NBA Draft Watch: The Kristaps Porzingis Experience
By YARON WEITZMAN
He speaks near-perfect English, which he learned watching cartoons like Ed, Edd n Eddy and films like Friday. He proudly states "Drake is my guy" and claims a crush on Rihanna. He can't go a day without a cup of coffee. Asked to point out his favorite hometown hangout by a cameraman from Grantland — tasked with following him around for a behind-the-scenes series — he brought them to a local Starbucks. Right now he's sipping on a strawberry Frappuccino, handed to him moments ago by one of his agent's staffers.
Kristaps Porzingis could use the caffeine-sugar jolt. About 11 hours ago, the 19-year-old Latvian basketball sensation — believed by many to be a top-four pick in next Thursday's NBA Draft — was sitting on the tarmac of Riga International Airport. One can imagine an airplane not being the most comfortable place for a 7'1, 230-pound teenager with stilts for legs. Now, in a quaint room on the 11th floor of the Hudson Hotel, a boutique outfit tucked just east of Columbus Square in Manhattan, Porzingis is finally — mercifully — allowed to unfurl.
"I want everyone to know me better," Porzingis says, explaining the reasoning behind his New York sojourn. His left knee bounces up and down throughout most of the 45-minute interview. "I want everyone to know my personality, that I'm an open guy, and that my English is really good."
He's wearing khaki-colored jeans and a brand new white V-neck t-shirt. His blonde hair, normally spiked up, is currently bereft of hair gel. This is the first of many interviews the lottery hopeful has scheduled over the next two days.
It may be Porzingis's first trip to New York, but there won't be any time for tourist stops. In two days he'll be hopping back on a plane, this one bound for IMPACT gym in Las Vegas, where he'll be spending most of his time in the lead up to Draft Day. There he'll train with his older brother, Janis, along with a handful of fellow clients of ASM, the agency currently representing him. More relevant, however, is who Porzingis will be working out for: Namely, 150-or-so executives from around the NBA. It's the first and last chance many of these basketball bigwigs will have to scout the seven-foot Euro-stud in person.
The clips from that workout — of Porzingis effortlessly gliding through the lane for ferocious throw-downs, of his textbook and feathery jump shot repeatedly drawing nothing but net — has gone viral in NBA media circles. Already, How high can Kristaps Porzingis go? and Who is Kristaps Porzingis?have become near omnipresent headline tropes. Porzingis, who suited up last season for Baloncesto Sevilla in Spain's Liga ACB, is rocketing up mock-draft boards and, reportedly, team wish lists as well. Draft Express currently has him going at No. 3, to the Philadelphia 76ers. ESPN's Chad Ford has him at No. 5 on his latest Big Board.
In less than a week, praise for Porzingis — and the attendant hype — has reached a fever pitch.
"It would be hard not to be impressed with a 19-year-old kid who's 7'1, graceful, athletic, shoots threes like [Dallas Mavericks forward] Dirk Nowitzki, and puts up numbers in the second best league in the world," says ESPN analyst and former Division I college basketball coach Fran Fraschilla, the network's de facto authority on international basketball prospects. "He's a top-five, eight pick easily, and has been for months."
Right now, though, the spindly kid from Eastern Europe is here to answer questions — about his skills, his on-court strengths and weaknesses, his personality, and why he believes teams and fans would be wise to not rush to judgment. For Porzingis, the challenge — and the gift — lies in letting his game, like his near-perfect English, speak for itself.
Located in the sea-abutting southwest tip of Latvia, Liepaja — population 75,000 — is the Baltic nation's third-largest city. It's a region known for its beaches, swirling winds, and thriving port. The latter is a relatively new development; after decades spent under Soviet Control, the city has enjoyed relative economic prosperity during the proceeding quarter-century.
