BASKETBALL IS HAVING A MOMENT, LED BY TWO FOREIGN-BORN STARS WHO CAME OF AGE IN THE YOUTUBE ERA
BEN SIMMONS LSU TIGERS
KRISTAPS PORZINGIS NY KNICKS
January 25, 2016
THERE IS no masochism, this season, in committing an inordinate amount of time to watching a 21--22 NBA team that's unlikely to make the playoffs and an 11--6 college team that is in danger of not making the NCAA tournament. It is instead an expression of hope—that Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 4 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, is the beginning of a revival at Madison Square Garden, and that LSU freshman Ben Simmons, 2016's projected No. 1 pick, is the ultimate prize for a season's worth of tanking. It is also a chance to marvel—at a 7'3", 20-year-old Latvian with effortless shooting range to 25 feet, and a 6'10", 19-year-old Australian who can make plays like a point guard. Porzingis and Simmons are gems of this golden age of globalization. They are big men from far-flung beach towns who look like no player before them, and thus look like the future.
This time last year Porzingis was playing in Seville, Spain, having migrated from the town of Liep-aja at age 15. The extent of his Stateside exposure before the draft was in a group workout on June 12 in Las Vegas. Knicks fans were asked to accept on faith that he was legit; many did not, and thus the bar for Porzingis's debut was set at "skeptical." But by averaging 14.0 points and generating endless YouTube highlights, Porzingis has become the NBA's most buzzworthy rookie—a position Simmons is widely expected to hold next season.
Simmons is the antithesis of a mystery prospect. He left Melbourne for the U.S. at 16 and was the No. 1--ranked player in his high school class. Magic Johnson, the most famous oversized playmaker of all time, added fuel to the hype train on Jan. 5 when he tweeted, "LSU's Ben Simmons is the best all around player I've seen since LeBron James came out of high school straight to the NBA!" With praise like that, backlash is inevitable, so there are questions about Simmons's jump shot and his inability to single-handedly keep the Tigers in the Top 25.
Both Simmons and Porzingis have the luxury of unnatural grace, athleticism and versatility for players of their size. Only one of them has the luxury of low expectations.