Kristaps Porzingis on rediscovering his health and ‘getting back to that level’

NBA, Washington Wizards

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Kristaps Porzingis spoke with FanSided about his career renaissance and how taking better care of his body has unlocked his potential.

When Kristaps Porzingis sits down he has to spread across two folding chairs. A Washington Wizards trainer comes by and drops a pair of ice bags at his feet and, as we begin to talk, he wraps the ice bags around his knees. At 27 years old, Porzingis has learned how to best take care of his body — all 7-feet, 3-inches, 240 pounds.

“I want to stay healthy and maintain this body to play as long as I can,” Porzingis tells me. “I’ve been forced to learn, and the good thing is that I’m really interested in those kinds of things.”

Once known as “The Unicorn,” Porzingis has been drained of his rare powers by injuries. An ACL tear sidelined him for the entirety of the 2018-19 season and he hasn’t played more than 57 games in a season since as injuries lingered through stops in New York, Dallas and Washington.

Now in his second year with the Wizards, Porzingis is experiencing somewhat of a career renaissance. While the explosiveness that defined his early career isn’t quite back, he’s healthier than he’s been in a long time. He’s missed just two games all season – most recently being held out for lower back tightness in Denver Wednesday – and is making shots at a career-high rate while playing his best defense since his 2017-18 All-Star campaign.

Just over his last eight games Porzingis has a 41-point performance against the Timberwolves, a 27-point and 19-rebound game in Brooklyn and put up 30 points and 15 rebounds against the Clippers.

“I still feel I have levels to get to,” Porzingis says, “but I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made.”

Prior to a seven-game losing streak during which Bradley Beal missed most or all of five games with a hamstring injury, the Wizards were in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. With Beal and Porzingis, a spot in the play-in tournament is possible.

“He’s been pivotal,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.

Porzingis is averaging 22.6 points on 48.1 percent shooting (34.5 percent from 3-point range) and no one on the Wizards has scored more points this season. His marks of 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game are team highs. Only Kyle Kuzma has logged more minutes.

Watch Porzingis move on the court and he’s regained some of the fluidity that made him worthy of the No. 4 overall pick in 2015.

But sitting here in Miami eight hours before the Wizards tip off against the Heat, it’s clear Porzingis, 27, has learned and changed since then. His face is adorned with a light brown beard and he speaks with the kind of acceptance and self-awareness that can be rare for an athlete that should be entering his time. In some ways, maybe he is.

The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What has been different for Kristaps Porzingis this season?

Watching you on the court this season, it looks like you’re moving better than you have in a long time. Are you feeling that?

Definitely. I’ve made some strides in getting back to being able to move the way I’d like to and I think it’s showing. Especially on the defensive end. I’m able to contain those pick-and-rolls better and I’m a better rim protector. I still feel I have levels to get to but, yeah, I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made.

Where do you feel the biggest difference in your movements?

Probably laterally. Being able to – Boom – get out when the quick guards make moves. Which big man can contain every guard? It’s impossible. Like Ja Morant, who can stop that guy? But I feel like the way things are going, I’m getting back to that level I know I can be at.

I heard that you changed your pregame routine and now you don’t warm up an hour before the game. Why did you make that decision?

So in Europe, we would never come out at 60 or 75 [minutes] before the game and shoot. We would come out right before the game and get shots up. I did that in Europe and, when I came to New York, it was different because I was a rookie and I had to get on the court. Then, after a couple of years in New York, I went back to my old routine of just getting a couple of shots up in the morning and then right before tip-off. Now I’m going back to that. That’s when I feel the best because I like to really lock in my shot right before the game, get my legs warmed up, that’s when I feel I’m the closest to how I’m going to be feeling in-game.

A lot of this stuff seems to be trial and error. What have you learned and how have you evolved in terms of taking care of your body over the course of your career?

Oh, I mean, I’ve made incredible strides in that sense. Not only what kind of exercise I need but also nutrition, sleep, all of those things. I want to stay healthy and maintain this body to play as long as I can, so I’ve been forced to learn. The good thing is that I’m really interested in those kinds of things because, after the NBA, I have a long life ahead of me. So that’s been a major part of what I focus on.

