Can the NBA’s original unicorn find his footing once again?
The vibes have most certainly not been immaculate for Washington Wizards fans of late.
2022 NBA lottery pick Johnny Davis looked like a fish out of water during his summer league stint. Bradley Beal’s max contract extension with all the bells and whistles wasn’t widely celebrated, to say the least. The overall temperature on what the future holds for this team isn’t close to being as rosy as D.C.’s cherry blossoms in April.
So what, realistically, is the best we can hope for? Fans cheer for the team to perform well on the court with rather mixed results. But if lady luck smiled on the Wiz increasingly often next season, what would that look like?
This series will try and identify what a reasonable best-case scenario would look like from the eyes of one Wizards writer. Check out Part 1 on Bradley Beal.
Part 2: Kristaps Porzingis looks like a unicorn again
From a projection standpoint, FIBA is a lot like NBA Summer League.
You can toss the typical box score stats out the window. NBA players are supposed to perform like Greek gods stepping down from Mount Olympus to play alongside the best us mere mortals have to offer.
But watch this 22-second clip of Kristaps Porzingis and tell me you’re not at least a teensy bit more optimistic on KP than you were 22 seconds prior:
— FIBA Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) August 28, 2022
Never mind that it’s against a Great Britain team that features zero NBA players. Don’t even bother with the 29 points and 14 rebounds he tallied in less than 30 minutes of action. (Fun fact: his teammate Davis Bertans finished with two points in 24 minutes)
Seeing Kristaps soar from out of nowhere for a putback dunk and then minutes later fluidly attack a closeout for a baseline jam is what you hope to see from a player who’s been battling knee issues for the past several seasons.
The origin and disappearance of the first unicorn
Once upon a time, Kristaps Porzingis was labeled as the very first unicorn particularly because he was making those exact dynamic plays while also being 7-foot-3. The blend of size and mobility he possessed just screamed game-changing talent.
The equine branding was perfect given that he was galloping all over the court early in his career, making an unmistakable impact on both ends. That’s a big reason why it’s been so difficult for him to return to the same player he once was prior to his ACL tear back in February of 2018.
It’s a moment vividly ingrained in Knicks fans’ minds, but might need refreshing for the Wizards faithful. Porzingis made a deft cut to the basket for a ferocious one-handed flush but fell with too much force onto his left knee:
This is it. This is the end. Kristaps Porzingis suffers knee injury after dunking on Giannis Antetokounmpo, carried to locker room. pic.twitter.com/fqQK5TTbDy
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 7, 2018
Less than two weeks prior to his injury, Porzingis was named to his first and only All-Star team, thanks in large part to that very mobility that once allowed him to elude even someone like Giannis.
That season, Kristaps was one of the most fleet of foot bigs in the entire league. Of the 12 qualified centers who played at least 30 minutes per game in the 2017-18 season, Porzingis ranked second (4.15 MPH) in terms of average foot speed while traveling on the court, just behind Rudy Gobert who was en route for his first DPOY trophy. The metric includes time standing still, which points to how active KP kept himself on the hardwood.
Just look at him being used in motion off the ball in a 2018 overtime game against the Bulls. Porzingis came off a screen from outside the arc and burst into the lane for the game-tying dunk as time expired:
Kristaps wasn’t ready to go home. pic.twitter.com/Lus08EhW86
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 11, 2018
There’s understandably been a noticeable decline in his average speed for the past three seasons post-injury. KP’s pace has slowed to sub-4 MPH each year since then after going 4.1 MPH or higher in his first three seasons. That’s also impacted how much hardwood he’s been able to traverse both on offense and defense:
Avg. speed + distance traveled vs other centers (min. 30 MPG, via NBA Stats)
2015-16: 4.11 MPH (T-4 of 19), 1.94 miles per game (17th of 19)
2016-17: 4.11 MPH (5th of 12), 2.24 miles per game (4th of 12)
2017-18: 4.15 MPH (2nd of 13), 2.23 miles per game (5th of 13)
2019-20: 3.90 MPH (8th of 13), 2.19 miles per game (10th of 13)
2020-21: 3.91 MPH (8th of 12), 2.08 miles per game (T-last of 12)
2021-22: 3.90 MPH (17th of 21), 2.01 miles per game (T-last of 21)
Speed and activity on the court don’t directly equate to a productive player. After all, the names on the bottom of the list feature superstars like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. But those guys thrive in being slow and methodical in their approach and can overpower opponents with their physicality.
