-- For the past several years, ESPN Insider's Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton have simulated the kind of discussions that are taking place in front offices around the NBA -- where scouts and statistical experts break down NBA prospects using their "eyes, ears and numbers." This season, those conversations are extending beyond the NBA draft to include prospects in their rookie or sophomore seasons.
Surprising production for two rookies
Chad Ford: At the start of the season, we took an in-depth look at Karl-Anthony Towns and felt he'd be a lock for Rookie of the Year. The next week, we tackled Kristaps Porzingis and wondered whether he'd give Towns a run at the award.
Several weeks later, not only is Porzingis strongly in the mix for ROY -- I think he's actually jumped ahead of Towns, both statistically and in the hearts and minds of voters. He's already being hailed as a savior for a moribund Knicks franchise by the likes of ESPN's Zach Lowe. And real plus-minus rates him 43rd in the league this season, ahead of players like Damian Lillard and Dwight Howard.
While I think both of us saw his potential to be special before the draft, neither of us expected him to be doing this much this quickly. Set aside the NYC hype for a second, Kevin, and just how good has Porzingis really been?
Kevin Pelton: It's eerie how similar some of Porzingis' advanced stats have been to Towns' this season:
Right now, the only difference between them in my wins above replacement player (WARP) stat is that the Knicks have played 21 games while the Timberwolves have played just 19.
I suspect we'll see them go back and forth for Rookie of the Year all season. But let's be clear that both of them are having remarkable rookie campaigns. Here are the best win percentages (the per-minute component of WARP, akin to PER) for rookies in the past decade:
It's early December, so we'd expect both guys to regress to the mean somewhat. But they're off to outstanding starts.
Why Porzingis is not the next Dirk
Ford: Based on his success, the question becomes just how good Porzingis will be once he adds a little more experience, gains some more strength and gets some better teammates around him?
The comparison that comes up most is Dirk, and his Dallas Mavericks are in New York to face the Knicks on Monday, so let's start there.
Early in the season, you said that was a reasonable comparison based on what your SCHOENE projection system showed. Does that comparison still work?
Both are bigs who move well and stroke the ball from the perimeter. But Porzingis seems to be a much better defender, especially as a shot blocker, than Nowitzki ever was.
Pelton: As the season has gone on, the Porzingis-Nowitzki comparison has become less apt. In fact, Dirk now ranks as the 24th most similar player to Porzingis at the same age.
Part of the issue is simply that Porzingis has been more effective than Nowitzki was as a rookie. Remember, Dirk got only a lockout-shortened training camp to adjust to the NBA and shot 40.5 percent during the 50-game season.
On the flip side, Dirk became one of the greatest shooters of all time. While Porzingis has shown plenty of potential, to expect him to be "the next Dirk" as a shooter is to suggest that he'll be able to match the greatest big-man shooter we've ever seen. As Andrea Bargnani and many others have shown, that's easier said than done.
Their styles have also been different, as you note. I think about it this way: What was your favorite Dirk tip dunk? Or blocked shot?
Nowitzki's best season as a shot blocker saw him swat 2.9 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts. Porzingis' block percentage is 5.2 percent. That difference is why I think we both see Porzingis as a future center, a position Nowitzki has played only sporadically over the course of his career.
So if not Dirk, who is a good comparison for Porzingis?
Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh and other comps
Ford: This is where it gets tricky for me. I've had this assignment for two weeks, have combed through players who have his combination of size, athleticism, defensive potential, ability to stretch the floor and swagger. And I don't just want a tired Euro-for-Euro comp. Porzingis doesn't play like any European I've ever seen.
The truth from my end? I can't find anyone who ticks all of those boxes. I can find someone who ticks three, maybe four. But not all five. So here's my closest -- and this is a stretch: What if he's Anthony Davis?
Davis is skilled and athletic, he blocks shots and, now that he's showing off his 3-point range this season, both guys can stretch the floor.
Kevin, I know you've come up with some statistical profiles that match, and my guess is Anthony Davis isn't one of them. The AD comparison is more about my excitement over what kind of transformational player Porzingis could be in the league. Who do you have?
Pelton: Yeah, Davis is a little below Nowitzki on the list. As compared to Porzingis, Davis had a better steal and turnover rate and was far more accurate as a 2-point shooter. At the same time, Davis wasn't nearly the 3-point shooter at the same age that Porzingis is.
SCHOENE isn't feeling comparisons to European players, either. In fact, none of the 15 players with the highest similarity scores at the same age is international.
The top of the list is a little odd. SCHOENE makes Brook Lopez the closest match even though how he and Porzingis achieved similar results is very different in terms of athleticism and shooting range. I suspect that will fade as the season goes on. After another couple of more traditional big men -- Joe Smith and Derrick Favors -- come Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh.
Subjectively, I think Bosh might be as good a comparison as we're going to get. Like Davis, he didn't become a major 3-point shooter until later in his career. And Porzingis has a 4-inch edge in height. But Bosh is a pretty good match for the evolution Porzingis may be able to make from power forward who is a threat on the perimeter into revolutionary stretch 5. How does that sound?
Porzingis appears to be a new archetype
Ford: Brook Lopez? So this piece will be entitled "Why does SCHOENE hate Porzingis?" Knicks fans are going to take out SCHOENE.
Bosh sounds more reasonable. I like Davis better as a comp, especially now that Alvin Gentry is unleashing his potential on the perimeter. However, I see the Bosh comparisons as well. He was one of the original comps scouts used along with Nowitzki and Gasol -- thin, skilled big men who can stretch the floor.
But Porzingis is bigger, a better shot blocker and a more prolific 3-point shooter. And he seems tougher than Bosh.
Garnett is another comp I like. He never became a great 3-point shooter, and Porzingis doesn't have KG's motor, but I see a lot of other similarities.
But really, all of this discussion makes me think there might not be a good comp for Porzingis. He's a unique player physically whose skill set is perfectly suited for the modern NBA that asks them to protect the rim, guard multiple positions on defense and do more than post up and clog the paint on offense.
Pelton: I agree with that. One thing I've learned in many years of using similarity scores is while they're fun, they are also limited. It's difficult to balance the need to find players of similar quality and those with similar styles. And similarity scores completely fall short when it comes to truly unique players. A 7-foot-3 player with his incredible quickness and shooting ability, Porzingis might be just such a unicorn.
We've tried and failed for 15 years now to find the "next Dirk Nowitzki."
Now we have a potential new NBA star who appears to be unlike anyone we've seen before. With any luck, he will force us to spend 15 years looking for the "next Kristaps Porzingis."