The New York Knicks’ future once looked very dismal indeed. It looked that way for a very long time, for a great many reasons — but that was before the arrival of the Great Latvian Hope. Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 rookie whose selection was resoundingly booed at this summer’s draft, has instead very quickly become the most popular athlete at Madison Square Garden1 after barely more than a month on the job.
Porzingis detonated onto the NBA landscape with a series of putback dunks in his first handful of games; more importantly for Knicks fans, he’s since maintained a level of play that’s ranged between solid and spectacular. On the season, Porzingis is averaging 17.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes and draining threes at a rate that would make fellow Giant Baltic Person Arvydas Sabonis proud.2 No player in NBA history, in fact, has possessed quite this combination of youth, height, quickness and outside shooting skills. Porzingis’s play has been so strong and so dazzling that he’s that rare rookie on whom airy basketball aesthetes and turgid statistical fundamentalists can agree: This kid is the real deal.
The Porzingis projection
So what does his future hold? We have a (probabilistic) basketball-shaped crystal ball called CARMELO,3 our NBA projection system. Before the season began, we ran CARMELO projections for more than 500 players; this included rookie projections for players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick and Porzingis’s opponent Wednesday night, based on their college statistics. But we didn’t run one for Porzingis or other international draft picks who didn’t play NCAA ball. Let’s fix that!
Below, you’ll see a CARMELO projection for Porzingis based on his first 25 NBA games. It makes one heroic assumption: extrapolating out that 25-game performance to a full 82-game season. In other words, it assumes not only that what Knicks fans have seen from Porzingis so far is about what they’ll get from the rest of the year, but also that he’ll stay healthy.
If those assumptions hold, the Knicks have a hell of a prospect on their hands. The NBA is a tough league for rookies, so merely staying in a team’s rotation at age 20 is often a sign of a bright future. So far, however, Porzingis has not just been a rotation player but an above-average one4 — usually a sign of superstar potential. In fact, Porzingis’s long-term upside score, based on his wins above replacement projection from 2016-17 through 2021-22, is 36.3. That’s very good; at the start of this season, it would have made Porzingis the 17th-most-valuable franchise player in the league, in the same vicinity as Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Wall and Jimmy Butler.
But Porzingis’s projection also involves tremendous uncertainty. In 2018-19, for example, his 90th percentile projection5 is 13.3 WAR, good enough to put him on the fringes of the MVP discussion. Meanwhile, his 10th percentile projection is just 0.0 WAR (exactly replacement level), or roughly the same range as Quincy Acy. The error bars around CARMELO’s forecasts for young players are often wide, but these are especially so.
OK, but is he Dirk?
What gives? Part of it is the problem we alluded to before. CARMELO works by identifying comparable players, and Porzingis is a hard guy for which to find historical precedents. Only one player, Brook Lopez, achieves a similarity score of 50 or higher with Porzingis6 — and if we’re being frank, the Lopez-Porzingis connection doesn’t have the “eye test” appeal that CARMELO comparisons often do.
But faced with unusual players like Porzingis, CARMELO has to make some sacrifices. In the case of Lopez, it ignores the fact that Lopez almost never shoots from behind the arc (although he does have a decent midrange game). In the case of Kevin Love, Porzingis’s No. 4 comparable, it finds another big man with a good outside shot and strong rebounding numbers — but ignores that Love is shaped much differently than Porzingis, 5 inches shorter but quite a bit bulkier, especially in his youth. And since CARMELO relies on metrics that utilize box score stats, it can be difficult to translate calling-card traits like “quick feet in defensive transition” to on-the-stat-sheet comps, which in turn means the model may promote the formal similarity of Porzingis’s defensive numbers to those of Shawn Kemp, when he’s closer to Andrei Kirilenko stylistically.
You can get a fuller sense for the range of possibilities when sorting through Porzingis’s top 50 CARMELO comparables, a list that includes everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Darko Milicic. There’s also a cameo appearance from Porzingis’s idol, Dirk Nowitzki, who checks in at No. 17. Why doesn’t he rank higher? Because, as Nowitzki correctly points out, Porzingis has been considerably better so far at age 20 than Nowitzki was at the same age. CARMELO “thinks” the Porzingis-Nowitzki comparison is unflattering — to Porzingis.
