By Evan Sidery
At just 14 years old, Kristaps Porzingis knew he was destined for a different path in life, when he realized he was taller than his older brother, Martins, who had a 10-year age gap on him.
Little did Kristaps know, the life ahead of him would be a topsy-turvy one as a professional basketball player in the NBA, one so polarizing that he single-handedly turned the term “Unicorn” into a buzzword.
Porzingis’ NBA career has mimicked a rollercoaster, with so many twists and turns that it’s hard to keep up. The immediate rise to stardom with the New York Knicks. The injury issues. The ugly ending in the Big Apple. The slow start with the Dallas Mavericks as he tried to find his star equity.
Put it all together and, at 26 years old, the 7-foot-3 Porzingis is one of the most intriguing players in the league. Porzingis spoke exclusively with BasketballNews.com recently about his career, covering the bases on everything that led him to this point.
And after speaking with Porzingis, it’s clear that he’s happier and more confident than he’s been in some time, which helps explain why he’s playing his best basketball in years.
Porzingis is averaging 19.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while carrying a career-best 23.7 PER. Although the numbers are right on par with what we’ve seen from Porzingis since his arrival in Dallas, mentally he’s beginning to find what made him great before his catastrophic ACL injury four years ago. Porzingis is finally looking like a true co-star counterpart to his superstar teammate Luka Doncic, which has the Mavericks internally buzzing about their long-term future.
Porzingis admitted that as the injuries piled up, it took a toll on him mentally and that caused his career to take a turn. He compared it to being dehydrated in a desert and searching for water. Finally, he tapped into that water source this past offseason, when he put in the hard work that’s allowed him to start living up to the lucrative extension he signed with Dallas upon his arrival nearly three years ago.
“It’s good. I put in a lot of work this summer. It’s not something that I’m kinda surprised by. All of the work that I put in, it’s coming back to me now,” Porzingis told BasketballNews.com. “A lot of times, it’s like walking in the desert. Injury, working back from injury, trying to get a rhythm. And I’m still working trying to get my way back in a rhythm, still working on my body too. I still don’t feel [100%]; I’m nowhere near 100%. So, still have a lot of work to do and I’ll keep working, but it’s good to see I’m back again at that high level, playing high-level basketball.”
With a player like Porzingis — who showed rare, sky-high upside when he was the biggest piece in the New York market prior to his ACL tear — it’s scary to think that he’s putting up these numbers despite the fact that he’s still not back to his pre-injury level. As he further strengthens his body and finds the right balance mentally and physically to stay on the court, he should be able to tap back into the All-Star upside that was on full display with the Knicks. Still just 26 years old, there’s still plenty of time for Porzingis to grow and emphatically put his stamp on the Association once again.
Joe Abunassar, who has helped train Porzingis back from injury in the past at Impact Basketball, stressed that if Porzingis stays healthy and continues to find his rhythm, it could lead to a star rebirth in Dallas.
“Right before he got injured in New York, he was a machine — he was a double-double machine and putting up big numbers,” Abunassar said recently on The Alex Kennedy Podcast. “Then, he got hurt and that’s a tough injury and it takes a long time to recover. I think with him, it’s just about staying healthy. People ask me all the time, ‘What did you do with Kevin Garnett after training him for 10 years?’ And I say, ‘We just kept him healthy.’ I mean, we did other things, but that was our primary focus. I think with Kris, keeping him healthy [is the most important thing]. For Kris, it’s just about staying healthy and finding his rhythm in games, and I think he’ll be fine.”
Porzingis admitted that the non-stop cycle of injury, rehab, injury, rehab that he was in really tested his mental toughness. But keeping his positive mindset and staying present helped him push through it. Now, Porzingis hopes his body’s maturation coupled with his regimented plan will allow him to escape the darkest depths of his career.
“I think I’m getting to a point physically where my body is mature enough now and I think I’ll be able to stay healthy. That’s the main thing for me,” Porzingis said. “Honestly, injuries suck. It just sucks. You’re out, you can’t play, you have to rehab everyday without seeing many results. It’s like I said — a walk in the desert trying to find the water. That’s how it feels like many days, but that’s where that discipline, that mental toughness comes in.
“You have to push through it. You have to try to have a positive mindset and go day-by-day, practice-by-practice. Get better day-by-day. Once you are finally able to get on the court, get some shots up, everything starts to feel good. That’s when you’re getting those positive emotions out of it and you feel like you’re actually getting closer to getting back on the court.”
Porzingis’ exit from the Knicks became a melodrama that played out in the New York media. It’s something that Porzingis never wanted to happen, but it unfortunately reached that point due to what he described as miscommunication by both sides. Between his injuries and the miscommunication, he admitted that the situation got “ugly” behind the scenes. The two sides didn’t agree on an extension once his rookie-scale contract ended and Porzingis ultimately asked for a trade.
“I learned a lot from the situation. Obviously, it’s not the best situation,” Porzingis told BasketballNews.com about his stint with the Knicks. “I loved my time in New York, but in terms of getting hurt, being out for such a long time and then a lot of stuff going on, [there were] a lot of mistakes on both parts. A lot of miscommunication, I would say. And the situation just kinda got ugly.
“It is what it is, it’s in the past already. I’m grateful for all the good memories I had in New York for all the people there. For the organization, for Phil Jackson for drafting me, putting his faith in me. At the end, there’s no bigger stage than playing for the Knicks, you know? So, I enjoyed it, every single game at Madison Square Garden. Those are going to be memories forever for me.”
Before Porzingis encountered his first serious injury issues in New York, he was once one of the most polarizing players in the Association. Gracefully running down the court, splashing threes, posterizing players, protecting the rim with All-Defensive-Team upside and swatting shots with reckless abandon, it was a player archetype that really hadn’t been seen before. Becoming the “Unicorn” of the NBA boosted Porzingis’ star power, and many believed he could eventually be on the path to MVP-type production.
