Kristaps Porzingis, Dirk Nowitzki strengthen friendship at NBA Africa

Knicks' phenom, Mavs' legend deepen their burgeoning bond

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Their first real intersection happened a day ago in a gymnasium where they, of course, worked on their outside shot. Next comes Saturday during an exhibition game in a place called the Pro Dome, a steel bubble on the outskirts of town.

And get this: They’ll be teammates, suiting up for Team World in the NBA Africa Game (11 a.m. ET, ESPN2), which provides a neat convenience.

> Team Africa vs. Team World (Saturday 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2)

> Game Info: Rosters, stats and complete game coverage

> #NBAAfricaGame

The bonding of Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis is taking root in an unusual setting and under strange circumstances. It’s one between an aging veteran from Germany nearing the end of a brilliant career in Dallas … and a just-turned-22-year-old Latvian who plays in New York. And, they’re breaking bread in Africa of all places.

Yet this is how it must be, since nearly everyone on the basketball planet long concluded that Porzingis is the Next Dirk well before Porzingis even met Nowitzki.

He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to. It’s not fair for me to be compared to a legend like him.

Kristaps Porzingis, on Dirk Nowitzki

You can understand: They’re both foreigners groomed on basketball before stepping foot inside the U.S. They’re seven-foot-plus players who are comfortable anywhere on the front line. They’re both white men in a predominantly African-American game, and in terms of shooting their sweet spot on the floor is wide enough to cause a cavity.

They’ve had meaningful discussions this week while conducting clinics with other NBA players for African teenagers. And what have they taken away from those first impressions?

Porzingis: “He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to. It’s not fair for me to be compared to a legend like him.”

Nowitzki: “He’s the real deal. He’s going to be fun to watch for a long, long time.”

The intrigue of the NBA Africa Game is the chance to witness how much Nowitzki and Porzingis have in common in a different setting. Most of it will be cosmetic: the chance to see the interplay between the two on the floor together, how much the youngster defers to the role model and how much the role model encourages the youngster to take the baton.

Porzingis is, however, accurate in one sense — being compared to Nowitzki after two NBA seasons seems preposterous. Remember, this is Nowitzki, a first-name-only global basketball icon, a 12-time All-NBA team member, the highest-scoring foreign-born player ever and the sixth NBA player to crack 30,000 points. This is a funky-shooting big man who is entering his 20th NBA season, who dedicated himself to one team and who is on the Mount Rushmore for European players.

“I mean, obviously it’s not easy to do that at a high level for so long,” Porzingis said. “Hopefully I can do the same. I’m my own player and there are some similarities, but to be honest I’m learning from him still.”

Above all, Nowitzki has maintained a solid sense of professionalism and gained immense popularity in a football-mad. His only championship was won in style when he chopped down the Miami Heat’s star triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in The 2011 Finals, earning him series MVP honors.

“I like him a lot, both on and off the floor. … He’s the whole package. He’s got his head on straight, he’s working hard, wants to get better and learn.

Dirk Nowitzki, on Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis doesn’t need a refresher course on Nowitzki’s resume. It’s already committed to memory.

“I’ve seen so many highlights of him, watched so much film on him,” he said. “I’ve watched how he has conducted himself and carried himself. He’s a good person to study.”

Yet Porzingis would be shocked to know that Nowitzki has trained his binoculars toward the Knicks and their 7-foot-3 foundation and future hope.

“I like him a lot, both on and off the floor,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a tremendous talent. He’s the whole package. He’s got his head on straight, he’s working hard, wants to get better and learn. On the court, I don’t think we’ve seen a 7-3 guy shoot it and put it on the floor like that, block shots like that.”

Unlike some young athletes fortunate enough to be in the Big City, Porzingis isn’t a creation of the New York largess. The talent seems as steep as his height and that combination will make him a force in the NBA should his progress keep rising. Porzingis does have the chance to own New York basketball in a way not seen since Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing did so for the Knicks three decades ago. That says a lot about Porzingis and, unfortunately, about the slumber the Knicks find themselves in.

This summer, when team president Phil Jackson entertained offers for Porzingis, Knicks fans were outraged enough to get the attention of owner Jim Dolan. And now, Jackson is the ex-president.

Yes, to surrender Porzingis would have been a potential franchise-killer. After an inspired rookie season, Porzingis logged 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and two blocks a game in 2016-17. Those numbers don’t account for how miserable he was at times, given the turbulence and conflicting direction that suffocated the Knicks’ season.

It was that experience and more that encouraged Porzingis to saddle up to Nowitzki to seek and soak some wisdom.

“I’m asking him all kinds of questions about anything. I’m interested in his experiences, his rookie year, his second, third and fourth year. We’re just talking about basketball and non basketball stuff.

“I find it unbelievable that he will have played in the league 20 years next season and stayed with one team his whole career and won a championship with them. That’s amazing. Also, everything he has done for European basketball is immeasurable.”

Said Nowitzki: “I just wanted to get to know him a bit better because during the season there’s no time. You say ‘hi’, you say ‘bye’, even though we exchanged phone numbers when he was first in the league but really didn’t have a lot of contact. This week there have been opportunities to talk. Just about hoops in general.

“And it was more like hanging out. I don’t see myself as a father figure or coach. I just want to be a guy who’s easy to talk to. [I] just want to have fun with him.”

Nowitzki also is impressed by Porzingis’ desire to improve, as indicated by the vigorous summer workout schedule Porzingis has maintained.

“The only advice I would give young guys is to keep your ears and eyes open,” Nowitzki said. “Never see yourself as a finished product. You always want to improve, learn from the veterans on the team. I think he’s on the right track. He’s doing all of that and more. I think he’s going to be great.”

In the meantime, they will have each other on Saturday in a basketball game in Africa to show the link that seems rather evident. As well, they may share a few moments that neither will forget.

“It’s going to be a fun experience, honestly,” Porzingis said. “Who knows, hopefully maybe we can throw a lob to each other, something like that? Or hit back-to-back threes and give a good show to the fans … it should be special.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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