The unlikely story of how Kristaps Porzingis found his way to the Knicks

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

Three days before the 2015 NBA draft, and Kristaps Porzingis feared everything slipping away. He wanted New York, the Knicks, the Garden. Still, Porzingis needed the Knicks to want him, too. And now, 20 minutes into his private workout for Phil Jackson at the franchise's suburban practice facility, his quad tightened and his movement stopped. Porzingis bent over, dread washing over him.

"There was most definitely a lot of fear," Porzingis told The Vertical. "So, so frustrating. This was where I wanted to be – New York. It was my last workout before the draft, and now, this happens.

"As I walked off the court, I was thinking to myself, 'They're not going to take me. I didn't do anything in the workout. They're not going to take me fourth.' "

All around Porzingis, Knicks officials gathered. Immediately, they agreed to end the workout. No need to risk injury, no need to push further. The Knicks had Porzingis dunking medicine balls and shooting and running the floor. For Jackson, this was only his second time watching Porzingis live.

Across the Knicks' practice gym, Porzingis' agent, Andy Miller, and Kristaps' older brother and co-agent, Janis Porzingis, stood on the sidelines. Miller remained unsure of the franchise's intentions with his client, but had increasingly believed that only the courage to withstand the predictable public outcry of choosing a pasty, 7-foot-3 Latvian teenager in the cynical New York market would stop the Knicks from choosing him.

Hours later, Porzingis sat at dinner with the Knicks elders. Jackson and general manager Steve Mills were probing Porzingis, trying to measure his sense of purpose and maturity to withstand what they believed could be a long learning curve in a most cruel and unforgiving market.

Porzingis was perfect in these settings: engaging and enlightened. They talked and talked about everything but the game, and, finally, Jackson brought it up.

"What do you know about basketball?"

Porzingis hesitated for a moment, stunned, searching for the words. He repeated the question in his mind. What do I know about basketball?

Finally, Porzingis answered: "What do you want me to know about basketball?"

"Do you know defense?" Jackson asked.

"I know defense," Porzingis said.

And so they talked about some principles of defense and some offense, and looking back Porzingis laughs now. "Phil Jackson is always two steps ahead of you," he said.

Porzingis had so much poise, polish. Every moment with the Knicks officials was winning them over.

Across two years, there were a series of choices and decisions from the Porzingis family and Miller that allowed Porzingis to find a destiny with the New York Knicks with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Without warning, Porzingis is on the cusp of stardom, a transcendent presence making Madison Square Garden alive again.

For the longest time, too, Porzingis' camp had reason to believe he was destined to play for the Orlando Magic. Porzingis entered his name into the 2014 NBA draft with an expectation that he would withdraw prior to the deadline. "Just to get my name out there in the NBA, get some attention," Porzingis said.

He was still so raw and rail thin at 7-foot in the Spanish ACB League. Everyone in the NBA scouted Porzingis closely, but few teams outside of Magic GM Rob Hennigan's front office made Porzingis such a significant priority.

As an organization, the Magic became enamored with the long-term possibilities of Porzingis and became aggressive in persuading him to remain in the 2014 draft. So aggressive, in fact, Miller worked a guarantee out of Hennigan that Orlando would choose Porzingis with the No. 12 pick in 2014. Orlando owned two picks, including No. 4. If Porzingis preferred to play one more year with Sevilla in the Spanish ACB before coming to the NBA, the Magic would support him.

"Rob had a thorough, comprehensive plan," Miller told The Vertical. "He had invested as much, or more time, into Kristaps as anyone in the league. He really studied him. They had a plan for supplemental training, development. It wasn't just, 'Let's just draft him and see what happens.' This was a plan. Kristaps knew the plan and just wasn't ready."

It never did sway Porzingis. He had a vision of his future, a plan of how he imagined it would play out, and that didn't include making the leap to the NBA only because a team had a willingness to choose him in the lottery. Porzingis told his brother Janis and Miller: Next year, I'll be ready. Not yet.

"To me, when I came to the NBA, I wanted to be ready," Porzingis told The Vertical. "How your career starts matters in the NBA, it matters. I needed to play against grown men another year in Spain. The lottery, that didn't matter to me. Being ready, that mattered to me."

Hennigan was heartbroken, but a part of him admired the maturity and staying power of Porzingis' decision. In a lot of ways, it reaffirmed the reasons Hennigan felt his front office had been right about the prospect. The kid had substance, principle.

After Porzingis' pro day workout in Las Vegas this June – a public workout for all 30 NBA teams – Hennigan felt empty walking out of the gymnasium. This time, Orlando had the fifth pick in the 2015 draft. And he believed his chances of getting Porzingis had evaporated. "He won't get past four," Hennigan told friends on his way out of the workout.

Too much had happened in a year, too much had changed. Miller had come to understand it, too. Miller had gone to visit Porzingis and prospect Willy Hernangomez in the Spanish ACB League in February and found himself sitting in a restaurant with his two clients. As the players stood up, Miller became incredulous with the sight and wondered to his European agent partner, Guillermo Bermejo: "How am I going to get Gomez drafted high? He's 6-foot-7!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Bermejo replied. "He's 6-10."

Miller responded, "He's five inches shorter than Porzingis. How can he be 6-10?"

Bermejo shook his head.

"Yeah, Porzingis is 7-3 now!"

Porzingis had grown more than two inches, but who was measuring him in the middle of Sevilla's season in the Spanish League?

As the 2015 draft approached, Orlando was no longer the primary target for Porzingis, who had become increasingly determined to play for the Knicks. Porzingis' camp knew that it had a draft night floor of No. 5 with Orlando, but its target became New York. The Lakers worked out Porzingis, worked him so hard that "I was getting dizzy in the workout, so tired that I couldn't speak, or put a sentence together," Porzingis told The Vertical. "There were a few moments where I thought I might collapse, but no moments where I was going to give up."

In the end, the Lakers believed Porzingis was too long term of a project, and chose point guard D'Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor.

Whatever happened, Miller didn't make it easy for Philadelphia to draft Porzingis at No. 3. The Sixers wouldn't be afforded Porzingis' physical, nor get a private workout, nor even a face-to-face meeting. After most of the pro day executives cleared out of the gym in Vegas in mid-June, 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie lingered to meet with Miller. Hinkie stopped him in the lobby area and asked Miller about a chance to sit down and visit with Porzingis.

"You said that I would get a meeting with him here," Hinkie told Miller.

"I said, 'I'd try,' and it's not going to work out, Sam," Miller responded.

An awkward silence lingered, the GM and agent, standing and staring. The Porzingis camp wanted no part of the Sixers' situation at No 3. Miller couldn't stop Philadelphia from drafting Porzingis, but he could limit the information they had to make a decision. And did. No physical. No meeting. No workout. The Sixers passed on Porzingis on draft night, clearing the way for the Knicks to select him.

Before Jackson made the final call on Porzingis at No. 4, the Knicks did have one significant pause: Talks about trading the pick for a talented wing player and another first-round pick lingered into the late afternoon, but ultimately died when the Knicks couldn't get Jose Calderon's contract into the deal. Before the pick, Miller warned Porzingis, "Be ready to get booed." The Porzingis family knew it was coming. No one cared when NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name, and his brother Janis just remembers: "We were hugging and so happy, we didn't even hear any of it."

Kristaps Porzingis stood up and started walking toward the New York lights, toward the noise.

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