Kristaps Porzingis and the NBA’s Obsession with European Players

151030013928-kristaps-porzingis-new-york-knicks-v-atlanta-hawks-1200x672In recent years, the NBA has become increasingly obsessed with finding the “next great European big-man sensation”. Each of these bigs with presumably untapped potential usually fits the Pau Gasol – Nikola Mirotic – Andrea Bargnani (pre-collapse) model of a front court player with outstanding perimeter skills that allow him to spread the defense thin and pose un-guardable mismatches for opposing teams. With the league shifting towards a more perimeter oriented style, favoring three-pointers (as evidenced by the now 20-0 Warriors), teams are increasingly interested in finding the players with traditional Power Forward size and range that extends out past the three-point line. Dirk Nowitzki, now on the tail end of his career, was seen as the epitome of this model: a seven-footer who could light up teams from the outside and leave the paint free for slashing guards to drive and kick. Since Nowitzki took the Mavericks to the Finals in 2006 – ultimately falling to the Miami Heat – teams have searched frantically for the Next Great European, and several players have failed in living up to that hype. Most notably, Andrea Bargnani – drafted number one overall in 2006, failed miserably in pursuit of this excellence. Following seven middling seasons in Toronto, the Raptors tired of waiting for their star to develop and traded him to New York, where he had a disastrous two years before finally landing with the Nets this season. Bargnani is just one of a long list of “next great European sensations”. Alas, there finally appears to be hope for the NBA’s European obsession.

The Knicks received significant backlash from fans after picking Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall in 2015. Many thought Phil Jackson had made a dire mistake taking the unknown European over known NCAA-produced commodities like Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow, Frank Kaminsky, and Stanley Johnson. Flash-forward to today, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Knicks fan who didn’t like the lanky Latvian – and for good reason. Take a look at the following two stat lines:

Player 1: 35.8 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, .461 FG%, .379 3PT%, .830 FT%, 17.5 PER.

Player 2: 28.0 MPG, 14.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, .438 FG%, .357 3PT%. .836 FT%, 20.2 PER.

The first stat line represents Dirk Nowitzki’s second season in the NBA, when he finally became the nightly starter and was tasked with spearheading the Mavericks’ Offense with Michael Finley. The second line is Porzingis’s this season, as he has taken the league by storm with surprisingly strong play and amazing highlight plays on some of the league’s best big men, including Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Porzingis’s play has more importance to the Knicks than a couple put-back slams, though. He is currently third among rookies in Player Efficiency Rating, and tied with Karl-Anthony Towns for Estimated Wins Added at 2.4. John Hollinger also ranks him as the rookie with the highest Value Added, with a rating of 73.4, just topping Towns’s 73.1.

Porzingis’s scoring is one of the biggest reasons why he appears to be making his splash with the Knicks. According to the NBA’s Sport VU Player Tracking Data, 39.6% of Porzingis’s attempts are catch-and-shoot shots, and almost 69.8% of his shots are taken without taking a single dribble. Furthermore, a majority of his shots come with 15 seconds or less remaining on the shot clock. All the above data appears to indicate that Porzingis’s shots come as a result of ball movement within Head Coach Derek Fisher’s offense, and come off of passes from his teammates. Virtually all of his three-point attempts come off passes from teammates – an indicator that he isn’t forcing his own shots and instead shooting in the natural flow of the offense. He exhibited this exact strength in the Knicks’ December 4th win over the Nets, in which he scored 19 points while going 3-4 from deep.

Porzingis is defying the expectations set for him by fans all around the league, and appears poised to compete for Rookie of the Year with more expected candidates Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor. Porzingis’s style of play – very similar to that of Nowitzki – isn’t as grinding as those of Towns or Okafor, as he attacks more off face-ups than using back-down post moves. If he is able to sustain his level of play even half the length of Nowitzki’s career, the Knicks will have found a solid foundational piece for their franchise. The question European players, though, still remains: is Porzingis the standard for European bigs or simply an anomaly? NBA GM’s will hope that they can continue to tap into the market of big men in Europe looking to come to the United States to play, and hopefully, find more gold mine players like Porzingis, Mirotic, Nowitzki, and the Gasol Brothers. However, questions still plague many of the other European players in the League: Mario Hezonja showed promise in the Summer League, but has yet to make his mark with the Magic; meanwhile, Andrea Bargnani is attempting to revive his career after a catastrophic two years in New York that included this play:

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Time will only tell if any other European bigs pan out, but one thing is certain: Porzingis has made his mark and renewed the NBA’s obsession with European players.

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