Did you have an aha moment in your career when you said, ‘Hey, I really need to learn this stuff.’?

I’ve had moments, especially when I’ve been hurt. That’s when I’ve been like, ‘OK, what can I do better? How can I get to the next level? Maybe I could have avoided this.’ When those kinds of questions arise, that’s when I started to figure out what I could do better. I think the No. 1 thing that people underrate is quality sleep. Getting your hours at the right temperature is when your body recovers the best. It’s the best legal drug you can get.

What’s a good night of quality sleep for you?

I like to get at least nine hours. If I can get 10, I’ll sleep 10 hours. And I sleep at 68 [degrees].

Did you have any role models or guys who could teach you these things when you were younger in New York?

I had some good vets in New York. I had Sasha Vujacic, Carmelo [Anthony]. I was imitating everything Melo was doing. My game — just by watching him every day, how he attacked in the post — it would rub off on me and I would start doing similar stuff. Of course, we’re different players, but there’s definitely things I took from him and I think with time I just figured out what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. I’m a specific, unique type of body and player and I need different things than a guy that’s 6-feet tall.

Do you have any routines, drills or practices that are an everyday requirement?

I’m a big lunge guy. I do a lot of lunges. Pretty much every day. On game days, right before I walk out, I do 2-3 minutes of body-weight lunges. They get my legs warm and just connect me to the ground.

What’s your diet look like now?

Gluten-free. I’ve done a lot of testing to know what I can and what I can’t eat. Of course no fried food — I try to stay away. But definitely no gluten.

How long have you been gluten-free?

I’ve been in and out. I started when I was hurt in New York. That’s when I really locked in my diet for the first time. Sometimes I let go a little bit but once the season starts I’m locked in.

So no PB&J before the game?

It’s sugar, it’s fuel, so sometimes I sin a little bit and have that. But on gluten-free bread.

What was this past offseason like for you? Where did you spend it?

I was mostly back home in Latvia, which is where I feel the best, especially in the summertime. I worked with an ex-[Latvian] national team player who is a good friend of mine for the first time. Zanis Peiners. He’s really smart and big into analytics. We talked to Coach Dean [Oliver] here who is our analytics guy and he gave us a lot of insight into what we should work on more, not work on, try not to shoot during games, so we looked at that and tried to find where we could get better. And I did a ton of work on my body.

Note: Porzingis is shooting a career-best 60.3 true shooting percentage.

Is your game more analytically-driven now than in past years?

Yeah, more now. Just knowing where I’m most effective from and trying to get to those spots more than just shooting anything. People will say, ‘Oh, in New York, you had more highlights.’ Yes, because I was doing more crazy shit. I was just all over the place, so some things would happen. Now, once you get older, you’re more experienced and you do less stuff, but you do it at a higher percentage and you do it more effectively. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on.

Given the increased efficiency, your defense, do you think you’re playing the best all-around basketball of your career?

I think from understanding the game and the decision-making, I’d say yes. I still feel like, physically, I will get to a better place even though I’m moving well and my numbers are probably better than ever in some areas defensively. I just see the game differently now. I anticipate things that I didn’t before. Maybe I was moving a bit better and that covered up for the things I didn’t see, but now I see those things and anticipate them before they happen so I give myself more time. And I feel like I haven’t played great offensively, either. I’ve played well, but I still feel like I can get better. I had some off games. Of course, nothing is ever going to be perfect, but I feel on both ends I still have places to go. But that’s why I’m staying hungry and I’m looking forward to building myself up.

Do you want to get back to doing some crazy shit?

Of course! I’m looking forward to doing some crazy shit, but controlled crazy shit. (Laughs.) Before, I was talking more like that dribble, dribble, spin around and then maybe one out of seven crazy shots go in, and then it’s a highlight on Instagram. I don’t need that. If it’s a high-quality play and looks good, I love that. But there’s a lot of times where you can shoot 5-of-24 from the field but you have one highlight play and people say ‘Oh, this guy’s hooping.’ Like, no he just had one crazy highlight. I just want to be a consistent player. I want to win and, to be a winning player, you have to make the right play most of the time. That’s what I’m trying for.

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