown a deft scoring touch on the interior while also shooting accurately from beyond (and sometimes well beyond) the NBA 3-point arc. He has held up defensively, whether tasked with tracking a pick-and-roll on the perimeter or altering shots in front of the basket.
Only 10 players in NBA history have averaged 14 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and one assist per game during their rookie season; Porzingis is in line to become the 11th, joining Hall of Famers like Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo, future Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Tim Duncan and the aforementioned Gasol, and the late John "Hot Rod" Williams. He's also shooting just under 34 percent from 3-point range on more than three attempts per game, adding an element of spatial distortion that those all-time greats lacked. Again: "unicorn."
Durant's praise of Porzingis' game predictably reignited long-lingering speculation about whether the Knicks — now two games under .500, surprisingly fighting for a playoff berth and seemingly, with Porzingis in tow, now in much better position to pitch themselves to prospective free agents as a team on the rise — might have a shot at signing Durant when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer. (Which, by the way, has been a much smaller deal, headline-creation-wise, than most of us expected coming into this season.) Durant, for his part, said Monday that while he likes New York and has enjoyed playing at the Garden in the past, his impending free agency decision will be less about market size and bright lights than "about the game and being a basketball player first."
Whatever Durant decides, Porzingis' arrival and ascent has inarguably helped the Knicks' on-court case, both now and for the future. And for what it's worth, Durant's not the only marquee name to see Porzingis' remarkable collection of talents and project not only big things in the big city, but also perhaps the most elusive thing any New York star can hope for: sustainability. From an excellent feature on Porzingis in the new issue of Sports Illustrated by Lee Jenkins:
After the Knicks beat the [Miami] Heat, [Amar'e] Stoudemire dresses in the home locker room, no TV cameras around. In 2011 he lived in a Meatpacking District apartment, complete with a billiards room, recording studio and replica barber shop. He ate herb-crusted chicken and challah bread, prepared by his kosher chef, and he soaked up views of the Empire State Building. This was back when Madison Square Garden was serenading him with MVP chants, Kanye West was flanking him after games and Walt Frazier was calling him a rock star.
Stoudemire, now 33, mentions that he has sold the apartment. “Everything in New York changes like the weather,” he says. “As long as this kid understands there will be good days and bad days, good years and bad years, he’ll be fine. Because he’s not like the guys who came over here and didn’t pan out.
“This time it’s going to work.”
Few know better than STAT how fast fantasies can become fractured in New York, how quickly something beautiful can become ugly. For some fans, it's still too soon to stop worrying about the other shoe dropping, scuttling this remarkable start to Porzingis' career. Maybe those reluctant onlookers will take heart in the way Durant, Stoudemire and others see things working out; maybe this time, instead of sinking back down to the depths, the Knicks get to soar, riding on the wings of their "unicorn," the long-hoped-for transformational star who can turn dreams into reality.
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