Meet the Euro prodigy who seems unlike the flops who came before him

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – Kristaps Porzingis cuts into his first filet mignon at a Manhattan steakhouse, a teenager hours after his arrival to the United States. He is 7-foot-1 with Dirk’s shooting touch and Pau’s athleticism, a European prodigy blessed with fluent English and the threat of transcendent talent.

Every day, front-office fascinations rise with Porzingis. Every day, he’s moving himself closer into contention to become one of the top three picks in the NBA draft on June 25. Los Angeles Lakers officials conducted a workout of Porzingis on Monday night at the franchise’s El Segundo, Calif., practice facility, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Suddenly, Porzingis is pursuing the Lakers’ pick at No. 2, along with spectacular Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Suddenly, Porzingis is changing this NBA draft.

Kristaps Porzingis, right, is moving up draft boards. (AP)
Kristaps Porzingis, right, is moving up draft boards. (AP)

Out of Latvia and the Spanish ACB League, Porzingis peels away the mystery with a determined disposition and an earnest, natural curiosity. Ask him about the most appealing part of what awaits him in the NBA – the luxuries of a lifestyle that come with the stature of a lofty lottery pick – and you’ll get the longings of a 19-year-old European gym rat.

“The biggest thing for me – the thing that I think most about – is that you can get into the gym whenever you want here,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports over dinner recently. “They give you a card, or a key, and in the middle of the night, if you want to work out, you just go to the gym and get your work in – and I think that’s amazing.

“In Europe, you don’t have that option. You can’t get your work in on a Sunday, because nobody is there. I think that’s one of the coolest things. This year, I didn’t have a place to play. I’ve got to talk to the GM, to talk one of the people who work in the arena to open the door for me. People don’t want to do extra work at the arena.”

So Porzingis laid awake in his bedroom in Sevilla, Spain, and thought to himself, “'When I’m sleeping, someone else is working out.' I’d think that I better get in my work the next day, because I’m already behind.”

Among the NBA executives who’ve spent the time to research Porzingis – some made five trips to scout him this season and made trips a year ago too – they’ve come to understand how deeply he cares about growing his game, his talents.

Porzingis has an innate awareness about the way the American public sees a young, long European teenager. He comes to the NBA with the full understanding that popular basketball culture declares him guilty until proven innocent of the basketball crimes of Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Andrea Bargnani. He’s considered a stiff, a bust, a blown lottery pick until he doesn't become one.

“I don’t like being labeled soft,” Porzingis told Yahoo Sports. “I’m very hungry. I love the game. I’ve got to prove to coaches and GMs that I’m not soft just because I’m from Europe. They need to see that I’m not just some skinny white guy, that I’m going to be there fighting. They’ll need to see that I’m a worker who’s going to play hard, and play tough …

“There are guys who have had incredible NBA careers – like Dirk [Nowitzki] and the Gasols [Pau and Marc] – and there are guys who haven’t. They’ll say, this guy is a bust. He’ll be Tskitishvili, this Georgian guy. Bargnani, Darko … That’s why I am talking, because I want the fear to go away with me. I want people to get to know me. I don’t want to be the mystery man from Europe.

“Some fans – they don’t want a European on their team. People have opinions, but maybe they’ve never seen me play. There’s nothing I can say, only I can go out and prove myself.”

Around the NBA, they see him differently. He’s been drilled in the fundamentals; those endless arms end with flicks of the wrists that deliver made shot after made shot. In his house, the son of a mother and father with playing backgrounds – and the younger brother of a 10-year Euro pro – Kristaps nourished himself on hours and hours of 7-footer video.

Kristaps Porzingis was given the Eurocup Rising Star Award in April 2015. (Getty)
Kristaps Porzingis was given the Eurocup Rising Star Award in April 2015. (Getty)

Kevin Garnett: “I love his face-up game. He’s got that mid-range shot. I’ve seen a lot of tape where he plays against guys like Shaq [O’Neal], a guy he can’t bang inside with. So faces up, does his little step-back move … Amazing.”

LaMarcus Aldridge: “That step-back he has, how he uses his body to get a little contact – he’s a master. He steps back to get the distance, to get his shot off.”

Anthony Davis: “When he gets the ball, he’s already making his move. He’s so aggressive going to the basket, getting fouled. And he’s extending his range.”

For now, there are so many respected NBA executives who long to get into position to draft Porzingis. One former NBA Executive of the Year, who won’t have the chance to move up to get him, told Yahoo Sports. “If the draft was one year from now, I think Porzingis goes No. 1. He’s just not fully formed yet and that’s getting in the way of people’s decisions. But one more year, and I think it would be him and then [Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell and Okafor].”

In fact, it seems every front office has one high-ranking official, and sometimes more, who’ll tell you Porzingis could be the most talented player in the draft. Most agree it would take tremendous courage to choose him No. 1 overall – courage most of them don’t pretend to possess. “If Karl Towns doesn’t turn out, you could survive that,” one GM in the lottery’s top seven tells Yahoo Sports. “If Porzingis is a bust, you’re probably getting canned.”

For now, Porzingis trusts this indisputable truth: This matters to him. The work, the craft, he’s chasing everything here. One of these nights, they’re going to see the light on, hear the bounce of the ball, and they’ll come to understand that he’s different, that he’s his own basketball story.

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