(Originally posted at Upside & Motor)
Lottery prospects that consider entering the draft but opt out of it tend to actually downgrade their stocks with another season on the radar. Cody Zeller is the rare exception, and now so is Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian teenager surprisingly declared for the draft as an 18-year-old last year and was expected to rise up the boards once teams started familiarizing themselves with his physical profile and skill-set, but eventually pulled his name out of the process 10 days before the draft, despite generating strong interest from a couple of teams.
That turned out to be a pretty great decision. As I mentioned in his profile from January, Porzingis didn’t necessarily widen his skill-set with another full season of pro ball but more firmly established the things he does well, which were up for debate at this time last year because his minutes were limited. His playing time doubled last season in comparison to 2013-2014, and besides the highly competitive Spanish ACB, his team (Cajasol Seville) also got to play the Eurocup – the continent’s second-tier league, a notch below the Euroleague.
Cajasol wasn’t very good. It lost 22 of 34 games in the Spanish ACB and nine of 16 games in the Eurocup. Veteran NBA assistant Scott Roth started the season as head-coach and did a fairly poor job, trying to pin the entire problem on an ACB rule that prevented him from pacing the sidelines or give in-game instructions while standing, because he didn’t have whatever accreditation was needed to be validated as a head-coach in that league. He was fired mid-season and his replacement did a better job, eventually helping the team avoid relegation with a strong finish.
Porzingis played stretch four the entire season, with a couple of other so-so NBA prospects (Guillermo Hernangomez and Ondrej Balvin) splitting time at center. Hernangomez is likely to be drafted in the second round this year, while Balvin went undrafted a year ago. The team ran decent motion offense with Roth as the coach, with some emphasis on moving the ball from side-to-side to bend the defense before getting into the eventual pick-and-roll that focused on getting the ball into the lane. Porzingis was for the most part used to space the floor.
Porzingis’ top skill entering the NBA is his shooting. While he looked simply like a capable shooter in a competitive environment two seasons ago, taking just 53 three-point shots in 531 minutes in 2013-2014, Porzingis doubled his three-point attempts with double the minutes last season and there’s no more doubt of what his role is going to be in the NBA.
He looks like a legit pure shooter, fully extending himself on catch-and-shoot opportunities, elevating off the ground with ease and exhibiting textbook mechanics. Standing at seven-foot-one with a seven-foot-six wingspan, his shot is unblockable. His release is noticeably quicker and he’s become more willing to pull the trigger without consciousness.
But what separates Porzingis from the average seven-footer who can shoot is his ability to shoot on the move. He’s proven capable not only of working out of the pick-and-pop, adjusting his body position very naturally once he runs to an open spot after screening, but also running off pindown screens from others. According to Synergy Sports, Porzingis hit 53% of his shots coming off perimeter screens last season.
That was on perfect display on his first score in the first meeting of the season against Barcelona, when Porzingis got a screen from Hernangomez, who chipped his defender Justin Doellman, and the step of separation was enough for Porzingis to catch, turn, set and release a wing three-pointer without contest.
Porzingis does not have a great handle, and is prone to getting the ball stripped, but has proven able to attack closeouts well enough to generate decent bail-out looks from mid-range. He uses the hop to get good elevation and create space for his fade-away pull-ups. Due to the high point in his release, he doesn’t need a lot of separation to avoid effective challenges. And when he has taken all the way, he’s drawn shooting fouls at an appealing rate, averaging 4.6 free throws per 40 minutes, which he converted at a 75.2 percent clip.
It must be mentioned, though, that while he does look really good shooting, Porzingis hit only 35.8 percent of his 117 three-point shots and failed to hit a three-pointer in 22 of his 40 appearances. Shot creation on his team was iffy, even though one of his point guards is also likely to be drafted (Nikola Radicevic), so it’s possible his unimpressive percentage and indicator of streaky shooting could be simply fixed by getting him around NBA-caliber shot creation. Nonetheless, it’s something to keep in mind that the impact of his shooting might depend on what kind of looks are created for him.
What separates Porzingis from the average seven-foot-one big man is his mobility. He moves very naturally in space, which manifests in his ability to sprint up the court to fill the lanes in transition and get off the ground to finish. He can play above the rim as an option for lobs and the passer has a huge target to work with since he can catch the ball at a really high point thanks to his really long arms.
