NEW YORK — Derek Fisher didn’t want anything to do with the question. Can you compare Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis? Standing at a podium in the Knicks interview room, hours before his team’s 104–97 loss to the Mavericks, Fisher could only shrug. One is a Hall of Famer, an MVP, an NBA champion. Another is a 20-year-old rookie with peach fuzz on his face and less than two dozen games on his resume.
“I don’t think it’s fair to either guy,” Fisher said. “Kristaps, his upside may be as high [as Dirk’s] but I think we need to kind of let him tie his other shoe before we start comparing him to all these other guys.”
But this is what we do, right? Kobe Bryant was compared to Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal to Wilt Chamberlain, Nowitzki to Larry Bird. It’s fun to imagine the potential of young players, and there is perhaps no player in the NBA with as much untapped potential as Porzingis. Also: The Nowitzki comparisons are fair. Not so much in the way they play—the styles are very different—but in the sense that Dirk once revolutionized a position and Porzingis seems poised to do the same.
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Remember what power forwards were, pre-Dirk? They were Charles Barkley. Charles Oakley. Kevin McHale. “Power forwards would dribble the ball five or six times before they got to the basket,” Nowitzki said. Then along came this floppy haired German with the feathery three-point stroke who changed the game. “For a long time he has completely destroyed the game planning process for opponents,” Fisher said. “There is no pick and roll coverage you can stick with consistently. He’s either too big for some guys or shoots the ball too well for other guys. It’s made it tough to do anything consistently well against him.”
Nowitzki’s success popularized the stretch-four phenomena and created a model for young big men to follow. That included Porzingis, who grew up watching Nowitzki fire away on the perimeter and practiced those shots even as his body sprouted to 7’3”. Today, Porzingis is a power forward, lining up in between Robin Lopez and Carmelo Anthony. Soon, Porzingis will likely evolve into a center, one who will create the same problems at that position as Nowitzki has at his.
Seriously: Imagine the havoc Porzingis could cause as a full-time pivot? Right now, the Nets Brook Lopez is looked at as the league’s most offensively diverse center because he can step out and hit shots from 17 feet. But Lopez has made one three-pointer in his career and is awkward off the dribble. Porzingis’s confidence in his three-point shot grows by the minute and he already handles the ball like a small forward. What if you could toss out a lineup that plays small on offense but is backstopped by a shotblocking pterodactyl on the other end?
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“When Dirk first came into the league, I got a lot of questions about similarities to Bird,” Rick Carlisle said. “And I thought there were similarities, but I thought there were greater differences. Dirk was quite a bit taller than Bird. Dirk was headed for a career of redefining the power forward position. It’s understandable that the comparisons are there between Porzingis and Dirk. But this kid has a chance to forge his own niche. He really has some unusually great abilities and skill.”
Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki, but Dirk will admit: He’s far ahead of where he was at a similar stage of his career. Nowitzki averaged 8.2 points in 47 games as a rookie, starting less than half of them. Porzingis is averaging 14.6 points and playing with the kind of confidence a rookie Dirk would have been envious of. “I was scared to death out there,” Nowitzki said. “He’s way better than I was when I was 20.”
He’s certainly more confident. Against Dallas, Porzingis was nearly flawless. He scored 28 points, made 72.2% of his shots and knocked down a pair of three-pointers, both of which came in the final minutes, when the Knicks were desperately trying to claw back into the game. There’s a fearlessness to Porzingis that is rare in many veterans; there is poise and unselfishness that scouts have glommed on to and have scribbled furiously about in their reports. After watching Porzingis play, Carlisle declared him “a special player.” After matching up against him, Nowitzki called Porzingis “for real.”
“He’s tougher than you think,” Nowitzki said. “He’s long. He’s athletic. He can put the ball on the floor. He’s impressive.”
Added Carlisle, “This guy is 7’3”. If he wants to get a shot from the outside, he can pretty much get it. He has the footwork and ball skills to create it. It’s a very potent weapon. It will be interesting to see how his career unfolds.”
Like Nowitzki, Porzingis represents hope. Forgotten in Dallas’s recent history is just how awful the franchise was before Dirk got there. The Mavericks were owned by Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr., had not made the playoffs since 1990, had not moved past the first round since ’88 and were generally snickered at by league rivals. Along came Nowitzki—and a pretty good owner in Mark Cuban—and the Mavericks quickly became relevant.
Porzingis is in a similar situation. The Knicks are one of the NBA’s flagship franchise’s but despite a willingness to throw truckloads of cash at disgruntled stars, the team has been out of the first round exactly once since 2000. As happy as Knicks fans were to see the team trade for Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis fever has gripped New York in an entirely different way. Fans—the same ones that booed Porzingis mercilessly on draft night, by the way—see him as a10-year tentpole, a young franchise player the team can organically build around.
It’s going to get more and more difficult for Fisher and the Knicks to try and control the Porzingis hype, because everyone is getting on board. After the game Nowitzki and Porzingis met at center court, the present and the future of great European talent intersecting on the blue paneling of the Madison Square Garden floor. “I told him, ‘Good luck, keep working and [you] will have a heck of a career,” Nowitzki said. “The sky is the limit for this kid.”