This season's NBA rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise of a few transcendent players. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that takes players apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge while appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just under half a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Today's rookie: New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis.
Dirk Nowitzki And The Secret Society Of The Self-Aware
It does not take much thought or investment to sketch out a Dirk Nowitzki-Kristaps Porzingis comparison. Big. Caucasian. Non-American. Can shoot. Moves with that special goofy sort of nimbleness. Has a barber with a sense of humor.
But these obvious comparisons rely, primarily, on visual elements. When you consider play style, the similarities start to thin out. Porzingis exerts himself with much more physicality than Nowitzki did, particularly as a young player. The Latvian is already a better rebounder and rim protector than Nowitzki ever was, even at his peak. He is bigger, and plays bigger, but also seems to present a broader array of the small-man skills (more on this later), whereas Nowtizki's genius was mostly being a seven-foot human with the outside touch of a guard.
The more interesting piece of the Dirk-Kristaps Venn diagram involves personality. The Nowitzki Legacy is more than just points, footwork, precision, and one-legged fall-aways. It's a delightful mix of self-awareness, humor, and cojones that even Sam Cassell couldn't carry. Argue all you want about where Nowitzki's production ranks among the all-time greats, but I challenge you to find someone who had more fun with their career than Dirk. There are many different varieties of self-awareness. LeBron James carries himself as a basketball player and a brand, simultaneously. Tim Duncan plays with the awareness of his body as a delicate machine. Nowtizki seemed to understand his whole career, the struggles and the successes, as something to be cherished, treasured, and, above all else, enjoyed. Who would have guessed that watching someone have fun could be ... well, fun?
Porzingis projects some of this same awareness. He is a 19-year-old young man, living his dreams under the brightest lights in the biggest city of a foreign country full of both. And yet, he seems to understand that this is, in fact, not a dream, and that the best way to honor the opportunity he's been given is to be his actual self as he navigates this fantasy. Perhaps the most impressively advanced thing about Porzingis is how comfortable he seems to be in his own skin. Nowitzki had a modest gregariousness about him, something I'm not sure you can say about Porzingis at this point. But you can see how that might someday blossom. Being a breakout star, on basketball courts and in basketball culture, is a heavy lift. Porzingis already seems to be carrying it with Nowitzki-ian lightness.
Kenyon Martin And The Tip-Dunk
The tip-dunk is a very narrow medium, requiring a very specific combination of size, athleticism, timing, optimism, and aggressive risk-blindness. Kenyon Martin was a grand master of this violent art. I was lucky enough to catch this one, from his days as a Cincinnati Bearcat, on live TV and it's still, all these years later, what plays on the inside of my eyelids just before I go to sleep. If you can't make sense of that VHS pixelation, Martin leaps from just inside the free throw line, catches the ball in his right hand, brings it to his left, and dunks it with two hands over the backs of two defenders and two of his own teammates. If there was a dirty limerick written on the rim, he would have been up there long enough to read it and commit it to memory.
This was the ideal medium for expressing all the basketball talent and ability that Martin possessed—flying in from out of frame, corralling a rebound that was headed for the hinterlands and slamming it home in one motion, with players of every jersey color scattering below him. The tip-dunk is power, strength, quickness, and the imagination to go up and try dunking a ball that you haven't even caught yet. Treat yourself to 100 of Kenyon Martin's best dunks and at least a third of them seem to be of the put-back variety.
Kristaps has played just under 1,400 NBA minutes in his rookie season and he already has enough tip-dunks to fill a two-minute highlight reel. Of all the skills he has flashed this season, the ability to come out of nowhere and dunk on top of trios and quartets of floor-bound rebounders has to be the most unexpected. Porzingis relies a little more on length, while Martin was about vertical leaping ability, but both show power and relentlessness. Put the two on the key while someone else shoots free throws, and they'd appear to have very little in common. But watch them position themselves to collect that mid-air carom, and you'd see that they're clearly artists working in the same medium.
Ralph Sampson And The Legend Of The Big Little Man
When you're watching Porzingis dunking over people, driving the lane, and drilling three-pointers, it's easy to forget how big he is. The official listing is 7-foor-3, which would make him one of just 28 players in NBA history 7-foot-2 or taller to play at least 1,000 minutes. He's taller than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Roy Hibbert or Dikembe Mutombo. Think about the diversity of his skills right now, as a 19-year old, and then remember that he has the body of Rik Smits or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The big body/small skills relationship here is something dramatically different than Dirk, or even DeMarcus Cousins. There is really only one precedent for a player his size doing the small-man things he can do, and that's the unfortunately disregarded Ralph Sampson.
In the filing system for our collective basketball memories, Sampson can usually be found under "D" for "Disappointment." His career was cut short by injuries, but he battled that perception long before his knees and back started aching all the time. Sampson was enormous, 7-foot-4 to be exact, and he was enormously incongruous in his era. He wasn't a dominant rebounder or shot-blocker, and preferred to play facing the basket. He was nimble in the open court and liked to shoot jumpers, dribble, and pass. Playing next to Hakeem Olajuwon created the opportunity for Sampson to be something other than a center and he seemed to relish it. It also meant that he was always an aesthetic outlier. In a less imaginative basketball climate, it always seemed like he was doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing.
Transported to today's NBA, Sampson's range probably would stretch to the three-point line. His rim defense would be more than adequate, complementing his mobility in defending the pick-and-roll. His facility from the elbows would be a gift, rather than a reason to nitpick his toughness. But even in today's NBA, Sampson would still be an outlier, because he stood 88 INCHES TALL. Only 12 other players in history have been that tall and been allowed to be on an NBA court for even a minute of game time. Sampson doesn't fit into this legacy of bigs with perimeter skills because he's simply far bigger than any other comparables, except maybe the mythologic young/skinny Arvydas Sabonis. No, Sampson stands alone. That is, until we met Porzingis.
There are so many things that make, and are going to make, Porzingis special. It's not just that he's big and versatile. On the spectrum of size he's on the absolute extreme. We don't really have a spectrum for versatility for players this big; it's just Sampson on one end and a half-dozen plodding behemoths on the other. Any talk of Porzingis as a revolutionary talent sets a high bar, for sure. But he's already scraping 7-foot-3, so let's just go ahead and start stocking up on batteries and bottled water.