January 16, 2019

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Dirk Nowitzki—along with Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker—grew up as part of a global generation hooked on basketball through the phenomenon that was the 1992 Dream Team.

The appeal of the greatest team ever assembled pulled some of the best athletes from other countries away from their nations’ national past times, steering them away from soccer field and handball matches and onto the basketball court. They are the proud legacy and direct descendants of the Dream Team.

They are a generation of legitimate stars that forced the United States to adjust its perception of basketball superiority. They were MVPs, they were All-Stars. They were innovators.

Kristaps Porzingis, the rookie phenom for the New York Knicks, grew up watching the likes of Nowitzki.

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“Dirk is a legend. Of course I watching a lot of Dirk (growing up), especially because he’s European, he’s tall, and he has a great shot,” Porzingis said (per ESPN.com). “He’s one of the best shooters there is. I watched a lot of his film, how he gets his separation, how he gets his shot off—all the little things. He’s not the most athletic guy, but he always finds a way to get his shot off.”

Between Nowitzki and Porzingis—a 17-year age difference—are a graveyard of failed Nowitzki’s; viable rotation players who fell short of the stardom ascribed to their respective high draft statuses.

On Monday night, past and future met in the present—one they’re surprisingly both relevant in—at Madison Square Garden, embracing prior to tip-off.

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Porzingis has gone from draft pariah to savior in New York. Which is understandable as the promise of Nowitzki has given way to the disappointments of Andrea Bargnani and Darko Milicic in recent years.

“Every tall European now who comes over and can shoot is going to be compared to me, but he looks like he’s for real,” Nowitzki said in that same ESPN article. “I mean, he’s just 20 years old. He’s got a lot of ways to go, but the upside this kid has is just tremendous.”

Porzingis, along with Karl-Anthony Towns, looks like one of two rookies from this year’s draft class likely to become franchise cornerstones. What he doesn’t necessarily look like is Nowitzki.

Yes, he’s tall with a soft touch and deep shooting range. But his 7-foot-3 frame is longer, takes a tougher beating, and possesses a bit more athleticism. He’s already a better defender than Nowitzki at the same age, and probably will be far superior on that end over the course of his career.

Porzingis’ signature play so far has been the putback dunk, which he’s dropped over opponents’ heads on a regular basis:

But perhaps his greatest attribute is mentally, he’s equipped to handle the grandest of stages. The expectations of New York haven’t phased him; he’s confidently integrated himself into the team, almost immediately. Those Nowitzki comparisons? An honor to aspire to, not a burden to meet. And ultimately, not the mold he’s looking to fit into—comfortable in finding his own niche.

Nowitzki scored 11 of the Dallas Mavericks’ first 13 points, masterfully working off the ball to gain separation for open jumpers and force switches to mismatches he could take advantage of in the post. For a night, the past gave the future all it could handle, scoring 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting.

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Of course, Porzingis returned the favor—and then some. When Nowitzki hit an early three-pointer early, screening for Deron Williams before stepping behind a Zaza Pachulia screen, the rookie answered with a hard drive to left, showing the ball with a quick fake, then turning back over his other shoulder for a fadeaway jumper.

Kristaps Porzingis, Dirk Nowitzki
(Photo: Anthony Gruppuso – USA TODAY Sports)

Porzingis scored 28 points, one shy of his career-high, hitting 13-for-18 shots (2-for-4 from three-point line), to go with two blocks and a steal.

“He’s for real,” Nowitzki said. “We’ve said it before. He’s tougher than you think. He’s long. He’s athletic. He can put the ball on the floor. The sky’s the limit for this kid, not only because he’s good, but also because I heard he lives and breathes basketball. He stays in the gym, he works hard and doesn’t let all this hype here get to his head. You’ve got to root for him.”

Porzingis remains a project—a very productive project, but one nonetheless. Perhaps the most encouraging sign towards stardom is how he’s able to impact the game before he’s had a chance to truly refine the skill set that will come to define him.

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The game has gone global, and the influx of overseas talent has made NBA deeper than it has ever been. But there’s been a generational gap of elite-level talent. The gulf between Team USA and the rest of the world widened as the likes of Spain or Argentina failed to groom replacements for the Gasol’s and Ginobili’s.

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Perhaps, the Dream Team explosion that captivated their generation failed to ignite the same flame in the one immediately following. Perhaps, it’s just an aberration. But just as Nowitzki and company once did when they squared off against the legends that inspired them as children, Porzingis proved himself worthy of carrying the torch.

There’s a new generation of international prospects with tantalizing potential—Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andrew Wiggins, Dario Saric, Rudy Gobert, and Mario Hezonja to name a few. Only, this group didn’t grow up watching the Dream Team; they learned the game watching Nowitzki, and Ginobili, and Gasol, and Parker, and Steve Nash.

And once these players begin making their mark on the league, once that flow of elite talent continues uninterrupted, the ceiling for the game of basketball will grow as high as Porzingis’ considerable reach.

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