Porzingis was born and raised in Liepaja. Kristaps's father, Talis, was a semi-professional basketball player and, later, a bus driver. His mother, Ingrida, suited up for Latvia's national youth teams. Put simply, basketball — and height — are in the blood. The other Porzingis children — a pair of sons (Martin, 32, and Janis, 29) — are both avid hoopsters, with the 6'7" Janis having done so professionally in Europe for the past 15 years.
"I saw my brothers playing every day, and so I wanted to play," Porzingis says. Their house wasn't very big, but there was enough room to anchor a mini-hoop to the bedroom door. "I was so small, though," He adds. "I couldn't hit a shot and [my brothers] were always dunking on me."
Porzingis's first experience on a real court came at the age of six. His mother knew a local coach and brought her youngest son down to his gym. "I was crying all the time," he recalls. "The coach was always yelling at us and I was scared of him." But Porzingis quickly got over the fear of his skipper's fire-and-brimstone ballistics and, eventually, fell in love with the sport.
Before long, Prozingis was playing whenever he could, wherever he could. Sometimes he'd supplement his new-found hoops obsession with surfing, soccer, or throwing a football around on the beach. He also enjoyed Ping-Pong. But the lion's share of of his time was spent on the court — in local gyms and schools, in parks with cracked asphalt and ball-altering winds. "I think that helped my handle," Porzingis surmises. There was also a nearby outdoor wooden court that somehow caught fire when Kristaps was younger, the panels unceremoniously left for trash. Talis Porzingis, noticing the discarded wares one day as he was driving his truck around town, loaded the panels into the back and brought them home. For the next few years, the Porzinigis family had the best backyard court in the neighborhood.
Kris — as he's colloquially called — played every night after school until the sun went down. He'd follow Janis to the local track or gym for a workout, emulating his older brother as much as possible. He'd stay up late at night to watch whatever NBA games he could find on TV, eventually becoming enamored with the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant. The Porzingis men would gather around the games together, listening intently as Talis broke down strategy and plays.
"My dad was my first coach and still is my coach," Porzingis says with a smile. "Even now when I come back from games he'll start breaking down for me what I did right and what I did wrong. My mom would shush him, tell him to wait, but my dad would answer, 'But he has to know this."
"His love of basketball is ridiculous, even to me," Janis says of his father. "He's crazy about the game and he's taught us so many things."
English, however, was not one of them. Neither of Kris's parents speaks the language. Both, however, wanted their sons to learn as much as possible — to give them a leg up in what had long since become an international game. When Kris was 10, his parents hired an English tutor. He was near-fluent by the time he was 13. Two years later — a span of time that saw Prozingis sprout to 6'8" — the lanky Latvian with a gazelle's gait and a silken touch to match was ready to leave home.
Here's the good news: As far as weaknesses go, Porzingis's primary one — his relative lack of strength — is a pretty good one to have. It's not that a lack of muscle is advantageous; rather, for a 19-year-old who barely looks to be shaving yet, strength is probably the easiest thing to address.
"With bigger guys, they might be tall, but it often takes a while for the rest of the body to catch up," says John Murray, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Golden State Warriors. "You can't force mother nature, so instead you want to look under the hood and see what you're working with."
That means, says Murray, looking at family history. And physical frame-everything from the ankles and knees to the shoulders. How strong are they? How stable are they? Does the body move fluidly?
Janis claims his younger brother is hovering around 230 pounds — his listed weight, albeit a somewhat generous one. For comparison's sake, Anthony Davis is currently listed at 222 pounds, while Pau Gasol registers at 227. That's not to say that Porzingis's lack of upper body strength has been overblown. From a distance, the skin-and-bones cut an unnerving picture, like all you want to do is buy the poor kid a meal. But if knowing is half the battle, Porzingis might as well start planning his victory march. When asked what he feels he needs to work on the most, a smiling Porzingis says, "I got to get stronger, man. Everybody knows that."
But serious concerns do remain.