That combination of fluidity and leaping ability also make him an option for runs at the rim out of the pick-and-roll, though he isn’t particularly great at that at this point. Porzingis looks to draw contact on his screens but on-ball defenders managed to navigate around his thin frame without much struggle and he didn’t cut down the lane with the sort of speed that sucks attention and potentially opens shots for others around the perimeter. He’s shown soft hands to catch the ball on the move but didn’t often finish strong in traffic and is unable to finish through contact at this point.
Because of his role as a floor spacer, Porzingis has below average numbers crashing the offensive glass but he plays with good energy when he’s below the rim fighting for tip balls, can reach the ball at a higher point than the average opponent and outside of his area due to that massive seven-foot-six wingspan.
His defensive rebounding has improved, as he’s looked to box out more diligently rather than rely on his athleticism to track the ball off the rim quicker than the opposition. His lack of strength still hurts him some, as he can get pushed off his spot at times, but Porzingis still has a big rebounding area even if he doesn’t have a wide frame for now. According to Real GM, he collected 18.7 percent of opponents’ misses last season, compared to 14 percent the year before.
Porzingis is a very aggressive help-defender and can play above the rim as a shot blocker rotating off the weak-side, but he’s not the sort of volume shot blocker his highlight clips suggest. He’s blocked 52 shots on 40 appearances last season and 31 shots on 35 games the season before.
That magnificent one-on-zero workout Porzingis had in Las Vegas the other day has unfortunately made some people get the wrong impression about him and overlook some gaps he has in the game. These gaps, in my opinion, make him a less appealing prospect than the top three shot creators (Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay) and the top two rim protectors (Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein).
Porzingis is not any sort of direct shot creator, for himself or others. His handle is good enough for him to attack closeouts on straight line drives, pulling up from mid-range or taking a free path to the basket. But he’s susceptible to getting the ball stripped in traffic, averaging 2.6 turnovers per 40 minutes. And he hasn’t shown early indicators he’s able to pass on the move when the defense converges on him, assisting on just 5.2 percent of Cajasol’s scores when he was on the floor last season.
Porzingis’ shooting is really valuable because any sort of shooting is these days but it would have been more valuable three years ago. At this point, we are seeing more and more teams simply play wings at that position. And Porzingis does not enter the league with the skill-set to force teams out of playing small against him. Due to his lack of strength, he’s not a very good post player, mostly relying on his turnaround jump-shot as go-to move because he is unable to set deep post position and back opponents down. Barcelona guarded him with Doellman, who plays stretch four there but has the size of a wing for NBA comparison purposes, and Porzingis couldn’t really take advantage.
On defense, he does not have the strength to hold ground against bigger types in the post and is only so-so guarding drives. Porzingis showed enough lateral mobility to stay in front of slower types like Andres Nocioni and Will Thomas in space but couldn’t contain dribble penetration through contact and guys like Doellman and Bostjan Nachbar went around him without a lot of struggle. He’s always going to be a threat for chase-down blocks but in the NBA, once they get by you, it’s far more likely they’ll get to the rim before you get back to them.
Porzingis is 19 years old now, so there’s plenty of time for him to close these gaps on his game or for his future team to learn how to play him in a way to minimizes his weaknesses. My issue with how he’s been covered these last two weeks is that he’s being perceived as the sort of difference maker a team can expect out of the second or third pick in a loaded class like this one. I disagree with that, based on the direction the NBA has indicated it intends to go but mostly because Towns, Okafor, Russell, Mudiay and Cauley-Stein are on the board. Porzingis is a great prospect, but as a finisher, while three of those guys are great prospects as shot creators and two of them as guys who can directly prevent scoring. I simply think they represent more value.
One thing that Porzingis can do that the average wing masking as a stretch four can’t is help with additional rim protector. While he has not blocked shots in volume at the pro level, he has been very aggressive rotating off the weak-side and has the quickness to make plays at the rim in time. It must be said he’s done that to a fault sometimes, and smart teams have taken advantage of him to get his man open three-pointers, but it should also be mentioned that his center (Hernangomez) was a poor rim protector and maybe Porzingis felt the need or was coached to prioritize helping inside at the expense of sometimes getting burned if the opponent did find his man open.
But the real upside with Porzingis lies on if he can develop into a center. He didn’t guard all that many pick-and-rolls with Cajasol because opponents always focused on exposing Hernangomez but he has shown the ability to contain-and-recover, moving from side-to-side fluidly. I don’t think Porzingis is the sort of presence that intimidates opponents from driving but if he’s well taught and absorbs the principles of positional defense, he does have the agility to cover a lot of ground. He’ll obviously have to continue gaining muscles (he’s up 10 pounds in comparison to his listed weight last season) but we have seen how effective a seven-footer who is lean but has great feet can be on defense when Joakim Noah won defensive player of the year two seasons ago. If Porzingis can develop into a center on defense, the level of shooting he could provide at that position on offense would in fact make him a difference maker. If Pero Antic has value as a stretch five, imagine someone who can actually shoot.
