Head2Head: Kristaps Porzingis vs. Nikola Jokic

By Josh Eberley #41

Welcome to Head2Head. Deciding a winner between two similar players or topics in the only way that makes sense: through a one-on-one debate between two basketball minds.

Every edition will feature two writers making their case. A poll will be posted with each article, and it’ll be up to the readers to decide who wins.

For the inaugural run we had Dan Greenberg of Barstool Sports drops in to debate the superior clutch scoring point guard: Damian Lillard or Isaiah Thomas. This week we have Maxwell Ogden of Hoops Habit running up to clash on the best big man on the come up: Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic?

Two players, two authors, one vote!

Here’s the tale of the tape:

Kristaps Porzingis 32.8 6.7 14.9 .450 1.7 4.8 .357 3.0 3.8 .786 7.2 1.5 0.7 2.0 1.8 18.1 17.4
Nikola Jokic 27.9 6.8 11.7 .578 0.6 1.9 .324 2.6 3.1 .825 9.8 4.9 0.8 0.8 2.3 16.7 26.3


Josh Eberley: Thanks for hopping in Max, you’ve got one job and it’s a tough one: Convince the readers that Kristaps Porzingis is a better player headed into this season than Nikola Jokic. You’re up first.

Maxwell Ogden: Kristaps Porzingis is already one of the best-rounded offensive big men in the NBA. That isn’t based on per-36 or post-All-Star Break statistics, but tangible numbers that have been accumulated over the course of two seasons. Beyond the numbers, a skill set is present that we’ve rarely ever seen.

The latter can be said for Jokic, but Porzingis has something that simply can’t be overlooked: Unparalleled size to complement his skill level.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Porzingis needs to add more muscle mass in order to become more consistent in the post, but that’s what he’s done this summer. He’s already an outstanding three-point shooter, but what’s underrated is how capable he is of taking his man off the bounce and finishing on the move.

How many 7-3 players have ever been able to create offense with their jump shot, their handle, and their post game? The answer is none—besides Porzingis and a pre-NBA Arvydas Sabonis.

The fact that Porzingis has been training with Dirk Nowitzki is a sign that he’s committed to polishing the post game he’s shown flashes of possessing. Between Nowitzki’s signature knee-up turnaround J, a bevy of Dream Shakes, and a skyhook that’s just waiting to develop, Porzingis has shown flashes of everything a big man needs.

As Phil Jackson said: No one can adequately defend Porzingis’ shot. As soon as KP realizes that, he’ll be unstoppable as a scorer.

Eberley: I’m partial to the unicorn. His skill set and size are a formidable combination. But here’s the thing, you mentioned that, “he’s shown flashes,” not once, but twice. Porzingis is a masterpiece and you can see it formulating but he’s not there yet.

Jokic, on the other hand—my goodness. You mentioned Sabonis but is Jokic the best passer at the center position we’ve seen since…? Mike Malone had some legitimate trouble with his rotation early in the season but from January onward, Jokic averaged 5.8 APG. A legitimate point center in an NBA that’s moved away from both a slow pace game and offensive-minded big men—it’s phenomenal.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the New Year, the Denver Nuggets had an offensive rating (ORTG) of 105.7. January on, it skyrocketed to 113! The Golden State Warriors had an ORTG of 113.2 on the year. This Nuggets offense was no joke with Jokic firmly behind the wheel. Not trying to double down on the same stat but it’s truly remarkable. With Jokic on the floor last season the Nuggets had an ORTG of 114.9. With him off the court, it dive-bombed to 104.9.

Granted, Porzingis’ Knicks were a worse team but you see nowhere near the changes with his on and off numbers. With Porzingis on the floor the Knicks had an ORTG of 104.6 and with him off it was 104.8. Essentially there was no change whatsoever.

To wrap up why I think Jokic is a way better offensive player, he only averaged 1.4 less PPG than Porzingis in five less minutes a night. Porzingis is a better shooter from long range but on a whole Jokic kills him as a scorer. PPG: Jokic 16.7; Porzingis 18.1. Effective field goal percentage: Jokic .605; Porzingis .507. True shooting percentage: Jokic .640; Porzingis .546.

Jokic just has a better feel for the game. He’s a better ball-mover, he picks his spots better and he’s more efficient by an extremely wide margin.

Ogden: I can’t possibly argue against Nikola Jokic’s incredible efficiency. He already ranks amongst the best passing big man we’ve ever seen, with the likes of Arvydas Sabonis and Pau Gasol being fair comparisons in that regard. There’s just one area of the game where Kristaps Porzingis has to be viewed as superior: defense.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Porzingis’ advanced metrics weren’t great on defense in 2016-17, but that can be chalked up to the fact that the players around him didn’t even try to defend. Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Hornacek, and Brandon Jennings all called out the Knicks for showing no effort on defense, but Porzingis was the exception.

