It was Feb. 6, 2018, and the New York Knicks were hosting the Milwaukee Bucks in Madison Square Garden. It was the second quarter with just under nine minutes to go when the Knicks drew up a play to hit the star big man, Kristaps Porzingis, near the top of the key. The off-ball screen was set on Porzingis’ defender to free him up at the top, but the screener’s defender (Jason Terry) jumped the passing lane. Porzingis read the play perfectly and cut to the basket for an open bucket. Kyle O’Quinn hits Porzingis cutting towards the basket with Giannis Antetokounmpo helping back to challenge the shot. Porzingis finishes the dunk over Antetokounmpo in incredible fashion while falling down in the follow through.
But he didn’t get back up.
Holding his left knee, Porzingis had torn his ACL. And he hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA court as an active player ever since. But just how good was Porzingis before he went down?
For the 2017-18 season, Porzingis would play a total of 48 games. Before we dismiss the season as a whole, we must remember that Stephen Curry won Third Team All-NBA honors that season after playing just three more games than Porzingis. LeBron James just won Third Team All-NBA honors after playing only 55 games. Let’s take a look into where Porzingis stood statistically in the last season he took the court.
As far as scoring goes, Porzingis was one of the best in the game in the 2017-18 season. He averaged 22.7 PPG, which would be the 16th-highest total in the league. He would average more points a game than Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and other top players across the league. On top of that, he was one of five top-20 scorers in the league who averaged under 33 minutes a game (Stephen Curry, Lou Williams, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving).
He was also one of only four players in the NBA who averaged more than 22 points a game while shooting at least 43 percent from the field and 39 percent from the 3-point line. The others to record that stat line in 2017-18 were Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving.
He would also join Channing Frye and Dirk Nowitzki as the only 7-footers in NBA history to shoot at least 39 percent from deep on more than four attempts per game.
But Porzingis’ impact goes beyond scoring the basketball too. In the 2017-18 season, only two players averaged more than 22 points, six rebounds and two blocks a game: Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis.
This would also be a good time to remind you that Porzingis was one of 12 players named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team that year. An All-Star nomination after just two full years in the league. Due to his injury prior to the game, Kemba Walker would be named as his replacement on the All-Star team.
Going back to the start of the 2017-18 season, Porzingis would average 30 points a game in his first 11 games of the season while scoring 33+ in five of those games. One of those games was a 32-point, 12-rebound, two-block outing against LeBron James and the reigning Eastern Conference champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then there was the matchup against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 5, when Porzingis put up one of the more impressive stat lines of his career. He would finish the game with 40 points, eight rebounds and six blocks while shooting 62 percent from the field. Neither Myles Turner nor any other Pacer had an answer for Porzingis.
Speaking of blocks, only Porzingis, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert averaged more than two blocks a game that season. He finished the season with a total of 115 blocks, which was tied for the 8th-most in the league. He was one of 15 players who tallied over 100 blocks on the season, despite playing just 48 games. In fact, Porzingis tallied the same amount of total blocks in 48 games as Karl-Anthony Towns did in all 82.
This obviously comes at no surprise, but Porzingis was one of the best at protecting the paint. According to Synergy, Porzingis ranked in the 94th percentile in defending shots around the basket at 0.824 points per possession on 108 possessions. Of players who defended at least 100 shots around the basket, Porzingis was a top-five defender in the league. He was also great at defending the pick-and-roll ranking in the 89th percentile at 0.819 PPP, according to Synergy.
What made Porzingis even more impressive during his time pre-injury was the lack of playmaking around him. Much of his offensive possessions consisted of plays on the block or as the roll man. In fact, nearly a quarter of all his offensive possessions came in the post. For as good as a shooter that Porzingis was, only 13.1 percent of his offensive possessions were spot-up shots.
To give perspective on spot up shots on the Mavericks, for the 2018-19 season, 25 percent of Harrison Barnes’ offensive possessions were spot-up shots. Wesley Matthews was at 23 percent, Dorian Finney-Smith at 35 percent, and Dwight Powell at 20 percent. It is safe to say that Porzingis’s spot up shots won’t be at 13 percent again while running alongside Luka Doncic.
Going further on the spot up shots, Porzingis’ catch-and-shoot stats from the 2017-18 season were incredible too. Normally, players have a big drop-off in percentages on guarded catch-and-shoot shots compared to unguarded. But Porzingis ranked in the top quarter of all NBA players in both categories. Of players who had at least 180 possessions of guarded catch-and-shoot shots, Porzingis joined Dario Saric, Klay Thompson, and Dirk Nowitzki as the only players to shoot over 40 percent, according to Synergy.
In the above play we see Porzingis coming to set a screen for Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina drives to the basket and draws both defenders before hitting the open Porzingis at the top of the key.
Now, imagine Porzingis on catch-and-shoots coming off setting a pick for Doncic. Even though Porzingis only had 58 possessions in the 2017-18 season where he had a no-dribble shot off a pick-and-pop, Porzingis hit 47 percent of them, qualifying as one of the best in the league. This is another area that Porzingis excelled in that we can guarantee that he will have more opportunities to thrive in playing alongside Doncic in Dallas.
But you can’t run a pick-and-roll every time, right? What about running a 7-footer like Porzingis off a screen? In 2017-18, Porzingis had 131 possessions coming off a screen, in which he scored at a 1.107 points per possession. Of players scoring coming off a screen on at least 130 possessions, only Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver, Kevin Durant, Wayne Ellington, Joe Ingles, and J.J. Redick scored at a higher PPP than Porzingis.
Bottom line: Porzingis was one of the best players in the league. It was his breakout season that was propelling him into one of the best players in the entire NBA. Now, almost 15 months later, Porzingis is chomping at the bit to show the world just how good he really is.
“You can compare it to walking in the desert for a long, long time and finally seeing water,” Porzingis said of his long recovery while on the Fox Sports Southwest broadcast in mid-March. The water he was talking about was taking the practice court for the first time.
Now, Porzingis is finally out of the desert and as far as the rest of the league is concerned, that might be a scary thing.