It’s a weeknight in the middle of November, not even three weeks into the NBA season, and just as the know-it-all talking heads predicted, Kristaps Porzingis is already getting boxed out and pushed around by tougher, hungrier competition.
This isn’t some muscly big man bodying the skinny Latvian out of the paint, though. Nor is it a chiseled vet outsmarting an inexperienced 20-year-old. Nope—young Kristaps is currently being outworked and outgunned by a scrappy 6-year-old with a high motor and even higher self-confidence.
“I wanna do it!” the kid yells, grabbing the crate of chocolate milk containers and sliding it in his direction.
“OK, you can give them out,” Porzingis says, calm and collected, even in defeat. He grins widely, as he does often these days. And why wouldn’t he? Things have been going pretty well these days.
We’re in Lodi, NJ, home of a Boys & Girls Club that’s playing host to a Thanksgiving dinner give-away hosted by Porzingis’ agent, and the Knicks rookie whom everyone seems to be talking about has no problem sliding to the side, allowing a local Jersey youngster to take possession of the crucial chocolate milk distribution duties. Of course, Porzingis has slightly bigger concerns at the moment, most of which revolve around finding his footing in a League whose reporters didn’t expect him to compete on any sort of high level for at least two, perhaps three or even four years.
As of this writing, Porzingis is averaging 13.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and at least one or two “Whoa, that was dope as hell” plays per game. He’s had some off-nights, but he’s had a huge role in the Knicks’ semi-respectable start (they’re 12-14 as we go to press, and a Playoffs appearance is absolutely not out of the question). Remember: this team finished 17-65 last season, and, besides Kristaps, didn’t add much more than role players who have largely disappointed thus far.
Porzingis has run off efforts of 29 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Hornets, 24 points, 14 rebounds and 7 blocks vs. the Rockets, 20 points and 14 rebounds vs. the Heat, plus a slew of other impressive double-doubles. A little more than a quarter into the season, he’s right there alongside No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns as a Rookie of the Year favorite.
So, no: Kristaps Porzingis is not the new Nikoloz Tskitishvili. He’s not Maciej Lampe. Not Frederic Weis. Porzingis has already proven he’s different from the many foreign-born players who came to the States without the aptitude to navigate the ever-difficult NBA waters and settle in comfortably with one of its franchises, if they ever made it to the L in the first place.
The common thread that ties most (but certainly not all) of those guys is they began playing ball somewhat late, often simply because they were tall and saw the dollar signs available in hooping for a living.
For Porzingis, though, a genuine love of the sport prefaced his height and the obvious fact that he belonged on the court. Both of Kristaps’ parents were involved in the game—his dad (6-4), a bus driver, played semiprofessionally, while his mom (6-1) played on Latvian national youth teams—and a plastic hoop hung on his bedroom wall in Liepaja, Latvia, before he could stand up on his own. According to his older brother Martins, the second word he ever spoke was “ball”—the first was “mom”—and before he could string a full sentence together, he was wearing out that little rim. “As soon as [Kristaps] started to walk, he was already dunking the ball,” says Martins, who’s 10 years older than Kristaps.
“There was a bigger basketball hoop above the door,” Kristaps says. “[But] I was too small. I couldn’t score on that one. And [my brothers] were playing HORSE on that one. Until I grew, I was playing on the little hoop right next to it. That was my first memory of basketball.”
The Porzingis family house was situated just a short walk to the beach along the Baltic Sea. The boys would often train there; Janis, Kristaps’ other brother who is now 33, played professionally across Europe when Kristaps was a boy, but would be home four months a year to teach his little bro the game.
Kristaps had natural ability, and as a kid with access to the Internet ever since he was able to read, he soaked up American basketball culture—the game, sure, but also the music, the sneakers, the clothing. And yes, for a period of time, the cornrows, inspired by then-braided-up NBAers like Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. When he was little, it was tough for him to watch NBA games on TV, but as he got older it became more of a possibility, and by 2010, a 13-year-old Kristaps was regularly waking up at 6 a.m. to watch the Kobe/Pau L.A. Lakers defend their Champion status. “That was my team then, the Lakers,” he says now.