|1||Brook Lopez||26||Ryan Anderson|
|2||Joe Smith||27||Cliff Robinson|
|3||Derrick Favors||28||Al Jefferson|
|4||Kevin Love||29||Derrick Williams|
|5||Anthony Randolph||30||Tim Thomas|
|6||Amar’e Stoudemire||31||Jonas Valanciunas|
|7||Spencer Hawes||32||Rashard Lewis|
|8||Tobias Harris||33||Tracy McGrady|
|9||Yi Jianlian||34||Serge Ibaka|
|10||Shawn Kemp||35||Zaza Pachulia|
|11||Rudy Gay||36||Darius Miles|
|12||Elton Brand||37||Greg Monroe|
|13||DeMarcus Cousins||38||Andrei Kirilenko|
|14||Lamar Odom||39||Antoine Walker|
|15||Kwame Brown||40||Marvin Williams|
|16||Michael Beasley||41||Jared Sullinger|
|17||Dirk Nowitzki||42||Harrison Barnes|
|18||Shareef Abdur-Rahim||43||Chris Webber|
|19||Anthony Davis||44||Thaddeus Young|
|20||Josh Smith||45||Paul George|
|21||Kevin Garnett||46||Eddy Curry|
|22||Tyson Chandler||47||Shaquille O’Neal|
|23||Chris Bosh||48||Darko Milicic|
|25||Enes Kanter||50||Al-Farouq Aminu|
But Porzingis’s offensive approach does bear some resemblance to today’s Dirk Nowitzki. Porzingis is frequently compared to Jahlil Okafor and Towns, and that’s unsurprising considering that they play the same position and were all drafted so high. However, Porzingis is the only one in that trio who, like Nowitzki, has 21st-century range. In fact, his basic spatial shooting distribution closely mirrors that of the NBA itself as about a quarter of his shots come from downtown, a third come in the midrange and the rest come near the basket.
The diversity of Porzingis’s scoring portfolio is also an encouraging sign for his development. Although he converts his shots at just average rates from virtually every spot he shoots from, the fact that he can do that as a 20-year-old 7-foot-plusser is remarkable. While the league is full of bigs who can shoot the ball, it’s rare for a rookie to enter the league as such a competent shooter. Shooting was the Achilles heel of young bigs like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin, who have since developed range out to the 3-point line.
The good news extends to the defensive side of the ball as well; Porzingis is already an effective rim protector. Considering that many were worried that he was “soft” entering the league, these numbers, perhaps more than his offensive ones, should put the doubters to bed. He blocks multiple shots per game, opponents shoot just 47 percent near the basket when he is present, and he is a big part of why the Knicks are among the most efficient rim-protecting teams in the NBA right now. The Knicks!
A strictly limited run?
The one looming issue could be Porzingis’s durability. Among his top 50 comparables, about 20 percent7 played fewer than 1,000 minutes (or were out of the league entirely) by their sixth NBA season. Usually, this is a sign of a serious injury. Furthermore, among his comparables, there was an inverse correlation between height and durability: The tallest players on Porzingis’s list were more injury-prone.
That’s a potential problem because Porzingis isn’t just tall but gigantic: one of only 25 players ever to play in the NBA at 7-foot-3 or taller. That produces some cool factoids — among players 7-foot-3 or taller, Porzingis has already drained the fourth-most 3-pointers in league history (behind Sabonis, Manute Bol and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) — along with some worrying trends. For instance: no player 7-foot-3 or taller has ever made it to his 1,000th NBA game. (Mark Eaton, with 875 career games, came closest.)
Is there really such a thing as being too tall for the NBA, as Phil Jackson asserted when he drafted Porzingis? Well … maybe. The chart below tracks the height distribution of NBA players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, weighted by minutes played, and compares it against a normal distribution.
There are some interesting discrepancies: the most conspicuous is that there are far fewer players listed at exactly 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 than you’d expect from a normal distribution. That could reflect the fact that such players are “tweeners” — too small to play forward, but not necessarily fleet or agile enough to play guard — or that their heights are exaggerated upward to avoid the tweener label. Charles Barkley, officially listed at 6-foot-6, was probably more like 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 instead, for example.
There is also a comparative absence of players listed at 7-foot-1 or taller. Based on the normal distribution, you’d expect about 6 percent of NBA minutes to be played by these supergiant players; instead, about 3 percent of them have been. There are lots of plausible explanations for this — for instance, there may be diminishing returns to height beyond about 7 feet, and some very tall players may actually round their heights down instead of up. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most durable players in league history, was listed at 7-foot-2, and opponents swore up and down that even that number was missing an inch or two. Still, looking at the broader trends, perhaps there is some reason to be concerned about players carrying such large frames.
But having “some reason to be concerned” is unavoidable in neurotic New York — and a heck of a lot better than the state of absolute despair that preceded it. And the upside is having a player who, like Anthony Davis, has a chance to redefine his position. Porzingis! is the most exciting show to hit the Knicks since Linsanity.