Kristaps Porzingis doesn’t play like a traditional center. His childhood haircut, in retrospect, explains a lot about that.
Somewhere from age 10 to 12 — the Wizards’ big man can’t remember when exactly — Porzingis rocked cornrows. Long, luscious cornrows. Porzingis grew out his hair as part of a bet with his brothers, but the style was also an ode to some of his favorite NBA players: Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.
“I tried to imitate him when I was a kid,” Porzingis said of Anthony. “He had a huge impact on me.”
So it was only fitting that Anthony — one of the NBA’s all-time prolific scorers and a former teammate of Porzingis’ on the Knicks — watched up close Saturday how Porzingis took over the Wizards’ 127-119 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
On a night when LeBron James made history by becoming the NBA’s second all-time scorer and Russell Westbrook returned to the District to play against his former team, Porzingis scored 16 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter to spoil the Lakers’ evening, rally Washington and snap the Wizards’ six-game losing streak in the process.
Porzingis, unlike a lot of centers, doesn’t just score from the low block.
He spreads it out — and takes over games. On Saturday, he dominated at the elbow. He launched jumpers. He powered to the rim and threw down explosive dunks. When he was double-teamed, he found open shooters. For good measure, he drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 38.7 seconds left to put the contest out of reach for the Lakers.
Anthony, on the floor for the Lakers, watched the last shot go through the net.
“That’s my brother for life,” Porzingis said.
For the Wizards, Porzingis’ performance was another encouraging sign that the 26-year-old still can produce at a high level. Scoring has rarely been a problem for Porzingis, but upon trading for the Latvian star last month, one of the main questions facing the Wizards was whether they could tap into that skill set effectively. In Dallas, Porzingis’ last stop, the 7-foot-3 center had largely been reduced to a secondary option — one who didn’t always mesh with star Luka Doncic.
In seven games since the trade, Porzingis has scored at least 20 points three times. His usage rate is slightly higher, as is his scoring average and field goal percentage. It’s early, but Porzingis said he sees the Wizards’ scheme tailoring to his strengths. In turn, he’s been more effective.
So far, Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. likes what he sees.
“His size oftentimes, guys get pegged because of their height,” Unseld said. “What does his game bring to the floor? His ability to space the defense. We’ve seen him play off the bounce, play in the post. He’s a better passer than he’s given credit for. … You could say he’s a 5, but the way he’s able to space the floor, offensively he leans more toward a 4.”
Against the Lakers late, the Wizards exploited the obvious mismatch. The Lakers often used a smaller defender on Porizngis, so Washington was more than happy to keep feeding Porzingis the ball. From there, Porzingis made plays.
Unseld cautioned that the Wizards won’t be able to play that way all the time. And, as much Porzingis has been the focal point of the Wizards’ offense lately, he’ll have to co-exist with star Bradley Beal (season-ending wrist injury) next season, granted the three-time All-Star re-signs this summer.
Porzingis’ fit with Beal will likely determine whether this stint with the Wizards is considered successful. After underwhelming in Dallas with Doncic, can Porzingis prove to be a suitable co-star with Beal? Unseld likes to compare Beal’s potential fit with Porzingis to Denver’s duo Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Unseld coached both as an assistant in Denver and watched the chemistry develop up close.
Last week, Nuggets coach Michael Malone, however, said he didn’t see many things in common between Porzingis and Jokic — the latter of whom rose to an MVP because of his otherworldly passing ability and dominance down low.
“Other than being big and foreign, I think that’s where the similarities stop,” Malone said.
The Wizards will likely have time to sort out the partnership. Until then, the Wizards will use this last stretch of the season to evaluate Porzingis’ strengths — finding out personally what he can and can’t do.
Porzingis’ production has come even as the Wizards impose a minutes restriction. Since returning from a bone bruise in his knee, Porzingis hasn’t topped 30 minutes in a game.
“I’m much more comfortable,” Porzingis said. “The coaching staff and my teammates are trusting me.”