Kristaps Porzingis is shooting around with a few teammates after the Knicks' practice last week. He gathers a rebound on the right wing, takes one step back and shoots a fadeaway. Swish.
It looked awfully similar to Dirk Nowitzki's signature fadeaway. Porzingis has been compared to everyone from Toni Kukoc to Kevin Garnett. But the player most mentioned when talking about the Knicks rookie is Nowitzki.
Porzinigis and Nowitzki will face off for the first time on Monday night at Madison Square Garden. With that in mind, ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon and Ian Begley chatted about the comparisons between Nowitzki and Porzingis recently.
Begley: Tim, the Dirk-Porzingis comparison is an easy one to make. But just how accurate is it? Looking at Porzingis' first 20 games, the rookie has been much more productive than Dirk was. Nowitzki averaged 6.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game with one double-double in his first 20 games. Porzingis (14.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.9 blocks) has superior numbers and 10 double-doubles.
This is not to say that Porzingis will be a better player than Nowitzki when it's all said and done. He certainly doesn't have the shooting touch of Nowitzki as a rookie, but it seems like he's projecting to be a stronger rebounder/defender than Dirk. He's allowing his opponent to score six points fewer per 100 possessions so far and is grabbing six more rebounds per 100 possessions. "It's a simple comparison to make," one NBA scout said recently, "but it's not the most accurate one."
MacMahon: Let's be honest: It's kind of a lazy comparison. Porzingis is not the first "Next Dirk." Remember Denver draft bust Nikoloz Tskitishvili? But Porzingis certainly appears to be the best player given that label.
"Every tall European now who comes over and can shoot is going to be compared to me, but he looks like he's for real," Nowitzki said. "I mean, he's just 20 years old. He's got a lot of ways to go, but the upside this kid has is just tremendous."
Nowitzki's excitement about Porzingis' potential doesn't necessarily make the comparison accurate. Nowitzki says Porzingis is "tougher and longer than me." The rookie is also more explosive than the big German ever was. Porzingis is a bonfide rim protector and probably has more putback dunks in his first 21 games than Nowitzki has in 17-plus seasons.
"Oh, for sure," Nowitzki said with a laugh. "And nice ones, too -- on guys. He's sneaky athletic." But it'd be awfully presumptuous to declare that Porzingis will be a better player than a legend who will soon climb to sixth on the league's all-time scoring list. We might want to wait about 20,000 points from now to have that debate.
Begley: Makes sense to me. I'll check back with you in 2026 on that one. Let's switch gears for a second and talk about an off-the-court issue. Some foreign players have had a tough time adapting to the culture of the NBA locker room. What was that like for Dirk?
MacMahon: It was really, really rough. Nowitzki has admitted that he considered going back home during and after his rookie season.
"Every tall European now who comes over and can shoot is going to be compared to me, but he looks like he's for real. He's got a lot of ways to go, but the upside this kid has is just tremendous."Dirk Nowitzki
"As a rookie, I was struggling," Nowitzki said. "You know, it's almost like these young kids come in the league now with confidence, expecting to make it in this league. That's something that I never had. I didn't know if I was going to make it in this league. I had no confidence the first year. I was struggling. These kids are just coming in here carefree and confident, and it's showed from day one for him."
Begley: Dirk's pretty spot on here. It's been an almost seamless transition for Porzingis. He grew up in Latvia but immersed himself in American culture, thanks mostly to watching a ton of NBA games as a young kid. By now, it's pretty widely known Porzingis wore cornrows and listened to hip hop at a young age. But most people probably don't know that Porzingis' brother, Janis, facilitated Kristaps taking extra English classes at a young age with the idea in mind that Kristaps would one day play in the NBA.
"He was always thinking 10 steps ahead," the rookie said. "At that moment, I was like, why do you make me do all this stuff? But that just showed me how much they were preparing me for what's coming. I had no idea."
Begley: That kind of leads into our next question: what's stands out most about these two off of the court? The preparation mentioned above seems to have helped Porzingis adapt to life off the court. The way he's handled the media frenzy around him so far has been impressive. I think a lot of 20-year-olds -- myself included -- might have lost perspective on things if they were talked about as much as Porzingis has been early in their rookie seasons. But that hasn't happened with Porzingis. Here's what he had to say about winning the NBA's Rookie of the Month Award for October/November:
"I didn't really react to it. That's an award you get. It doesn't help you win games. All I focus on is to win games."