"He looks like he could slip through a wet straw and emerge dry," Fraschilla says. "It's a worry among NBA people I talk to. It really hurts him in the painted area. By NBA standards he's not a good rebounder right now and his low post offense is a work in progress."
Still, there are caveats — many of them. For one, "NBA people aren't worried about his lower body at all," Fraschilla adds. "He's got very strong legs." That — building the base — was a central focus for Prozingis last season.
"That would make sense and be a positive," Murray says. "It all starts with the legs. If those are strong it's easier to build from there."
When he was 15 years, Porzingis moved to Spain. Seville, to be precise — one of the country's largest cities. He spoke little to no Spanish and knew nobody. But Baloncesto Sevilla offered him a contract, so he went. Nervous but excited, unproven but unflinchingly hopeful, Porzingis was finally following the family path, and his dreams.
But not long after arriving in Spain, Porzingis encountered his first major setback: a theretofore undiagnosed form of anemia.
"I'd be on the court for one minute, then get tired," Porzingis says. "I was just feeling weak all the time. It was like that for almost half the season."
Having quickly addressed the issue, Porzingis toiled in the club's junior ranks for a couple seasons before finally getting called up to Sevilla. There, he was given the opportunity to play for Aito Garcia Reneses, the legendary Spanish coach whom many credit with developing NBA players including Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Rudy Fernandez. The following season Porzingis was named to the U18 Euro championships All-Tournament Team, leading Latvia to a fourth-place finish. Soon after, he started getting more minutes for Sevilla, steadily emerging as a regular contributor. He finished the 2014 campaign with averages of 11 points (shooting 47 percent from the floor and 31 percent from distance), five rebounds and one block in in 22 minutes per game. All of which is subsumed by another, more critical number: 18 — his age, after playing a full season in the second best basketball league in the world.
Over the last two years, Porzingis has grown from a relative unknown to one of the game's most tantalizing prospects. The beautiful, well-rounded game, the sinister skill set — if God were to manufacture a big man tailor made for today's pace-and-space NBA, Kristaps Porzingis would be a pretty good factory model. His wingspan is even longer than his commanding 7'1 frame, his open-court flow positively poetic. He's sneaky-explosive and — according to Scott Roth, a former NBA player and longtime assistant coach who helmed Sevilla for a six-month stretch last season — dunks the ball whenever he can.
Under the tutelage of Roth and Audi Norris, a Jackson, Mississippi native and Spanish basketball legend who replaced Roth at Sevilla last season, Porzingis learned the nuances of the game. Roth in particular taught the smooth-shooting prodigy how to curl around screens and launch on the move. "He's not just a stationary shooter," he says. "He's really mobile." Norris took him down to the post, an area where Porzingis boasts arguably his biggest long-term upside. Roth taught him NBA terminology so that his transition to the league would be smoother. "Floppy, long-arm show, ice, those are phrases I didn't know before," Porzingis says. "All that should help me during training camp."
That, combined with the fluent English and years of living the professional lifestyle, makes Porzingis a prospect light years ahead of many of his peers.
That, more than anything else, is what Kristaps Porzingis wants you to know. To him, basketball isn't everything; it's the only thing. Janis says his younger brother no longer has any other hobbies (aside from the occasional prank). Scott Roth recalls finding Porzingis watching YouTube clips of LaMarcus Aldridge and the 1980s Detroit Pistons — which would qualify as a deep cut even for someone 10 years his senior — on team bus rides. Over the past few weeks Porzingis has spent his mornings in Las Vegas playing pickup games with NBA players and draft hopefuls and his afternoons taking hundreds of jump shots with his brother, many with one eye closed, so as to better simulate a waving hand.
"There's no mystery with him," Roth says. "The only negative with him is that his body's not ready. So it's just going to take a little time. The team taking him has to know what they're getting and that they need to be patient. But that's it.
"I'm not a draft expert. But I can tell you, and a lot of scouts will tell you, he's got the biggest upside in the draft."