Don’t look now, but there’s a mystery teen from Latvia zooming up NBA draft boards.
Kristaps Porzingis—a spindly 7’1” specimen with a fluid skill set—has leapfrogged past better-known names and into contention as a potential top-five pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
It might have seemed like speculative hype, the allure of the unknown, the kind of story that stirs the imagination of curious observers during a drawn-out process that can become numbingly predictable. After all, the 19-year-old who plays in Spain’s ACB League has performed far from the intense glare of the NBA media.
But all that changed when the combo center/power forward traveled to Sin City on June 12 to work out for a gaggle of NBA executives.
Porzingis may have been lighting things up in Europe, but Las Vegas was where the lid truly blew off the story. The beanpole with the tantalizing mix of dunks, jumpers and post moves so dazzled his audience that suddenly, it was no longer a question of whether he could crack the top five.
It was, how much further could he go than that?
Most draft prognosticators have continued upgrading the phenom’s prospects. It’s just a matter of subjective degrees. Below is a mock draft and big board from Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, where you can see just how high Porzingis is climbing:
Can Porzingis complete a Euro tower of power alongside Montenegrin center Nikola Vucevic for the Orlando Magic at No. 5? How about joining Phil Jackson’s rebuilding New York Knicks?
He could also fill the void created by the Philadelphia 76ers’ frustratingly slow-to-heal Joel Embiid. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “There is a legitimate chance that the 7-footer could miss the entire season.”
Even more fuel got tossed onto the flames when Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Los Angeles Lakers had whisked Porzingis into a private workout on their home turf Monday night. Maybe Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was simply doing his due diligence. But it’s the kind of thing that gets speculation cranking even higher.
As Wojnarowski explains, the young star of Baloncesto Sevilla isn’t just a curiosity wandering blithely through a momentary media opportunity. He’s here with a purpose:
Porzingis has an innate awareness about the way the American public sees a young, long European teenager. He comes to the NBA with the full understanding that popular basketball culture declares him guilty until proven innocent of the basketball crimes of Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Andrea Bargnani. He’s considered a stiff, a bust, a blown lottery pick until he doesn't become one.
“I’ve got to prove to coaches and GMs that I’m not soft just because I’m from Europe,” Porzingis said, per Woj. “They need to see that I’m not just some skinny white guy, that I’m going to be there fighting. They’ll need to see that I’m a worker who’s going to play hard and play tough.”
While the story has picked up steam recently, it’s not all that new. The Euroleague sensation actually withdrew from the draft a year ago in order to more fully develop his game and increase his lottery chances.
So just who is this potentially transformative wunderkind and how good can he be in the NBA—a league with a physically demanding blitzkrieg of 82 games before the playoffs even begin? By comparison, the ACB league trots out 34 matches in its season.
And could the teen prodigy provide the ultimate shocker on draft night by climbing all the way to the top? B/R's Ric Bucher examines that hypothesis below:
To put all these questions into context, it’s worth examining the backstory. Porzingis hails from Liepaja, a windy city on the Baltic Sea. He began playing club basketball at an early age, encouraged by parents who had also played, as well as older brother Janis—a Euroleague forward since 2000.
Kristaps was thin and undeveloped in his early years. But he caught the attention of a scout who sent tape to teams in Italy and Spain. And during the summer of 2010, Sevilla signed Porzingis—he had just turned 15.
“The first half of my first season was really tough for me,” said Porzingis, per Javier Gancedo of EurocupBasketball.com. “Moreover, I had anemia so I didn't last long in practices. I didn't feel good and was sleepy all the time.”
Nearly five years later he has grown and filled out considerably, now weighing 230 pounds. He's still reedy but no longer the frail sapling from his youth-team days. And he has honed his speed, athleticism and rim protection, along with a smooth, high-release jump shot.
And then there's also the endless parade of alley-oops (h/t Jonathan Wasserman).
The easy knock on Porzingis is that he’s still a gangly thing who couldn’t possibly survive and prosper in the high-powered NBA. But as Grantland’s Danny Chau points out, there is a certain folly of judging the 2014-15 Eurocup Rising Star through a simplistic eye test.
“There aren’t many 7-footers anywhere who can operate functionally like a shooting wing,” Chau writes, “getting open looks on flare screens and pin-downs. It’s Porzingis’ most bankable skill, the one that seems most likely to translate immediately in the NBA.”
At this point, there is no doubt Porzingis will be a high lottery pick. But there are still the “bust” whispers, fueled not only by physical appearance but the fear of the unknown—how large a gamble would a team be taking on a prospect from across the water who developed outside the NCAA bubble?
It’s a loaded question, for there are no sure things in a draft pageant that judges young athletes whose bodies have been relentlessly pushed, torqued and stressed years before they reach physical maturity.
Greg Oden looked like a man among boys when he was selected as the first overall pick in 2007. Eight years and three partial seasons later, his career appears over. And Embiid, who was chosen at No. 3 last year, has yet to play a minute in the NBA—yet another medical question mark.
What logic assumes that a one-and-done freshman is automatically more ready than someone with three seasons of pro ball under his belt?
The impossibly long Latvian could be the shocker of the 2015 draft class or a forgotten footnote in time.
But ultimately, his story shares a common thread with all the other kids who will wait anxiously on June 25, hoping to hear their names called—and the sooner the better.
Porzingis is simply chasing his basketball dream.