Averaging a career-high 22.7 points and 2.4 blocks while shooting 39.5% on three-pointers, Porzingis was well on his way to an All-NBA season in 2017-18 before the worst-case scenario occurred.
Playing against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in early 2018, Porzingis cut to the basket and was fed an easy opportunity for a dunk. Porzingis slammed it down over Giannis as Madison Square Garden exploded in jubilance. But one second later, Porzingis landed…
The impact on his knee was too much to handle. Porzingis fell over, immediately grabbing at his left knee as he writhed in pain in front of the Knicks’ bench. As he slammed his fist against the court, he knew the injury was serious.
Soon after, the Knicks were hesitant to pay him a lucrative contract, which contributed to the conflict behind the scenes. When asked what went wrong and what was miscommunicated toward the end of his tenure in New York, Porzingis says, “Many things, many things.”
There may be a time and place down the road when Porzingis divulges more about his “ugly” breakup with the Knicks, but he doesn’t feel that this is the right time.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail. I think it’s not the right moment,” Porzingis told BasketballNews.com. “I think there will be a moment where I maybe talk about it more, but, for now, there’s many new people in the organization. I really wish them well. They’re doing well, they’re doing better. I wish for the Knicks to be great, because that just makes all of us look great. New York City is always hyped for good-level basketball. I think they’re on the way there.”
That chapter is now closed, and he’s focused on looking forward. Before the trade to the Mavericks, Porzingis knew about a fellow European who was taking the basketball world by storm — Doncic, a then-18-year-old multipositional superstar who can do just about everything at an elite level when he steps on a basketball court.
When Porzingis was traded to Dallas during Doncic’s rookie season, he couldn’t hold back his excitement. He was still stunned that Doncic hadn’t been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
“I knew he was the MVP of the EuroLeague. And I was looking at the rest of the class, the rest of the rookies, and I’m thinking ‘There’s not one guy that would be able to go to Europe and get the EuroLeague MVP at that moment,’” Porzingis said. “So, I knew he was the best player out of that class. There are many great players, but Luka is just a different type of talent.”
Instead of being the face of the Knicks and trying to recruit Doncic to New York someday, the roles were reversed. Instead, they teamed up in Dallas and now the Mavericks’ future is bright as a result.
“I was hoping he would come to New York somehow, but we ended up playing together [anyway]. I knew it…” Porzingis told BasketballNews.com. “He’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. He’s just a natural-born talent. He was born for this. To see the things that he’s capable of doing on a basketball court is just insane, and it’s not something he thinks about. He just plays instinctively and [it] comes natural to him, so it’s really cool to play with a high-level basketball player like him.”
Even though they’d played together since 2019, Porzingis is still amazed at Doncic’s incredible passes and how he sets up all of his teammates for easy scoring opportunities. Luka’s magic is real, and Porzingis can’t get enough of it.
“You always gotta be ready [when Luka has the ball],” Porzingis said. “He can score the ball at the same time, then at the last second, he could pass it to you and you didn’t expect it and you could be wide-open. He’s that type of generational talent.”
KP and Luka fuel the @dallasmavs comeback
Porzingis: 29 PTS, 10 REB, 51 FPTS
Doncic: 19 PTS, 11 AST, 47.7 FPTS pic.twitter.com/mbGK1AEjTM
— NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) November 16, 2021
With the next chapter of his career taking place in Dallas, that also means Porzingis is the Mavericks’ first star big man since Dirk Nowitzki. Doncic received the title of the Mavericks’ next superstar from Nowitzki, but Porzingis is the next seven-footer in line to potentially become an All-Star for Dallas. But taking the proverbial baton from a legend like Nowitzki isn’t easy.
“Yeah, I don’t like [it],” Porzingis chuckled when asked about following Nowitzki. “Those shoes are way too big to fill. Not just me, but also Luka. [Dirk is] a legend of the game. To come after him, it’s not easy at all, but the city of Dallas has welcomed us with open arms and showed us so much support since Day 1 since I got here. I know they expect high achievements from us. That’s what I’m here for, that’s what Luka’s here for. We want to win it all at the end. That’s the main goal. We have a mission, until we get that done.”
Looking ahead further into the 2021-22 season, the Mavericks are right in the middle of the pack in the reloaded and extremely competitive Western Conference. With Doncic running the show and Porzingis slowly but surely finding his groove once again, Dallas has the pieces to make a deep playoff run. The question is: will the team be able to make it happen this season?
“Why not us?” Porzingis asks.
Why can’t the Mavericks make serious noise and compete for a championship?
“I think we’re the dark-horse in the league,” Porzingis told BasketballNews.com. “I think we have a lot of talent. I think we have more talent than many teams. It’s just a question of us growing as a team, getting experience. We got some experience the last couple of years in the playoffs and taking that next step. Hopefully, we can surprise many people. I feel like we have the potential to do that.”
When the Mavericks acquired Porzingis, the hope was for him to form a lethal one-two punch with Doncic to vault Dallas into the NBA’s top tier. Doncic is there already, emerging as one of the best players in the NBA, but Porzingis is the true X-factor to it all coalescing. If Porzingis becomes an elite No. 2 option alongside Doncic and can also take over at some points and take pressure off the Slovenian phenom (which is much-needed), the Mavericks are set up beautifully for a fruitful future.
Porzingis knows the pressure is on, but after exiting a painful cycle of injuries and rehab, he’s extremely confident and has regained hope for what’s next in his career.
We could soon see Porzingis return to form as the NBA’s “Unicorn,” which would change the entire calculus for the West’s hierarchy this season and long-term.
Produced in association with BasketballNews.com.
Edited by Kristen Butler
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