Kristaps Porzingis is looking like an All-Star again, anchoring the resurgent Washington Wizards on both sides of the ball.
Ever since a torn ACL caused him to miss the entirety of the 2018-19 season (unlocking a series of unfortunate events that followed), Kristaps Porziņģis has desperately been trying to recapture the magic that earned him a 2017-18 All-Star nomination.
Well, if his standing in widely-cited one-number metrics is any indication, his attempts at reigniting the flame have finally succeeded — he ranks in the top 35 in the league in everything from to DRIP to RAPTOR. We know what you’re thinking. Those kinds of catch-all stats operate like Ash Ketchum — they don’t really catch ’em all.
This assessment is valid, but these measures are a strong indicator of how well a player is playing in their specific role, and as of right now, Porzingis is playing like an All-Star in his role in Washington.
So…what exactly is that role?
Attention is dulled out in a strange way
The NBA is funny because everyone is raving about Lauri Markkanen’s hot offensive start to the season (myself included). But nobody seems to be noticing Porziņģis’ success in Washington.
Here’s a thought exercise for you, but which player would you rather have: Player A or Player B?
Probably Player B (Markkanen) but there hasn’t been that big a difference between him and Player A (Porzingis).
Like one-number metrics, scoring and play type data also need additional context to be fully understood. To sprinkle that in here, both Porziņģis and Markkanen have over 80 percent of their field goal attempts come from two dribbles or less (per NBA.com).
This means that the two 7-footers are deployed in a similar manner offensively (as play finishers) and that Markkanen is only narrowly more effective in this situation.
One thing Porziņģis loves about being on the Washington Wizards is that they post him up. These aren’t the arduous, inefficient post-ups of the early aughts. These are quick hitters against smaller opponents that are set up by ball screens against switching defenses.
When Washington played the Utah Jazz (Markkanen’s team, ironically enough), they countered their switch-heavy scheme by using the pick-and-roll to force smaller guards (like Mike Conley) into switching onto the bigger Porziņģis in the post. From there, three potential outcomes exist: 1) an easy shot for the Latvian big man (i.e., the above clip), 2) a foul, or 3) a double team that creates a 4-on-3 advantage for the offense.
Along with these blitzkrieg post-ups, Porziņģis’ primary offensive duties include scoring off of pick-and-pops, spot-ups, curl cuts, etc. Pretty much anything that enables him to weaponize his shooting accuracy and high release point.
Regardless of the play design, he’s able to contribute to the offense in swift and meaningful ways, which has made him a seamless fit within the Wizards’ offense.
What about the other side of the ball?
While their offensive merits are debatable, Porziņģis has Markkanen beat on the other side of the ball.
Markkanen has matured a ton in this area since his time in Chicago, but the Jazz often have to deploy two-big lineups and gamble for turnovers in order to mask his shortcomings. Meanwhile, the Wizards count on Porziņģis to anchor their sixth-ranked unit on his lonesome (note: that ranking would be higher, but the Wizards have some of the worst opponent shooting luck in the league).
To do this, they deploy a deep drop as their base coverage to play to his defensive strengths (his size and incredible wingspan). Keeping him close to the paint also puts him in a prime position to contest a high volume of shots (he’s currently fourth in the league in defended field goal attempts).
His presence in the paint also serves as a deterring force to would-be trespassers. Yes, he contests a ton of shots, but he is preventing plenty of them too. The Wizards are third in the league in opponent rim frequency, and 29th in short midrange attempts surrendered (per Cleaning the Glass). This means that drivers are attacking, seeing Porziņģis lurking in the shadows, and opting for less efficient floaters and short pull-ups over layups.
Injuries have zapped Porziņģis of some of his mobility. However, as Ava Wallace of the Washington Post reported, Porziņģis — in an attempt to stay healthy and be more nimble — lost seven pounds this offseason, and it’s evident when you watch him tango with speedier ball-handlers.
The Wizards typically start in drop, but sometimes they like to shapeshift the coverage into a switch late in the sequence (they call this a “late switch”). When they do that, they place the onus on Porziņģis to stay with a smaller defender, and more times than not, he delivers.
As the Milwaukee Bucks taught us during their 2020-21 title run, you need to be able to play multiple different pick-and-roll coverages. With Porziņģis, the Wizards have that flexibility, and their ceiling is higher because of it.
Back to the question of role for Kristaps Porzingis
We mentioned Markkanen earlier, but when you factor in both sides of the ball, doesn’t Porziņģis remind you of Myles Turner?
Think about it for a second. Who is Turner as a player? A paint-protecting big who can stretch defenses with his outside shooting. That sounds eerily similar to the player archetype we outlined above.
Another thing to consider, Turner has been at the epicenter of every trade conversation over the last few seasons primarily because of his rare and highly desirable skillset. That’s what Porziņģis is providing. The type of production that has been in such high demand. And you know what, he may be playing his part better than Turner.
This year, the Wizards’ defense is over six and a half points stingier per 100 possessions when Porziņģis is on the court. Meanwhile, their offense improves by 15.3 points when their 7-foot-3 big man is out there. In totality, this plus-21.6 per 100 possession difference for the Wizards when Porziņģis is on the floor is in the 99th percentile (per Cleaning the Glass). We don’t even need to share Turner’s numbers with you for perspective because Porziņģis is already atop the on/off food chain.
Maybe those one-number metrics were right after all. Maybe, ever so quietly, Porziņģis has re-emerged as an All-Star.