The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
It didn’t take long for Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis to turn draft night jeers into raucous Madison Square Garden cheers. Less than a month into his rookie season, Porzingis dropped 29 points and 11 rebounds in front of the Garden faithful against the Charlotte Hornets. Seemingly overnight, Porzingis morphed from “International Man of Mystery” into a “Unicorn”.
Once the Big Apple realized what it had in KP, it was only a matter of time before he became the apple of the city’s eye.
Last season was the world’s first glance at Porzingis as the face of the franchise. The results were mixed at best. In the 48 games that the New York Knicks played with Porzingis on the court the team went 23-25 (they went 6-28 in games he didn’t play).
The Eastern Conference depth has been deteriorated by an exodus of stars westward; it isn’t impossible to think that the Knicks could find themselves in the race for an eighth seed if they matched their 0.479 winning percentage with Porzingis. At that pace last year they would’ve finished the season tied for ninth with the Detroit Pistons.
Yet, that’s a tall ask for the 2018-19 Knicks, as they are likely to be without Porzingis until at least February — if he even comes back at all.
Porzingis suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on Feb. 6, against the Milwaukee Bucks. After watching Porzingis transform into an unicorn before their very eyes, the same fans had to watch him drop to the ground in a heap following a slam dunk.
The Knicks haven’t exactly been the gold standard of roster-building, but with another regime change, new head coach, David Fizdale, and general manager, Scott Perry, just may be the duo that can finally right the ship.
This summer alone they brought in potential difference makers in Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, and Kevin Knox. Add in Frank Ntilikina and Porzingis and that’s a highly-talented and youthful five-some.
However, the influx of youth is all for nothing if Porzingis isn’t able to return to form.
At 7-foot-3, Porzingis is a walking injury risk. Since entering the NBA in 2015 Porzingis has suffered from a sore hip and foot, sprained ankle, and knee inflammation — and that’s just on his right leg alone. The left side of his body includes: sore Achilles, groin, and knee, sprained ankle, strained quad, and bruised thigh. That’s not it for Porzingis’ NBA ailments either. The Latvian was diagnosed with anemia in 2010; he’s dealt with lingering lower-back issues, a strain in his right shoulder, and he might need surgery on his right elbow.
Despite the Knicks finishing just two games under .500 with Porzingis on the court we saw him lose steam once the new year was rung in, featuring a stretch where New York dropped nine games out of 12.
If the Knicks are ever going to rise back to the top of the league it is going to be on the back of Porzingis. His laundry list of injury issues at just 23 years old makes that a slightly frightening predicament as of now.
How he comes back from this ACL injury will say a lot about what the Knicks can expect out of Porzingis down the line. For all the love he’s gotten, management is still yet to hammer out a contract extension with him. He has a team-option for 2019-20 and the ACL injury makes it less likely that the Knicks will throw the kitchen sink at him in any negotiations this fall.
Offensively, it’s unlikely that the rehab will impact his skill set. He’s still tall and could shoot over any defender at will. He wasn’t really a top-tier athlete, but he had enough wiggle to make it tough for other forwards and centers to defend him on the perimeter. Trusting his knee and building confidence will be the real key to him regaining the form with the ball in his hand.
It is on the other end of the floor that this injury could really see a negative impact on Porzingis’ return to the court. Part of the unicorn moniker Porzingis earned early in his career was due to the fact that he made a real difference protecting the rim.
There have been players over 7-feet tall that can stroke it from the perimeter before, but a rim-protecting, stretch big is the rarest player in basketball, through three seasons Porzingis has fit that bill perfectly.
Last season, Porzingis became the first player in NBA history to shoot better than 38 percent on 3-pointers (39.5 percent), block two-plus shots per game (2.4), and attempt at least four 3-pointers a game (4.8 3-point attempts per game).
The upside in Porzingis comes from his ability to change the game as a defender. If he is unable to get that part of his game back post-injury he could be the next name in a long line of what-ifs in NBA history.
This year’s 25-under-25 illustrations are the work of Andrew Maahs of Basemint Design. You can follow on Twitter, @BasemintDesign.