Porzingis doesn’t have the girth and strength to do the same. His ability to cover ground once gave him an edge that’s rarely been seen for a man of his size in the NBA. Now that he’s been sapped of that superiority, it’s limited his ability to impact the game.
The unicorn has been dehorned on defense
Perhaps the most significant drop-off for Kristaps Porzingis has come on the defensive end. Once touted as a tantalizing two-way talent, KP is now seen as a so-so defender who isn’t the same shot-blocker that he once was early in his career.
He’s clearly lost the foot speed to cover ground and keep up with wings and guards like he did in the past. Here he is getting taken off the dribble by Rudy Gobert of all people:
kristaps is getting nutmegged by bojan
NOW HE’S GETTING BOAT RACED BY RUDY GOBERT pic.twitter.com/rJvJCzTK51
— SLC Dunk (@slcdunk) February 11, 2020
It’s a mighty steep decline given that Kristaps Porzingis once had a case as the best in the NBA when it came to contesting shots.
NBA Stats only started keeping track of shots contested in the 2016-17 season. In that inaugural data set, Porzingis ranked second out of 486 qualified players tracked. He was fourth out of 540 players the following campaign. Kristaps led the entire NBA in shots contested per game during that combined two-season stretch. But it’s been a steady decline for him in that department ever since:
Kristaps Porzingis contested shots per game year-by-year (via NBA Stats)
- 2016-17: 15.4 shots (2nd in NBA)
- 2017-18: 13.7 (4th in NBA)
- 2019-20: 12.8 (10th in NBA)
- 2020-21: 11.3 (10th in NBA)
- 2021-22: 9.6 (21st in NBA)
Relatively speaking, his total contests were still pretty high up there despite being on a downward trend. But the quality of his contests has taken a sizable dip.
During his first three seasons, he was elite at lowering opponents’ field goal percentages when contesting their shot. One stat the NBA uses to measure this is field goal differential aka what a player’s FG percentage is vs. what it is when shooting against player X.
Out of the 87 players who contested at least 10 shots per game in his rookie season, Porzingis was fourth with a huge -4.6 percent field goal differential. He was 13th and 11th respectively in the two seasons before he got injured.
KP could flat out turn any good shot into a mediocre shot and an average shot into a bad take with every contest. But his impact has dipped the past three seasons, going from elite to barely making a dent:
Kristaps Porzingis opponent’s FG% differential (min 10 DFA, via NBA Stats)
- 2015-16: -4.6% (4th in NBA)
- 2016-17: -3.5% (13th in NBA)
- 2017-18: -3.8% (9th in NBA)
- 2019-20: -3.9% (15th in NBA)
- 2020-21: -0.2% (72nd in NBA)
- 2021-22: -0.3% (81st in NBA)
Luka Doncic (66th) and Russell Westbrook (69th) were ranked higher than KP in affecting shots in 2020-21. Bradley Beal (78th) was above him last season.
Watch Kristaps look a step slow against Elfrid Payton despite having prime position to defend his shot in the restricted area:
As seen above, Porzingis still easily contests players with his tremendous height and wingspan, but they aren’t always quality contests when he lumbers around like a man his size is expected to and not like the unicorn he once was.
What Does KP’s Best-Case Scenario Look Like?
When Porzingis is on the court, he’s guaranteed to put up solid numbers. Despite seeing his reputation take a big hit the past three seasons, he’s still averaged at least 20 points and eight rebounds in each campaign. Expect that to continue next season.
However, as we’ve learned from Russell Westbrook, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. How effective he is in other areas, particularly on the defensive end, could be the difference when it comes to KP recapturing his All-Star form in 2022-23.
A peak Kristaps Porzingis season isn’t just about managing to stave off injury. It’s in regaining his game-altering mobility on the basketball court now five years removed from his most serious knee injury.
Not even a prime Santa Claus can grant Kristaps Porzingis the gift of movement like it’s 2017 again. But after a healthy final five weeks with Washington that he’s now parlayed into an offseason stint with the Latvian national team, this is the healthiest he’s been leading up to a new season for quite some time.
Just look at him stride and swat Cedi Osman’s shot off a wing closeout and tell me he doesn’t look markedly better than his defensive lowlights above:
Kristaps Porzingis was on a MISSION last night against Turkey
— BasketNews (@BasketNews_com) August 26, 2022
Rudy Gobert torched him from that exact same spot two years ago. It’s a safe wager that it doesn’t happen again next season.
Part 3 next week will be on Deni Avdija. If you haven’t, check out Part 1 on Bradley Beal.