Just before the NBA season tipped off, Kristaps Porzingis spoke to reporters about sacrifice — a relevant buzzword for a Celtics team that had made two significant roster additions to chase a championship.
“That’s the thing about being on a good team, everybody has to sacrifice a little bit,” Porzingis said. “That’s what you can see with this group. Everybody is willing to sacrifice for a bigger goal.”
Porzingis has spent nearly his entire career as a No. 1 or No. 2 scoring option. After Porzingis joined the Celtics following a summer blockbuster trade, how would he deal with sacrifice? Sharing the load with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, and Derrick White would require Porzingis to take a back seat. After ten games, we have a clearer picture of where he has sacrificed — and how those sacrifices have helped him soar.
The 28-year-old is averaging just 11.5 field goal attempts per game, the lowest volume in eight career seasons. He’s touching the ball 44.1 times per game according to Second Spectrum; he previously never averaged less than 55 touches. And he’s holding the ball for 1.43 seconds on average — another career low.
But Porzingis’s impact hasn’t diminished. He’s averaging 19.7 points per game with a 70.5 True Shooting percentage, a metric that weighs the value of 3-pointers and free throws in a player’s overall shot selection. That’s not only a career-best: Among the 113 NBA players hoisting up at least ten shots per game this season, Porzingis’s True Shooting clip leads the league entering Wednesday.
This isn’t just the product of a hot shooting start. Porzingis is finding easier scoring chances within the Celtics offense and making them count.
Porzingis has been a relatively quiet paint presence throughout his career despite measuring up at 7-foot-3. According to data gathered by PBP Stats, he had never attempted more than a quarter of his total shots from around the rim, even though he has always been an effective finisher — until this year. More than 36 percent of his attempts since he joined the Celtics come at the basket. Porzingis is shooting a career-best 76.2 percent on those short-range chances, with 75 percent of his buckets coming via an assist.
Boston has made sure to use Porzingis’s size advantage against smaller teams like the Wizards and Nets, often throwing him the ball down low to prey on mismatches.
Against teams like the Knicks, Boston also used Jaylen Brown and others to draw the defense’s attention as Porzingis snuck behind for easy buckets.
At the same time, Porzingis’s dead-eye shooting remains a potent weapon. He’s drilling a career-high 40.8 percent of his threes this season, albeit with the caveat of a small sample size. Sometimes that’s by acting as an outlet pass for when the Celtics drive the ball, and other times, they’re scheming him open.
Altogether, it results in a shot diet for Porzingis that tracks with the Celtics’ values as an offense: threes and layups, at the demise of the mid-range.
Longtime Porzingis followers might have grown accustomed to the big man creating his own shot out of a mid-range post-up, using his high release point to fade away over defenders. Those moments come less often in Boston, but it makes sense given what the Celtics are trying to accomplish. They brought in Porzingis not only for his individual offensive talent, but also to make life easier for the scorers around him.
Some of Porzingis’s most important work on the perimeter comes when he doesn’t have the ball. He sets screens that allow teammates to attack a lane. Even a simple direction, like spreading out to the corner, can open up space for someone else because Porzingis is drawing the opponent’s center out of the paint.
“Honestly, for me, as long as we’re playing the right way, it doesn’t matter if I get those shots or I don’t,” Porzingis said after the Celtics beat the Raptors on Saturday. “I enjoy just drawing attention. If I’m setting a good screen for my teammate, rolling and drawing more attention and somebody’s getting an open three, I love that. I love those kinds of things.”
And while Porzingis is passing the ball less than in previous years, he’s still capable when called upon.
- Stagger screen is going to force a switch— Ethan Fuller (@ethman43) October 31, 2023
- Ball resets as Kristaps Porzingis establishes post position on an easy mismatch
- Kuzma comes to help on the post-up
- Leaves top-10 NBA player Jayson Tatum wide open
- Good recognition and pass by Porzingis pic.twitter.com/k99WnlxAd8
“His open-mindedness towards being coached has way far exceeded my expectations, and his ability to just [think], ‘What can I do to make our team get better?’” coach Joe Mazzulla said after the Raptors game.
The Celtics are asking Porzingis to keep the offensive tempo up, whether it’s by punishing a mismatch, shooting a quick 3-pointer, or continuing to move the ball. It means Porzingis has less time in control of a possession, but more breathing room, and still a major impact.
PBP Stats uses NBA tracking data to compile statistics on “self-created” shots, when a player shoots the ball after holding it for two or more seconds. Last year, self-created shots made up a career-high 41.2 percent of Porzingis’s field goal attempts. This year, it’s a career-low 23.5 percent.
The Celtics are 8-2 in part because Porzingis has seamlessly fit into a simplified, somewhat lesser scoring role. And the center has thrived because his opportunities are coming easier, if less frequently.
“If you’re winning, what are you sacrificing?” Porzingis said in that preseason scrum. “Your own stats, for winning? It makes sense. I’ll do that trade every day.”
So far, for Porzingis and the Celtics, that philosophical trade has been a win-win.
Ethan Fuller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.