When we speak, it’s an off day a couple weeks after the charity event, and we’re sitting in the corner of the gym at the Knicks’ training facility in Tarrytown, NY, about a 20-minute drive north of Manhattan. Kristaps’ schedule for the day is relatively light—shootaround with the team, then a SLAM photo shoot, a Steiner Sports signing commitment, a massage and a drug test. (“One week is enough, right?” he jokes after mentioning that last item.)
With Janis as his inspiration and occasional tutor, Kristaps evolved from lanky kid with an awkward game to lanky kid with a smooth, versatile style of play. Janis, meanwhile, made tapes with NBA footage for Kristaps to devour and imparted Kristaps with the work ethic required of a professional athlete.
Kristaps would play one-on-one every year with his big brother when Janis would return home—over his 14-year pro career, the eldest Porzingis brother played in Latvia, Croatia, Lithuania, Austria, Sweden, Italy and Spain—which helped Janis track his baby bro’s progression. They started matching up when Kristaps was 16. “He had no chance,” Janis says. “I don’t think I gave him even one game.” Then when Kristaps was 17, it was close, but Janis remained the victor.
By the next go-around, with Kristaps at 18, it was a wrap. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” Janis says. “That was it. I couldn’t get enough space to shoot over him.” Kristaps sprouted to 7-3, but with a mobility that continues to allow him to play the 4, making him a nightmare matchup not only for Janis, but, well, anyone.
Kristaps played youth ball for BK Liepajas Lauvus as a young teenager, then began his pro career in Spain for Baloncesto Sevilla in early 2012, an 18-year-old facing up against grown men. His numbers were low his first two years but improved to 11 ppg and 4.6 rpg by 2014-15. During one of the first practices of that season, Kristaps’ American teammate Ben Woodside watched as he caught the ball in an iso situation, then performed a between-the-legs crossover into a step-back fadeaway that touched nothing but net. “I just sat there, and I’m like, ‘Coming from a 7-footer?’” Woodside says. “It was just eye-opening.”
One time, Woodside, a 5-11 guard, and Porzingis spent a practice trash-talking back and forth, a verbal battle that spilled into a post-practice one-on-one game. “I challenged him and what I like is that he didn’t back down,” Woodside says. “He was like, ‘Alright, yeah, let’s play.’ He doesn’t back down. He’s up for challenges.”
Woodside wound up with the victory. “You can’t beat the wily vet,” he says. Afterward, Porzingis reacted like any competitive, pissed off 19-year-old would: He kicked the ball into the stands.
(Let it be known, however, that Porzingis is as sweet off the court as he is unkind on it. During each of his Spanish team’s road trips, he’d purchase a souvenir in whatever city he visited, then gift the souvenir to Satu—an elderly lady employed by the team to do things like clean the locker room and take care of the players’ laundry—upon his return to Sevilla.)
Eventually the ’14-15 season ended, and what happened next is now common knowledge: the Draft night boos, the post-Draft confidence, the pre-season flashes, the regular-season highlights. And so, so much more. The nicknames: PorzingGod, Godzingis, Three 6 Latvia, Young Taps. The endorsements: BodyArmor, Delta Air Lines, Shifman Mattress. The media coverage: the Daily News declared “ZINGSANITY,” The New Yorker spoke with a bunch of Latvians about Kristaps’ rise, and we played our part, too, putting him on the cover of this here issue.
Phil Jackson called him “magical.” Kobe declared him “pretty damn good.” Dirk Nowitzki said “he’s for real.”
