Nobody can achieve elite status in the NBA all on their own, and it rarely ever happens overnight. Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis is living proof of both statements even as the 7'3 Latvian center has become an international sensation in his debut season in New York.
"They were very astute in figuring out what he might be down the road," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich says of Porzingis. "His agility, his sense of the game, his skills, are quite significant. I think he's going to be a great player."
Popovich's sentiments might seem obvious now, but just two years ago Porzingis was a non-factor in the low post. Scouts openly questioned his toughness, and wondered if the physicality of the NBA would be too much for him to handle.
But that was before he met Audie Norris, a former Spanish League champion who is widely considered the best American big man to ever play professional basketball in Europe. Norris was hired in early 2014 by Sevilla, where he and former NBA player and coach Scott Roth played an integral role in Porzingis' development.
"A lot of times, basketball is destiny," Norris told SB Nation. "Scott and I came in at the right time for Kristaps' career. He's had some really good coaches, but Kris never had anybody that would really could talk to him about NBA life from a professional standpoint."
Norris and Roth had been through it all, and Norris could see Porzingis' "double-trouble superstar potential," as something more than a typical stretch big. Norris conditioned Porzingis to attack the offensive boards for put-back dunks because, he says, "no one boxes out and it's real easy to rebound when you're active." Norris also taught him low post moves since his "shot isn't going to be on every night and the ones that can excel down low are the ones that have longevity."
Though the NBA is becoming more perimeter-oriented, true superstar bigs are able to balance their games with an inside attack. Norris knew it was crucial for Porzingis to diversify his game.
"It wasn't easy for him to adapt those moves because it wasn't part of his daily routine, but Kris is a sponge," Norris said. "Whatever he learns, he stays working. He'll always try to find a way to make it work for him. He never really played with his back to the basket, so I told him, ‘we're gonna work on three moves: the jump hook, the turnaround jump shot off the glass, and the shoulder fake jumper, and from there we built combinations.'"
Though Porzingis is scoring just 0.72 points per possession on post ups this season, the signs are there that it'll someday be integral to his success. His explosive 20-plus-point performances have typically been balanced, with a mixture of shots from all over the court. That scoring variety is what makes a superstar.
Standing at 7'3 with an impossible 7'6 wingspan, Porzingis' shoulder shimmy fadeaway is nearly unblockable, much like Kevin Garnett's was. This shot could develop into a lethal weapon once he quickens his footwork and adds muscle to his frame.
Another play that has built Porzingis' following is his habit of slamming down vicious put-back dunks.
Due to his timing, bounce and athleticism, Porzingis scores 1.26 points per possession after offensive rebounds, per Synergy via NBA.com, which is one of the best averages of all big men.
"He's already the put-back champion," said Norris. "A lot of guys don't have that drive to be that rebounder because it's not glamorous. But he's figuring it out. Anytime you have the skill and knowledge of the game, which Kris does, and he seems to be taking advantage of his opportunities."
One play that's a lot less glamorous is the bank shot, which Porzingis has used effectively. Popovich says it's a lost art because "it's not cool." But maybe Porzingis will be the player to bring it back to prominence.
Norris adds that Porzingis had never attempted a bank shot in a game before they met because "he was raised to think it was something he'd never have to use." But Norris told him he'd start using it often. "It's an easy shot for a 7-footer, and that's why we practiced the face-up bank shots and turnaround jumpers, or transition shots kissing it off the glass."
Norris says that his teaching style tends to lean on repetition. They spent hours in the gym together, working endlessly on the same moves that he now uses today in the NBA. Norris jokes that when he first met Porzingis he told him, "He'd get bored doing the same thing over and over again."
But Porzingis never got bored, and kept working relentlessly, which Norris believes stems from his family, who always pushed him to succeed while keeping him grounded as he kept getting better. Norris adds that these are usually necessary ingredients to be a superstar, especially in comparison to some other young players who fall victim to distractions of the NBA lifestyle.
"Other rookies coming into the league should follow suit and build a support system like Kristaps has," Norris says. "It says a lot about his character and knowledge for wanting to be great. He knew New York was going to be tough, but if he focused on playing his game and continuing to get better that he'd change the way people think about him. That was his attitude going in and it hasn't changed. If anything, he's gotten even more mature over these last few months."
Porzingis still needs to get stronger to withstand the length of a long NBA season, and it's shown as he's recently hit something of a rookie wall. Norris hopes that Porzingis bypasses the opportunity to play in International competition this summer and takes the chance to rehab, recover and build on his impressive rookie campaign.
"Our bodies aren't made to do what professional athletes do. You have to be able to recuperate, so it's hard for international players to take the time off that they need to work on their bodies," says Norris. "It's a big summer for him to dedicate to working on his body and getting stronger instead of playing basketball in the Olympics. It's not like the national team won't want him back one year later."
Norris had a highly successful career, but it was cut short by injury, so he speaks from experience on the importance of rehab and recovery. Norris had five surgeries on his knee during his career and ended up getting a staph infection after the fifth one. That led him to start a home infusion business in Jackson, Miss., until he decided to get into coaching.
"It's like being a father to get these kids to do something that you've taught them, and they listen to you, and you see them go out and get it done." Norris says. "I tell them all, ‘if you love this game, it'll take you around the world.' This little round basketball has taken not only myself, but a lot of players, around the world."
Porzingis is just over halfway through his rookie season with the Knicks, but basketball has already taken him around the world. Destiny brought him to Audie Norris, and now to New York. We may be years away from his prime, but the foundation of a great career has already been constructed.
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