Porzingis' Rise to Stardom a Reminder of How Much Lakers Have to Learn

Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterDecember 12, 2016

Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks blocks an attempt to score from D'Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers on December 11, 2016 during their NBA match in Los Angeles, California. / AFP / Frederic J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Before Sunday night, when he combined a unicorn's speed, an octopus' reach and Allan Houston's shooting touch to lead the New York Knicks to a 118-112 victory at Staples Center, Kristaps Porzingis had on one other occasion played on a court bearing the Los Angeles Lakers' purple and gold.

It was a private predraft Lakers workout in 2015, and the Lakers went into it legitimately tempted to believe Porzingis was worth their No. 2 overall pick.

Porzingis had just dazzled all 30 teams' scouts, including Lakers executives Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, with a showcase workout in Las Vegas. Porzingis went from Vegas to Los Angeles to see if he could seal the deal with the Lakers through a private showing at their training facility.

Obviously, he did not.

And the reason, according to league sources, is an interesting truth to bear in mind as the Lakers try to refashion themselves as a younger, more open-minded organization led by Luke Walton, the most youthful and inspiring head coach in the NBA.

Old-school thinking.   

Father Time waits for no man, as the Lakers reluctantly accepted in bidding farewell to Kobe Bryant after last season. And that inevitable aging applies even in management, as Knicks president Phil Jackson appears to be demonstrating with each out-of-touch remark he makes.

And though Lakers management has not been as disconnected from the modern NBA in word, they were in deed, especially when Porzingis walked into their gym before the 2015 draft.

Kupchak structured Porzingis' private Lakers workout as essentially a challenge of his manhood rather than a validation of his gifts.

In doing so, the Lakers lost sight of how truly unique this 7'3" player could be, with skills at a size already forcing the NBA to adjust to him rather than vice versa.

The Lakers, though, wanted to test Porzingis' physicality, and especially his "bigness," in that workout. They overvalued Porzingis' need to prove he could play in the low post and wrongly equated his shaky stamina with his overall NBA readiness.

Though he impressed many talent evaluators at a predraft workout in Las Vegas, Kristaps Porzingis' lack of physicality left the Lakers with doubts.
Though he impressed many talent evaluators at a predraft workout in Las Vegas, Kristaps Porzingis' lack of physicality left the Lakers with doubts.NBA Photos/Getty Images

Lakers assistant coach Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen, notorious for physical play in his 2000-09 NBA career, was pushed on Porzingis in the workout. To put it in preschool-level terms, the workout looked a lot like Big Bird being pushed all around the court by his dinosaur-ish friend Snuffleupagus.

Then-Lakers head coach Byron Scottwhose outdated mindsets have been well documentedeven joked with Lakers staffers after watching Porzingis wilt with exhaustion that Scott had better get a contract extension if the club decided to draft Porzingis and wait for him to grow up.

The physicality of the Lakers' workout was not what Porzingis' agent, Andy Miller, had expected or approved. But the results led the Lakers to lock in on D'Angelo Russell despite how intrigued they'd been by Porzingis, one of the few quibbles anyone could have with how well they've scouted lately.

With a preference first endorsed by director of player personnel Ryan West, the Lakers were new-school enough to see Russell, a 6'5" guard with a gift for passing and Stephen Curry's one-motion shot form, as a better choice than low-motor Jahlil Okafor, projected initially among the top two picks because of his traditional value as a polished, scoring big man.

Okafor went No. 3 to the Philadelphia 76ers before Porzingis went No. 4 to the Knicks; Karl-Anthony Towns went No. 1 to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Lakers remain high on Russell, whose recent injury absence was a huge reason the team's encouraging start came to a quick halt with this six-game losing streak. But in his return Sunday from a knee injury, Russell shot poorly and acknowledged his lack of defense allowed Derrick Rose to get going for 25 points. The contrast became even starker when measured against Porzingis' 26 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and three three-pointers.

Because Porzingis sat out the Knicks' visit during his rookie year with an illness, Lakers fans on Sunday saw for the first time all that they are missing.

Not too many people anywhere besides Jackson's Knicks adviser Clarence Gaines, who scouted Porzingis in Spain, were thinking pre-draft that he should be viewed as comparable to the thicker yet similarly skilled Towns. The opportunity was there for the Lakers to identify it, though.

Unlike the 76ers, who picked third but were denied almost all access to Porzingis (in order to discourage them from selecting him), the Lakers got that early private audience. Porzingis' favorite team growing up? The Lakers.

Nevertheless, the Lakers squandered the opportunity with the outdated premise that Porzingis needed to fit into a customary NBA power forward position.

Mitch Kupchak, Luke Walton and Jim Buss.
Mitch Kupchak, Luke Walton and Jim Buss.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

And as much as Kupchak has finally come around to hire new-school thinkers and younger people into the organization, you don't get to roll your odometer back. You are however old you are in this business, and one of the complaints about Buss, 57, and Kupchak, 62—amplified by their free-agent failures—is that they don't play the modern management game of working angles behind the scenes with agents and players.

Jackson, 71, is a legend in this league but has also been criticized in New York for stubbornly sticking to his longstanding philosophies. And if Jackson is being cast now by none other than LeBron James as some fossil reluctant to give players credit for their business acumen, it's fair to wonder how much help Jackson would be to fiancée Jeanie Buss as a potential Lakers consultant in the future when recruiting free agents.

Yet Jackson, despite his age and the pressure to win now with Carmelo Anthony, had his mind open enough to endure the draft-night boos and choose Porzingis. Jackson did it even though Porzingis hurt his leg early during his private workout at the Knicks' practice facility three days before the draft and couldn't even continue…with Anthony among those watching with frustration.

"The Lakers are a great organization," Porzingis said late Sunday night. "But I'm happy where I am."

Though he is only 21 years old and has much to learn, Porzingis is already a superstar. The Lakers will need superstars for the "great organization" to stay so with future championships.

They could also use real trendsetters.

In his second season, Porzingis is averaging 20.0 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from the three-point line and blocking 1.9 shots.
In his second season, Porzingis is averaging 20.0 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from the three-point line and blocking 1.9 shots.FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

And along those lines, though it may be downright blasphemous to state, the Lakers are better off having Walton around than Jackson. One is new; the other is old.

The reality is the Lakers' young players get more out of connecting with a Jackson disciple who vibes with them than they would having Jackson himself around as an overseer.

Walton's system is basically a reenactment of what worked when he was an assistant coach for the forward-thinking Golden State Warriors, representing the game's direction today. It's very good to be a quality copycat.

It's even better to be ahead of the game.

Had they understood a year-and-a-half ago that Porzingis would find his unique place in the modern game, the Lakers would've set their own trend right there instead of watching it happen in front of them.

    

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.