Shortly after he started his press conference during Monday’s Media Day at American Airlines Center, Kristaps Porzingis mouthed the precious words every Dallas Mavericks followed wanted to hear.
Asked what concerns he has after not playing basketball for over 19 months following surgery to repair his torn left anterior cruciate ligament, Porzingis said: “Honestly, none at all. I feel great. In my mind I always wanted to come back when I was 110 percent.
“I didn’t want to halfway do it – maybe I’m good, maybe I’m not so (good). So, I made sure I’m 100 percent healthy and now I’m back.”
And, the Mavs hope, back with authority.
While Porzingis was with the New York Knicks and still rehabbing his knee injury, the Mavs pulled off a blockbuster trade Jan. 31 to secure the 7-3 center/power forward. Then they took matters to the next level in July by re-signing Porzingis to a five-year, $158 million free agent contract.
Now, the time has come for the Mavs to get a return on their investment.
“Really his rehab is complete,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “This is an exciting time for him because he’ll be on the floor in training camp officially for the first time (since 2017) starting (Tuesday).”
While there are no iron-clad restrictions on Porzingis, Carlisle said the team will be sensible about getting the big man back in action. He expects to see the five-year veteran play in at least one of the first two preseason games. The Mavs open exhibition play Oct. 8 in Tulsa against Oklahoma City, then play the Pistons in Detroit on Oct. 9.
“I don’t think we’ll play him back-to-back,” Carlisle said. “That’s what I feel right now.
“My understanding is that he is able to participate in (training) camp without limitations. I think it’s conceivable that back-to-backs will be something we look at early in the season – not playing him in back-to-backs, but we’ll see. I don’t know that anything has been officially determined.”
Porzingis, 24, last played in a game on Feb. 6, 2018, when he suffered that catastrophic injury against the Milwaukee Bucks. That was followed by surgery – on Feb. 13, 2018 – and the long, agonizing wait to get back on the court.
“I can’t even explain in words how excited I am,” Porzingis said. “It’s been a long time. For me, I wanted to come back early this offseason so I can get a feel for the game.
“I already played some pickup games to get in rhythm, but it’s going to be different once it’s NBA games, so I’m excited about that, obviously. I can’t even tell you in words how special that moment will be.”
A moment the Mavs are anticipating, too. Particularly since they’re eager to pair Porzingis with point guard Luka Doncic, who quickly rose to stardom last season while being named the NBA Rookie of the Year.
“We’ve seen a lot of them in pickup games (this summer),” Carlisle said. “They both have tremendously high level of skills, they compliment each other because Luka is great with the ball. KP, he can screen-and-roll, he can screen-and-pop, he can slip screens and catch and shoot, he shoots from long range, he drives the ball.
“Both of these guys can create problems on their own. When you get them together, we feel like they can create even bigger problems for opponents. And so far, watching them, there’s no reason they shouldn’t. They’ve had really good chemistry.”
Porzingis was just coming into his own when his injury occurred. At the time, he was averaging 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and an NBA-high 2.4 blocks per game. He was selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team when his world came crashing down during that unfortunate game against the Bucks.
During his rigorous rehab, Porzingis added some bulk to his once-thin frame, especially some well-defined biceps.
“I put in a lot of work this summer, focusing on a lot of things, and that was one of my main focuses,” he said. “I didn’t want to put on too much weight for a brand new knee, so everything had to be calculated, and at the end we got here.
“We got to close the season where we wanted to be at, the exact weight we wanted to be at, and to feel the exact weight I wanted to feel at. I’m thankful for my team, for my support system around me.”
Porzingis noted that no one really pushed him to pack on additional pounds.
“It was going to happen naturally just me getting older and my body maturing, and I was going to get bigger,” he said. “But at the same time you can put on weight and not feel the same way and not be the same player and not move the same way.
“So for me it was important to feel how I was supposed to feel, but get stronger also. So, it’s a balance always with those kind of things.”
Porzingis said that, when he entered the NBA as the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, he weighed only 223 pounds. Today, he’s up to 242 pounds.
“Everybody who’s around me and who’s close to me was involved in this, and it’s only the beginning,” he said. “It’s not that I’ve achieved something. I’ve gained a few pounds and I feel stronger and stronger, but this is nonstop work that we’re going to keep putting in.”
It’s too early to tell how the Mavs will utilize Porzingis. But it’s very clear that he’ll be one of the team’s primary focal points – along with Doncic.
“We’ve had some conversations about that,” Porzingis said, in reference to talks with Carlisle. “I trust coach 100 percent. He has so much experience. What he has done in his career, there’s no doubt that he will put me in positions where I can succeed.”
It starts with getting the chance to play with a dynamic player like Doncic. He knows Doncic is a pass-first point guard who gets a bigger thrill out of collecting an assist than he does collecting points.
“I’m extremely excited about that,” Porzingis said. “I’ve never played with a guy like Luka. He’s efficient on the court — his passing abilities, the ability to score and take the attention off his teammates.
“I haven’t really had a player like him (to play with). So I’m extremely excited and I can’t wait for us to actually get minutes on the court so we can start creating that bond.”
Porzingis, though, cautioned fans not to fret if there’s some rust that needs to be knocked off before he and Doncic get on the same page.
“Of course it’s going to take us some time,” Porzingis said. “We’re not going to come on the court and play like we’ve played (together) for 10 years already.
“But I feel like with the type of personalities we have and where we come from — we’re both Europeans, we both speak Spanish — all those things are going to help for us to build a chemistry on the floor. Just knowing how selfless Luka is in sharing the ball with his teammates and making everybody better, I have no doubt we’ll find that connection sooner or later.”
As the Mavs open training camp Tuesday at the Lympo practice facilities, the workouts cannot come soon enough for Porzingis as he seeks to return to an All-Star level.
“I always work on my game,” he said. “I’m not a body builder at the end of the day. You’re going to have to be able to score the basketball and do things on the court. The game is fast, especially these days it’s super fast. You have to be able to react quickly and shoot the ball quickly and do all the things I was able to do before, and do it at an even better level.”