Why? Because he’s been killing it. He has legit three-point range; a wide-open jumper almost always becomes a bucket. He’s intense on the offensive boards, crashing in and slamming home put-back dunks over hopeless defenders, something he’s become known for. His long arms and impossible length help him maintain relevance on defense, even without the strength or muscle mass of his older peers. And he moves nicely, too—at 7-3, there isn’t that gallop in his step that you see in some goofy, seemingly injury-prone big men. In one early season game against the 76ers, he juked right around the relatively quick Nerlens Noel at the top of the key, then attacked the rim with abandon and slammed home a ferocious dunk.
For the second half of that Sixers game, I ditch the press box to go sit with some Knicks fan friends, all of whom spend the majority of the time marveling at their team’s newly bright future. “This kid is only 20 fucking years old,” one says early in the fourth quarter. “I know. He’s going to be so goddamn good,” another echoes.
I laugh, knowing I have a long cover story to write, one that will require a whole bunch of words but could really be summed up by that one stupid yet oh-so-true sentence, uttered right there by an average fan with a sub-average New York City vocabulary.
He’s going to be so goddamn good.
“If I miss this, you owe me nothing.”
During a break in the SLAM photo shoot, Kristaps and Martins are shooting around, throwing alley-oop passes to one another and firing up long, ridiculous jumpshots. Martins already owes Kristaps a 20-spot after he lost a bet made earlier in the day that he could dunk without a running start (he could not), and Kristaps is giving Martins a chance to even things up by offering double or nothing on a jumper the rookie is about to toss up some 40 feet from the hoop.
Watching Kristaps and Martins mess around, it’s easy to remember just how young Kristaps is. He’s 20, and though he’s a mature 20—as we went to press, he’s avoided all negative headlines and the many social distractions of New York City by spending the majority of his time with his two brothers and parents in Westchester—he’s still just 20. “Even when he was a kid, he was a little more [mature] than everybody else,” Janis says. “He’s always been calm in that sense.”
But you can tell he’s still so young, mostly by the child-like energy he exudes when he’s just being himself. One minute he can barely remain seated while he rants about how much he loves a specific sushi restaurant back in Sevilla, the next he’s joking “Let’s get this money!” with one of his agent’s employees. Credit his fondness for WorldStarHipHop or just the general knack he has for understanding the intricacies of multiple cultures—further proven by the fact that he speaks Latvian, Spanish and English with perfect fluency—but his sense of humor is completely in tune with today’s American youth.
He also seems to get along plenty well with his teammates—after one December game, forward Kevin Seraphin refers to Kristaps as his “brother from another mother, and another father”—though that could be a simple by-product of his strong play. And that play, while a surprise to everyone from pundits to Kristaps’ own brothers—who admittedly expected him to need a year or two before reaching this level—has not been shocking to his teammates whatsoever.
NYK guard Langston Galloway played pick-up ball with Kristaps and a bunch of other Knicks shortly after the Latvian was drafted and says he knew what was up as soon as the group got together early in the summer. “He ran off like 10 [points] straight, and I was like, ‘This is for real, this ain’t no joke,’” Galloway says before a recent Knicks game. “Soon as he got drafted, we knew he was gonna be a baller. He just made it look easy.”
Cleanthony Early, standing at his locker a few feet away from Galloway, chuckles as he listens to his teammate speak. “For real,” he says with a nod.
“I have my own goals and what I want to achieve, but for me, No. 1 is always team,” Kristaps says back at the training facility. “We want to do something special here in the future. We want to win a Championship here. That’s the No. 1 goal.”
It’s obviously a lofty goal, one that will take plenty of time and require all sorts of breaks in the right direction. Who knows, though—maybe a 20-year-old from Latvia will be the guy to one day end the long-time suffering of Knicks fans with a Championship run and a celebratory parade down Broadway.
But first, here in Tarrytown on this December afternoon, a double-or-nothing wager needs to be settled.
“OK, deal,” Martins declares. KP nods, takes one dribble, and launches up a flat-footed J without so much as a tiny leap into the air. He’s already cracking a smile by the time the ball begins to descend toward the hoop.
Adam Figman is the Editor-in-Chief at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Portraits by Tom Medvedich