The risk associated to Porzingis is if he does not develop any sort of a post game. Teams will just go small against him and while these wings might not be able to put a hand in his face as he shoots, they can stay closer when puts the ball on the floor and prevent him from pulling-up in balance or even pulling-up at all. While he’s very agile in the context of being a big man, he has not proven agile enough to defend smaller players in space, so he’ll be attacked.
Channing Frye was really valuable his last season in Phoenix because they leveraged his shooting very well, especially using him as a stretch five some of his playing time. Then last season we saw him make a lot less of a difference strictly as a spot-up stretch four on a poorly coached team in Orlando. Porzingis can make shots but he depends on others getting him to his spots (the coaches) and getting him the ball (the shot creators). And as we saw in Orlando last season, that isn’t as simple as it sounds.
-After his magnificent one-on-zero workout in Vegas, some reports have come out that the Lakers have considered drafting Porzingis with the second pick. Pairing him with Julius Randle would be interesting, considering Porzingis could provide the space Randle needs to work with in the post. But Byron Scott isn’t necessarily a coach that has kept up with the times. Floor spacing is such a foreign concept to him that he played Ryan Kelly as a wing last season. While I don’t think Scott does the same with Porzingis, I don’t doubt he prefers pairing Randle with another prototypical big they sign in free agency, and ends up utilizing Porzingis as a bit player who just spots-up on the weak-side.
-Draft Express floated the idea of the 76ers taking Porzingis third last week and has on its report that Philadelphia was one of the teams that pushed for Porzingis to stay in the draft last year. With so much uncertainty regarding Joel Embiid’s future, it doesn’t sound so crazy for them to draft a third big man for the third straight year and Porzingis could fit very well with Nerlens Noel, who continues to project as a catch-and-finish big.
-Chad Ford had the Knicks drafting Porzingis in his fake mock draft with Jay Billas the other day and I think that would be a terrible fit. It’s a misunderstanding of who Porzingis is and what the Knicks are looking for. Phil Jackson has re-emphasized this last week that he’s all in on installing the triangle and needs a big man who can initiate offense out of the mid-post. Porzingis is simply not that guy at this point, and New York probably doesn’t feel like waiting to see if he can become that.
-The Magic actually have a pretty decent collection of talent in place, so whomever they draft is going to overlap with someone who is already there. If Orlando takes Porzingis, having Frye on the roster wouldn’t make a lot of sense but getting rid of him won’t be so easy. Selecting Porzingis also almost guarantees Nikola Vucevic will spend most of his playing time at center for the next few years, and we have enough evidence by now that this doesn’t work.
-The Kings are such a dysfunctional mess that I hope for Porzingis’ sake they don’t take him but he would actually be a great fit here. He’s a good transition player, matching with the preferred style of play by George Karl, and would provide space for DeMarcus Cousins to work with in the half-court. Cousins is also such a great passer and quietly elite mid-range shooter, that Porzingis won’t be pigeonholed into a role as floor spacer and can develop his interior scoring with time.
-There isn’t much certainty regarding the Nuggets, but they already have Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne as big men, with a good chance Kenneth Farried will still be on the team and Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are also options to take some minutes at stretch four. Drafting Porzingis would be confusing.
-The Pistons seem like a good fit. Porzingis does have the skill-set Stan Van Gundy appears to be looking for in the guy he wants to pair Andre Drummond with upfront. He did just trade for Ersan Ilyasova but given the chance to lock up a player who provides higher upside, Van Gundy very well might take Porzingis.
-Similarly to the Nuggets, the Hornets also have way too many options upfront, with Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh and Marvin Williams under contract and there’s a strong assumption out there they’ll try re-signing Bismack Biyombo.
-Falling to the Heat is probably the most appealing option for Porzingis. Erik Spoelstra is a very creative coach and given the way he has utilized his shooters in the past, he’ll probably take the most out of Porzingis. The downside would be pairing Porzingis with another notoriously poor passer in Hassan Whiteside, but both guys could be exceptional finishers in given the looks. Goran Dragic looked like an All-Star a couple of seasons ago driving off screens by Frye and Porzingis could have that same effect for him. If he’s on the board, this seems like a no-brainer for Miami and is probably as low as Porzingis could drop.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.