Despite taking his first steps (literally and metaphorically), Kristaps Porzingis has a long way back to his aggressive on-court presence. Here’s how he’ll have to adjust his game in the wake of a detrimental ACL tear.
It’s been three and a half years since Paul George suffered what might be the most gruesome injury an NBA superstar has ever endured. During a Team USA scrimmage on August 1, 2014, George sprinted back on defense to contest James Harden’s one-man fast break, took off to block Harden’s layup, and caught his foot between the floor and the stanchion. His leg folded at an excruciating, impossible angle, and he was diagnosed with an open tibia fracture. Many wondered whether this would spell the end of his career.
No one is questioning whether Kristaps Porzingis, after tearing his left ACL in early February, will play basketball again. But his knee has spurred the most agonizing mystery on Knicks fans’ minds right now: will he be the same when he comes back?
Let’s take a look at how KP might change post-injury.
Less Posting Up, More Spotting Up
KP’s biggest addition to his offensive repertoire this season before he went down was an above average post-up game, utilizing his supernatural, god-given height advantage against shorter opponents.
At 7’3″, he actually found it difficult to shoot over guys when turning over his right shoulder despite getting good position relative to the basket on the catch (see above video). This season, Porzingis is doing a much better job of continuing to jostle down low after getting the ball. In his past two seasons, KP would catch on the low block, then try and finesse his way into a fadeaway mid-range jumper, which is a much more natural shot for a righty rolling to his left than rising up over their right shoulder.
That’s all a fancy way of saying that Porzingis went out and got himself a brand new post game. And the numbers back up the eye test for the most part: He was shooting a career-best 0.963 Points Per Posession (PPP) on post-up plays (per Synergy Sports) before the injury, and opting to post up 24.8 percent of the time he’s on the floor, more than any other type of play for Porzingis.
Even so, Kristaps’ post numbers were beginning to dip after starting the season on fire. Bigs around the league were catching on, bit by bit, to KP’s more predictable tendencies down low—and it didn’t help that KP himself admitted to being “so tired.” It’s exhausting having to carry your team night after night on offense, and this was KP’s first time having such responsibilities. It looked like he didn’t have the legs to hit the block as much.
Well, he definitely doesn’t have the legs to do it now. With a recovering ACL, I’d be shocked if KP came back and was immediately as aggressive down low as he was this season. The ACL is largely involved with knee stability, and backing down other basketball behemoths takes a stable base, something Porzingis might not have the luxury of for a while. It took Paul George three seasons to recover his past explosiveness, and he still looks maybe 15 percent diminished in that regard.
Look for Porzingis to opt for spotting up on offense way more, whether that’s off screens, with space around the perimeter, or otherwise. We’ll see a return to the KP that gets baskets within the flow of the offense more than the iso-hungry beast we saw this year. And to be honest? That might not be such a bad thing, as KP was scoring just 0.703 PPP on isolation plays, a below average mark. The separation of Porzingis away from the court creeps the question of whether he should be the long-term no. 1 offensive-option for New York, due to an inconsistent efficient output (albeit his first season as the go-to scoring option). However, upon returning to the hardwood, the Knicks should certainly utilize KP’s unique skill set, which creates more space for the Knicks offense to operate.
Less KD, more Dirk Nowitzki
That isn’t to say KP’s going to phase the post-up out of his game completely. The way he attacks out of the post-up is going to have to shift away from relying on his quick first step—which might not be as quick when he comes back—to understanding how to leverage his length with body position. The master of this art is, who else, Dirk Nowitzki, and has been for quite some time.
It’s funny that people compared KP so much to Nowitzki when the former entered the league. There are obvious similarities in upbringing (both white Europeans) and position (both tall with freakish shooting ability), but KP plays with a kind of quickness and above-the-rim athleticism Dirk never had, more akin to a slower, less-fluid but bigger Kevin Durant. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen Durant make this same move from the same spot hundreds of times, with the same rip-through, crossover, and pull-up:
KP quick crossover, elbow jumper over Blake Griffin. pic.twitter.com/sYzm0QLLUi
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) February 28, 2018
With the knee injury, Porzingis might finally have to incorporate more Dirk into his game. Those little bits of KD-esque pop won’t be quite as accessible anymore. I don’t know how much of Dirk’s “old-man prowess” Porzingis will have to adopt. I’m sure KP will need to extend his range turning over that right shoulder from the high post. I’m sure he’ll need to get better at using his body position and the rim to fend off shot-blockers on drives, instead of just dunking over everyone like he has in the past. I can almost guarantee he’ll come back with a one-legged fadeaway. Anything on top of that is icing on the cake.
One thing is for certain, though: KP will not be as explosive his first season back. He will not be able to consistently blow by guys like he could before, meaning he will have to diversify the ways with which he can attack a defense.
I won’t spend a lot of time here, since KP’s role figures to be more or less the same on defense, just more limited. Porzingis has never really been tasked with hedging or trapping pick-and-roll ball handlers, and has always been more of a drop-back shotblocker, so any loss of knee mobility won’t hurt him too much there. He simply has less ground to cover than, say, Chris Bosh did in his championship days with the Miami Heat and their swarming defensive schemes, where Bosh would jump out and push ball handlers back to mid-court at times.
KP makes his living on this end of the floor swatting shots. He’s one of the fiercest rim protectors in the league, averaging 2.4 blocks per game this year before going down. And he’s not just a weak side scavenger using an opponent’s blind side against them, swooping in at just the right time to get on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. Nope. Porzingis goes into contact when he can, challenging guys right at the rim.
Porzingis devastates Zeller at the rim: pic.twitter.com/hsZLGM9lD8
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) February 28, 2018
The question is: will he be able to make the same impact if he can’t get up as high to block shots? Will he be able to drop back quickly enough to get in position to make life tough for opposing teams in the paint? Those thoughts must keep New York’s front office, along with KP, up all night.
The most optimistic estimate for Porzingis still has him missing the start of next season, but possibly returning before Christmas. Whenever he does come back, Knicks fans will scoot to the edge of their seats to watch. After all, it’s impossible to know anything about how he might tweak his game until we actually see him play again.
But I think we can get a good glimpse of the finished product over in Oklahoma City: Three years after his catastrophic leg injury, Paul George is one of the best two-way players in the world again, averaging 22.6 points per game while sharing the ball with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, to go along with a career-high 2.2 steals per game. But he’s not quite the same guy athletically, a reality Knicks fans and Porzingis potentially face. George’s overall production didn’t drop off a cliff after returning, though. In certain respects, he actually improved, adding little weapons to accommodate for any loss in vertical leap and end-to-end speed. George never needed those skills when he was a bona fide freak of nature. He evolved by necessity. Porzingis will have to do the same thing—opening the door for small tweaks that evolve his game post–ACL tear.