Porzingis was the only Knicks starter with a defensive rating below 110.0, which makes his 107.7 mark one that can somehow be appreciated. Running back and forth between the paint and the three-point line is not ideal for any player, but with a team that will be more committed to defense in 2017-18, Porzingis’ individual impact should be appreciated more.

KP is a 7-3 goliath who has ranked in the top 10 in blocks per game in each of his first two NBA seasons. He needs to improve his rebounding, but he’s a one-man deterrent in the paint who can alter any and every shot that’s sent his way. Despite the glaring defensive inconsistency around him, he’s led New York to top 10 rankings in opponent field goal percentage at the rim in each of his two seasons.

As John Brinkus of Sports Science put it: Shooting over Porzingis at full extension is like shooting over a charter bus. Literally.

In addition to being the superior individual defender, Porzingis has a work ethic that few can rival. He’s already trained with Dirk Nowitzki this summer, and he’s been the proverbial sponge for knowledge since he was a teenager in Spain.

That’s not saying Jokic isn’t equally as hungry, but Porzingis’ commitment to defense, as well as his immediate value as a 7-3 roadblock, is an undeniable advantage. His intangibles can be best described as an unquenchable thirst for greatness.

Eberley: Max, you might have me here. Jokic just isn’t built to be the defender Porzingis is. His lateral quickness isn’t there and he’s not a rim protector or shotblocker by trade. However, defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) has Jokic at 2.29 and Porzingis at 1.9. They had the same defensive win shares (2 vs. 2.1), they had the same DRTG (109). (Not that individual DRTG mean a ton.)

Porzingis has a much higher ceiling as a defender, it’s hard to imagine him not being better at that end of their respective careers but I’m not sure it’s substantial at this moment. Jokic has a thicker body and he does eat space. His footwork is great and he’s the better rebounder by a mile. I think for the moment, that at least puts them close.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

I’d feel fairly confident saying Jokic is closer at this moment to Porzingis on defense than Porzingis is to Jokic on offense. Which leads me to the intangibles argument.

Jokic seems to make everybody better, he’s at the heart of what the Nuggets did last year and he warranted that trust with a beautiful second half push. Porzingis hasn’t had that kind of impact yet. He hasn’t been asked to lead the team and to be honest, he probably wasn’t ready to do so yet. It’s not his fault the Knicks are a mess. Nor is it his fault the Carmelo Anthony saga and Derrick Rose experiment limited his role, but that’s the thing: His role has been limited.

Both are young, both haven’t shown concrete samples of much but Jokic’s second half stretch last year is the best stretch of basketball either has played and he was the alpha throughout that period. That should count, we know Jokic led an above .500 team in a tougher conference in 2017. We have no such evidence Porzingis could do the same in an inferior East.

Finally, Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest and I love that Porzingis is getting some solid tutelage but it’s not like Jokic is spending his whole summer surfing Netflix. He’s getting that work in as well!

Ogden: In 2015-16, Kristaps Porzingis became the first rookie in NBA history to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks, and 75 three-point field goals made. In 2016-17, he became the seventh player in NBA history to record at least 18.0 points per game, 100 blocks, and 100 3-point field goals made.

The bottom line with Porzingis is quite simple: He’s a legitimate two-way player who can take over games and execute in multiple phases at both ends of the floor.

Jokic is a remarkable talent who will be a top 10 player for years to come. What Porzingis has is a little different, however, as he’s a walking matchup nightmare who can Tim Duncan and Yao Ming teams to death by simply polishing his fundamentals and letting his body work for him.

Jokic is a better passer, post player, and rebounder, but Porzingis has the physical advantage and the better jump shot—the perfect combination for this era.

Porzingis is bulking up and beginning to become more fluid in the way he sets up his shot. He already has one of the prettiest releases in basketball, and now, he’ll have the tutelage of Dirk Nowitzki to fall back on if difficult times arrive.

Both players are on the fast track to superstardom, but Porzingis is about to play in a system that fits his abilities—and it’s going to show on both ends of the floor.

You may end up winning this debate, but Porzingis has faced more pressure than any other young player in the NBA. He’s attempting to save the Knicks from a 44-year title drought and, quite frankly, themselves.

The Knicks’ first drafted franchise player since Patrick Ewing is living up to the hype every season—and win or lose this debate, I wouldn’t trade him for the world.

Eberley: If there’s one thing no one is doubting, it’s your commitment to the Unicorn.

I’d agree with your conclusion with one small alteration:

“The bottom line with Porzingis is quite simple: He has the potential to be a legitimate two-way player who can take over games and execute in multiple phases at both ends of the floor.”

The final say will go to the voters. Do you want Porzingis and the tremendous blueprint Max laid out on this once in a lifetime prospect? Or do you want Jokic’s elite feel for the game and his ability to maximize other players offensively, knowing his defensive ceiling is a lot lower?

Tell us what you think @JoshEberley, @MaxwellOgden, and @HOOPmag.