#NotAllEuros: The Perfect Storm Behind Kristaps Porzingis’s Rise
To watch Part 1 of Who Is Kristaps Porzingis? and read an initial breakdown of the Latvian prospect, click here.
In the past few weeks, Kristaps Porzingis has made something clear to anyone willing to listen:1 I don’t want to be a mystery. And unlike so many foreign players before him, he actually might be able to do something about it. Porzingis has the agency to affect the way he’s perceived by the public, and that’s rare. He might be the most media-friendly international prospect, and he has plenty of outlets in the press — ourselves included — ready and willing to be used as megaphones.
By ably telling his own story, Porzingis has played a major role in steering the discourse around his draft prospects and controlling his exposure. In one sense, he’s pushing back against the stereotypes that have plagued the foreign players who came before him. In another, he’s incubating that mystery, controlling the environment in which it develops, allowing only what he and his representation want the world to know, to see, to hear. Porzingis is savvy enough to know that the mystery is both friend and foe — it’s what keeps him from locking down a top-three draft position, but it also insulates him from the overexposure that comes with being too familiar to teams. Pre-draft interviews get you closer to the person, but no closer to what we ultimately want to know.
His 50-minute pro-day workout at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas alongside Myles Turner and two other NBA prospects was, in the same vein, a Tantalusian showcase. As Porzingis walked into the gym, he was immediately greeted by Kyle Lowry, who had trained with Porzingis last summer at Impact. “Everybody’s coming to see you,” Lowry said. “I told them last year you would be a top-six pick. Make me look good.”
We’ll see how solid a talent evaluator Lowry is. With representatives from the top five teams in the NBA draft in attendance, it was the first time many top execs would be able to draw a direct comparison between Porzingis and Turner, a player of similar size and ability who was ESPN’s no. 2 recruit behind Jahlil Okafor in last year’s high school senior class. But drills are run in isolation; whatever competitive tension the players felt was internal. It was 50 minutes to give guys like Flip Saunders, Phil Jackson, and Stan Van Gundy anecdotal knowledge of Porzingis, to help them confirm (or reject), with their own eyes, what their international scouts have been telling them for the past year.
The murmurs of Porzingis finding his way up the big boards of the top three teams predated his pro day, but they erupted into frenzy once video of the workouts surfaced. Lakers at no. 2? Sixers at no. 3? Does he actually have a case for no. 1? Cynics will roll their eyes, and for good reason: This is exactly how Yi Jianlian’s hype turned him into one of the most legendary and enduring NBA draft memes.
The amount of excitement Porzingis was able to generate in a 50-minute skills drill was incredible, but sometimes it’s about perspective: Why were we falling hard over Chairmaster Yi 2.0 when there’s Mario Hezonja serving as one of the lone bright spots for Barcelona’s thus-far disappointing ACB Finals series?2 The difference between the two isn’t so much about talent (I think Hezonja has every bit the amount of potential Porzingis has, if not more), but about that level of anecdotal comfort that comes with being in the direct vicinity of the NBA’s head honchos.
Hezonja is a young player on a championship-caliber team that values veteran mettle over the youthful hubris that NBA fans often link to stardom; in Europe, it’s enough to leave you permanently benched. But maybe that plays a role: The questions surrounding Hezonja’s game are more like those that haunt the overconfident wing players we see here. It’s almost as if he’s being regarded as a domestic player. The fact that Hezonja doesn’t look much like any European player we’ve seen in a while is tempered by the fact that he fits the mold of one of the most distinct positional archetypes in the NBA. Unlike Porzingis, he doesn’t have to prove he’s an exception to history.
But as much as Porzingis has taken it upon himself to change his narrative (or at least change his working slogan to NOT ALL EUROS), his rise is also because of a perfect storm of factors beyond his control. Those factors reflect the lack of clarity at the top of the draft order and the anxieties that come with building for the future when the immediate future of the NBA seems primed for a leaguewide stylistic change.
Is Okafor’s old-fashioned game too antiquated to be effective today? Does D’Angelo Russell have the kind of potential Porzingis has, and does the “always draft big” adage still hold true? These are questions teams will be considering at their draft headquarters, and you can imagine the scene. There is silence in the room as everyone mulls over the questions, looking around without a definitive, consensus answer. Then, from the back of the table, someone quietly asks, “What about Kristaps?” With teams desperately trying to catch up with the future of the sport, maybe an unknowable future is best paired with an unknowable prospect.3
No matter how you feel about Porzingis the prospect, it’s clear that he’s played the pre-draft process about as well as you can for a kid with the weight of a million busts on his shoulders. He’s done so by tapping into a time-tested formula to driving this kind of hype.