We all face the fear of the unknown at some time or another.
Whether it’s a new boss – was the devil you know better than the devil you’re about to meet? – or a new chapter in life, everybody gets a little skittish about not knowing what’s in store.
It’s no different in basketball. Particularly when a player is coming off a serious injury. And even moreso when that player proved before getting hurt that he possessed monstrous all-star talent.
Kristaps Porzingis wasn’t quite sure what to expect in his first season with the Mavericks. Nobody was, especially Maverick fans.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament isn’t the end of a young player’s career. But it certainly puts that career on hold. For Porzingis, he got injured with the New York Knicks on Feb. 6, 2018. He wouldn’t appear in another regular-season game until Oct. 23, 2019. That’s more than 20 months – 623 days, to be exact.
That’s a long time to be sidelined, but Porzingis was far from dormant.
He did everything he could to ensure he was going to be ready when he returned from the injury. When he was traded from the Knicks to the Mavericks, it was decided immediately Porzingis would not return at the end of the 2018-19 season, even though it was more than a year after his surgery.
Instead, he continued to strengthen his left leg. He worked to improve the muscles around the knee. He worked on his conditioning. He did whatever he could to make sure that the knee would not be an issue in the slightest – at least not when it came to the torn ACL.
Yet the unknown was unavoidable. Porzingis is 7-3. He’s 240 pounds. Players as big as he is who rely on their mobility – even more than another large NBA player who had been injured, DeMarcus Cousins – can never be sure about how they will recover from injury.
But the work – and the patience – paid off.
In his fourth NBA season and first with the Mavericks, Porzingis showed everybody that, whatever fears of the unknown existed, they were unfounded.
When the NBA shut down because of the coronavirus, Porzingis was averaging 19.2 points and 2.1 blocks per game.
But the most eye-catching number was easy to pick out. In a season when he had to rebound from injury, he also had to rebound, period.
And he did that, averaging 9.5 boards per game – two-plus rebounds more than he had averaged in any of his first three seasons.
The upgrade on the glass is even more impressive considering that nearly half of his shots (more than seven per game) came from 3-point range. That means Porzingis is not an offensive rebounding threat on a lot of possessions.
But he’s been a demon on the defensive end when you factor in his blocked shots and his rebounding.
“That’s something I definitely thought about when I was out,” Porzingis said early in the season. “I definitely wanted to come back and grab the loose rebounds.
“A lot of times (with the Knicks), I didn’t really pay attention to rebounding. I was more of an offensive rebounder – go for the putback dunks. But now, I’m down there and I’m 7-3. It’s not that hard to grab it, give it to Luka (Doncic) and then run. It’s something I thought about and wanted to focus on.”
Porzingis first season with the Mavericks was not without challenges. He missed 10 games in the heart of the season with a right knee problem. But the good news is that it wasn’t his surgically reconstructed knee.
When he returned, Porzingis got on a serious roll and paired wonderfully with Doncic.
Over his last 15 games, he averaged 25.2 points and 10.9 rebounds, shooting .364 from 3-point range.
That sort of production came in spite of sitting out the second night of back-to-back games – an injury-recovery strategy that seems to work, although Porzingis would prefer not to sit any games, of course.
But no matter the occasional health night, Porzingis solidified himself as a pillar for the franchise to build around through the next several seasons.
What the last two months of the season before the disruption of play did most was whet Porzingis’ appetite for the playoffs, a craving that will be satisfied when the season resumes, presumably in the Orlando area for an abbreviated end to the regular season, then the playoffs.
While a plan for finishing the season hasn’t been finalized, whatever the playoffs look like, Porzingis will be ready.
It will mean he can avoid future situations like the one that happened in a postgame locker room interview after a rugged win at American Airlines Center. Porzingis was asked if it felt like a playoff-type atmosphere.
“I wish I knew,” he said as the crowd of reporters around him laughed with him.
That will change soon when the health and social climate allow it.