Kristaps Porzingis, Baloncesto Seville

Oct 09, 2014 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Kristaps Porzingis, Baloncesto Seville
Five years ago, the name of Kristaps Porzingis was completely unknown to any basketball expert in the continent. A Latvian scout recorded some of his games and distributed them among some of the best teams in Southern Europe. Tall but extremely thin, Porzingis did not draw much attention then, but Baloncesto Seville gave him a tryout and signed him to a long-term deal. For a couple of years, as he battled anemia, Porzingis was the best-kept secret in European basketball as he started to improve by leaps and bounds in Seville's basketball school. He made a brief, three-game Eurocup debut in 2012-13, but now, two years later, returns as a potential superstar - strong, skilled, confident and focused on having a breakout season.

Born in Liepaja, Latvia, Porzingis started to play basketball at age 6. His parents played basketball before him and Porzingis soon joined his city's most famous club, Liepajas Lauvas. One of his brothers, Janis, 13 years older than him, preceded Porzingis to the Eurocup, playing one game with Austrian side Superfund Kapfenberg in the 2004-05 season. Kristaps played in Liepaja until age 15, when the now-retired Latvian agent sent video of him to several teams in Spain and Italy. At that time, Porzingis stood 2.01 meters but weighed just 71 kilos. Baloncesto Seville had started recruiting foreign talent to its youth teams, offering good education, a solid basketball system and the chance for the best of them join the first team. Porzingis was called to Seville for a tryout.

"I came here with my brother for two or three days, but it was really hot and I couldn't play at my best because of that," Porzingis recalled in an interview. "Still, I received a contract in summer 2010 and I signed it."

It was not easy for Porzingis to adjust to a new city, far away from home, and to learn a different language. Cajasol was patient, however: its priority was to help Porzingis overcome his anemia, which in fast-growing young man can cause fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and a poor ability to exercise. The club had hired a nutritionist, Inmaculada Avivar, who detected his problem and found the way to solve it. Once Porzingis's anemia subsided, he started to play better.

"I am not going to lie: when I first got here for the tryout, I didn't like it at all and I thought I would never come back. I went home, thought about it with my brother and agreed that it was a great opportunity for me to learn and play basketball in Spain. I changed my mind and really wanted to go back to Seville," Porzingis said. "The first half of my first season was really tough for me. I didn't know any Spanish and only a few people spoke English. I had trouble to communicate with my teammates and coaches. Moreover, I had anemia so I didn't last long in practices. I didn't feel good and was sleepy all the time. I went back home for Christmas - my Mom was cooking, my friends were there - and when I returned to Seville, I wanted to go home: I couldn't take it much longer. But I started to practice again and kept putting basketball first, learning and playing a lot. When I learned Spanish and overcame my anemia problems, everything was much easier."

Fully aware of his great potential, Seville kept Porzingis under the radar for a long time. His first appearance with Cajasol was in the 2011-12 Torneig de Básquet Júnior "Ciutat de L'Hospitalet", which qualified to the Nike International Junior Tournament. As a first-year junior, Porzingis averaged 9.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. "I knew it was a prestigious tournament and that I had to do well," he said. "I think I could have done much better, but I wasn't physically 100 percent. I have seen videos and could have been much more aggressive. But I wish I could have played better."

In 2012, Seville hired coaching great Aito Garcia Reneses, who is famous for having developed Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and many more stars when they were young pros. Porzingis was no exception, even though the club remained patient with him. He made his Eurocup debut in the 2012-13 Last 16. "I scored my first basket with Cajasol in a home game against Spartak," he recalled. "I was very nervous at the beginning: I wanted to do well and not pick up turnovers. At the same time, I got a lot of confidence with players of my same age. That allowed me to play better with the first team and practice with more confidence."

In his return to the L'Hospitalet tournament that year, a much stronger Porzingis averaged 16.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in five games, hitting 48.1% of his three-point shots. Seville's patience with its best prospect was about to pay off. The next summer, Porzingis led the Latvian U18 national team, averaging 11.6 points and 10 rebounds in 9 games, although they lost a European championships bronze medal by 56-57 against Spain. Despite a near triple-double - 11 points, 15 rebounds, 9 blocks - Porzingis remembers it as one of the worst losses of his career.

Last season, as he joined Seville's main team, gew expected Porzingis to have a great impact - but he proved that expectation wrong. He opened everyone's eyes with 12 points, 6 rebounds and an extraordinary put-back slam as Seville beat a Euroleague team, Laboral Kutxa Vitoria, 82-62 in the Spanish League. From there, Porzingis kept offering flashes here and there - good moves, alley-oop slams - until a domestic-league showdown with Real Madrid. Porzingis was all over the place with three-point shots, blocks, dunks, polished moves near the basket and, above all, great intensity. Madrid avoided its first home loss all season by 81-75, but Porzingis was trending on social media.

"It was a very good game for me on offense. I didn't get any rebounds in that game. I had a good shooting night, but could have helped more on defense," Porzingis said. "Still, fans in Madrid gave me a nice ovation when I fouled out and I liked that a lot."

In the Spanish League playoff quarterfinals, Porzingis faced a player he admires, Eurocup Finals MVP Justin Doellman. Even though Valencia advanced to the semifinals in dramatic fashion, Porzingis was solid, averaged 8.3 points in the series. "In my opinion, Justin Doellman is the best power forward in Spanish basketball," he said. "He is a really, really good offensive player and it is not easy to guard him. He is very talented and takes care of many small details. I liked playing against him, it was a good chance to face a great player."

Porzingis is a modern power forward who uses his unbelievable speed and ballhandling for a player his size to take on anyone in one-on-one situations. He loves to attack the basket, play above the rim and dunk as often as possible. His shooting range reaches beyond the three-point line, which makes him even more unpredictable. This summer, Porzingis opted out of the Latvian national team this summer to work on his game.

"I worked really hard with my brother all summer long," he said. "I also worked in the gym to strengthen my knees and ankles and avoid injuries this season. We worked a lot on the court, especially in the low post. I knew I needed to improve my one-on-one game in the low post. I went to Las Vegas for two weeks and practiced there, too, playing five-on-five basketball in the afternoons. As for my foul trouble, I have to be smarter and avoid them. I try to be aggressive on court and know I have to improve, but I don't want to play soft defense just to avoid fouls."

Porzingis now speaks three languages to perfection at age 19 and Baloncesto Seville speaks about him as its franchise player. He has fully adapted to Seville, where he already feels at home, and to a club that brought him from an unknown prospect to the brink of true notoriety in his Eurocup debut.

"I really want to play the Eurocup," he said. "Two years ago, I wasn't a full time member of the first roster. I am sure that it will be a great experience for me."