When you walk into an NBA media day, you walk into a frenzy. Reporters, photographers, and news anchors flood the facility for a chance to share the latest news surrounding the organization. And every year, there are storylines going into it that fans are anxiously waiting to read.
There was no doubt about it: The newly beefed up Kristaps Porzingis was what everyone was waiting to hear about in September.
After coming to Dallas in a trade in January, Porzingis was still in the rehab process from a torn ACL in 2018. The plan was not to play in the 2018-19 season and with 26 games left for the Mavs, the plan remained the same. His debut in a Mavs jersey wouldn’t happen until the 2019-20 season.
Buzz circulated social media in the offseason about Porzingis’s “muscle-watch” as pictures began popping up on Instagram and Twitter. Once a 223-pound rookie, Porzingis didn’t look like the 20-year-old kid gracing Madison Square Garden for the first time anymore. Now, he was getting compared to Ivan Drago from the Rocky series.
Saw Jeremy today & asked about these pics. Said KP "put on about 16-17 pounds…" and noted that he can give players direction, but they have to do the work. Said KP was ALL in tho, very disciplined w/ food & workouts. Jackson added 20; on Powell (laughing) "He's always flexing" https://t.co/5v2toXPSVt
— Tamara Jolee (@TamaraJolee) September 24, 2019
"I must break you."
Kristaps Porzingis is in the gym looking a lot like Ivan Drago
— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) August 14, 2019
Then media day came on Sept. 30 and it was time to see Porzingis in person after a full offseason in Dallas and a full album of workout shots in the gym. And contrary to some Instagram workout pictures, Porzingis lived up to the hype. In his first media session, Porzingis was asked three straight questions about his muscle gain in the offseason.
“I came in the league and I was 223 pounds,” Porzingis said. “That was an ideal weight for me, I thought. My first year, I put on a lot of weight. I was 235, but I kind of felt slow and not really like myself. Once the weight came down, I actually felt better. Now I am actually 242 and I feel great.”
Porzingis talked extensively about his 20-month rehab from ACL surgery, about how at times it was hard for him to see the finish line and the effect that can have mentally on someone. It wasn’t just a KP rehab. It was a rehab together with his team of people around him. Calculations, strategies, and plans were laid out so that Porzingis could get back to playing at an All-Star level again. And a key part of that strategy was putting on more muscle.
“It was going to happen naturally with me getting older and my body maturing,” Porzingis said on media day. “But at the same time, you can put on weight and not feel the same way and not be the same player and not move the same way. For me it was important to feel how I am supposed to feel but get stronger also. There is a balance with those type of things. It is only the beginning; it is not that I have achieved something. I have gained a few pounds and I feel stronger. This is nonstop work we are going to keep bringing.”
That balance is what very few players can perfect. What is their optimal playing shape? Where is the sweet spot for a player to play at their highest level? A lot of times, a player’s weight is thrown out as a deciding factor in that, but to Casey Smith, Director of Player and Health Performance for the Mavericks, it is more about body composition.
“The amount of weight gained or lost is not as much of an issue as the body composition,” Smith explained to me. “You can lose weight, but lose muscle and have it negatively impact your body composition, or you can gain weight and increase lean mass and have it be a positive. As a society we get very focused on weight gain or loss, but the body composition is more important.”
Now, 51 games with the Mavericks under his belt, Porzingis seems to be getting closer to finding his optimal playing shape – even if it means admitting that adding all of the muscle over the offseason wasn’t the best route to go.
“I was feeling great already in the season,” Porzingis said after some individual drills at the practice facility before departing for the Orlando restart. “The mistake maybe I made was starting a new season after an injury working a lot on the physical aspect. I really wanted to get stronger and get bigger. It was a big difference from right before I got hurt and how I was feeling on the court compared to how I started this new season. It took me a little while to start feeling again the way I should be feeling. Now I know what works and doesn’t work for me. So now I am finding the optimal shape I need to be in to be able to play at the highest level and feel the best I can on the court.”
Rust was expected for Porzingis to start the season. Not only was it a new season with a new franchise and new coach, but it would be the first time Porzingis would play in an NBA game in roughly 20 months after tearing his ACL. To Porzingis, he wasn’t meeting the standard he had set for himself.
Teammate Justin Jackson had his own muscle gain over the offseason, adding almost 20 pounds of muscle, and he acknowledged that adjusting to the new weight definitely takes time on the court.
“For me, once I get back going, I shed off whatever bad weight I gain quickly,” Jackson said after a practice in Orlando. “You do have to get used to it. Your jump shot might be a little easier or harder. Just the way that you play might be a little different. Guys that are slim built like myself and KP, we are always trying to work out and get stronger.”
Although Jackson and Porzingis both had to adjust to their newfound muscle gain, the difference was that Porzingis had to account for the surgically repaired ACL as he got back on the court. And when you are dealing with an ACL, there are three things that are at the forefront when finding your optimal playing shape: deceleration, stabilization and changing direction.
This is exactly what Smith stresses regarding the ACL. If added muscle or weight is in line with the above three areas, then it reduces the risk of re-injury to the ACL. But the moment the added muscle or weight affects the “ability to decelerate, stabilize or change direction with powerful moves, that is when he can get into an area of increased injury risk,” Smith explained.
After sitting out the first back-to-back of the season in early November due to precaution around the ACL, Porzingis continued to adjust to his newly added muscle and recovered knee. He would go on to play in the next back-to-back of the season in early December.
“As the season went on, for me it was pretty much back to normal,” Porzingis said after a practice in Orlando. “My knee was feeling great the whole time. It was just a matter of me getting back into that rhythm and getting that feel for the game, that touch around the rim and little things like that. I feel like now with the extra time we had to put in the individual work and get a lot of shots up and keep working on my game, I will feel really comfortable on the court.”
The elephant in the locker room, for every team right now is the effect that the last four months of no basketball will mean for the health of the players once they get back on the court. Porzingis and other Mavericks believe it was a beneficial time for everyone to heal from smaller injuries they were previously battling through. As the team begins scrimmages, now is when Porzingis can find that optimal playing shape he seems to be very close to.
“The additional weight that he put on over those 18-19 months of rehab gradually tapers away,” Rick Carlisle said. “Right now, I can tell you that he looks great. I love the way that he is moving. He is moving great and has been really aggressive in his workouts both on the floor and in the weight room.”
Now Porzingis knows what works. He has played in the NBA as his young, skinny self as a rookie in New York and he has played as the beefed-up, four-year vet in Dallas. Both versions of him had their flaws and most importantly, he knows it. Now he is inching closer to that desirable balance that so many players never find.
“Now I know the type of basketball we play,” Porzingis said. “I know the system. I have had a lot of good conversations with coach Carlisle. I’m just ready to be back on the court and play the game that I love and have put so much work into.”
The Mavs don’t need a second coming of Ivan Drago. They just need the best version of Kristaps Porzingis, and he is ready to deliver.