By all accounts, Porzingis hasn't immersed himself in the New York City nightlife scene, either. In the preseason, he was supposed to make an appearance at a promotional party being held at a club downtown. But he chose not to attend because the Knicks had an informal workout the next day. Smart move. It will be a big plus for the Knicks if Porzingis can continue to maintain that focus amid all of the attention that's sure to come early in his career.
MacMahon: As well as Porzingis seems to be handing his situation, especially considering the New York spotlight, he could surely benefit from a few pointers from Dirk about how to handle being the face of a franchise. There might not be a more selfless superstar in all of sports. He's loved by every guy who has come through the Mavs' locker room. He's the rare guy who sets a high standard with extraordinary discipline and work ethic and makes work fun by serving as the comedic ringleader in the locker room, on the bus, on the plane and on the practice court or weight room when appropriate.
"You know, it's almost like these young kids come in the league now with confidence, expecting to make it in this league...I didn't know if I was going to make it in this league. I had no confidence the first year."Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki, who was shy about speaking in his second language when he came into the league, has also become one of the league's best spokesmen. In good times and bad, he's always accountable and insightful.
Begley: Sounds like a beat reporter's dream. Both Dirk and Porzingis were top-10 picks in their respective drafts. Did Dirk feel the pressure of having to transform a franchise?
MacMahon: By the time Dirk felt the burden of carrying the Mavs, he'd already established himself as one of the elite players in the NBA and the franchise had strung together several 50-win seasons. Nowitzki had the luxury of playing with Steve Nash and Michael Finley to start his career. They were critical in helping him survive the cultural transition and limited the pressure on him during his early years.
They were the Big Three, and while Nowitzki was the most talented, he'll tell you he was the third guy. That changed when Nash signed with the Suns in the summer of 2003 and the Mavs used the amnesty clause on Finley the next offseason. By that time, Nowitzki was a seven-year veteran and more than ready to be "the man." He led the Mavs to the Finals the next season and won MVP the following campaign.
Begley: Similar to the role Nash and Finley played with Dirk, Carmelo Anthony and other Knicks veterans have helped ease Porzingis' transition into the league. Sasha Vujacic and Jose Calderon have developed close bonds with the rookie, but Anthony deserves credit here, too. Amid reports, including one from ESPN.com, that Anthony was unhappy with the Porzingis pick, the veteran forward reached out to the rookie over the summer to invite him for private workouts. In the weeks and months since, Anthony has taken a big brother role of sorts with Porzingis. "[That] helped me a lot because there was a lot of pressure on me, a lot of expectations for me," Porzingis said.
"They thought I was just a white European, skinny, who's afraid. But that's not who I am."Kristaps Porzingis
I also think fans' low expectations for Porzingis have actually helped Porzingis' transition. He was relatively unknown, so most had no idea what to expect from him coming into the season.
"They thought I was just a white European, skinny, who's afraid," he said. "But that's not who I am."
He's certainly smashed those preconceived notions. I'm guessing Dirk had to deal with similar assumptions. So what do these two think of each other?
MacMahon: Put it this way: Dirk definitely isn't pooh-poohing the Porzingis hype. "Everything I've seen so far, he's incredible," Nowitzki said. "Not only the shooting touch, I think he's a lot tougher than people thought. He's long. He's a really, really good rebounder already on both ends of the floor. I mean, to me, sometimes what separates players is a lot of guys have the deep ball or the drive all the way to the basket, but he's already shown he's got the midrange, that one or two dribbles and up. He's got that in his repertoire already. I think the sky's the limit."
Begley: Porzingis would probably smile if he heard those words from Dirk. He has a ton of respect for Nowitzki.
"Dirk is a legend. Of course I watched a lot of Dirk (growing up), especially because he's European, he's tall and he has a great shot," Porzingis said recently. "He's one of the best shooters there is. I watched a lot of his film, how he gets his separation, how he gets his shot off -- all the little things. He's not the most athletic guy, but he always finds a way to get his shot off." Seems like he knows Dirk's game pretty well. That scouting report will come in handy when the rookie and future Hall of Famer meet for the first time on Monday.