Kristaps Porzingis has engaged 'Unicorn' mode, and the West should be worried

Watch out, West.

Kristaps Porzingis has arrived. And the Dallas Mavericks now have a second superstar.

Unicorn ahead of schedule

The Mavericks traded for Kristaps Porzingis last season with visions of pairing him next to Luka Doncic for a bonafide Big 2 for years to come.

It was a trade focused on the long run. At the time of the trade, Porzingis was recovering from an ACL tear suffered midway through the 2017-18 season. A young player with a combined size and skillset the NBA’s never seen, Porzingis was expected to take time to develop and rehab from his injury.

Porzingis struggled early in the season with an up-and-down campaign that showed flashes of his “Unicorn” moniker. But he often struggled to make shots and find his role alongside Doncic as the second-year point guard elevated his game to an All-NBA level.

Kristaps’ new-year explosion

But with the new calendar year, a new Kristaps has emerged. The Minnesota Timberwolves felt the full force of his singular skillset on Sunday as Porzingis put a bow on a Western Conference Player of the Week campaign.

Gelling with Luka Doncic and thriving in a new role at center, Kristaps Porzingis has arrived in Dallas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Porzingis torched the Timberwolves to the tune of 38 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and five blocks while tying a career-high with six 3-pointers in a 111-91 win. And it wasn’t a one-off that occurred as Doncic sat with a thumb injury.

He’s been doing this for weeks.

Over the last month, Porzingis has averaged 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 blocks while hitting 3.9 3-pointers per game. He’s hit 48.8 percent of his field goals in that span, a significant bump from his 42.4 percent rate for the entire season.

New position, new Kristaps

A big part of the bump has coincided with Porzingis’ shift to playing center full time. When Dwight Powell went down with an Achilles injury in late January, the 7-3 Porzingis made the shift over from power forward. The move is paying dividends.

“Porzingis played a spectacular game,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after Sunday’s game. “The 38 points tells about a quarter of the story of what he did in this game. Defensively, he was phenomenal. ... It was a defensive clinic.

“This is a picture of what the future of the five position quintessentially is going to look like.”

While Sunday’s performance coincided with Doncic’s absence, Porzingis has done a lot of his damage at the center position while playing alongside the Mavericks’ phenom point guard.

Doncic, Porzingis gelling

Porzingis got on his roll while Doncic missed seven games with an ankle sprain. But in the five games the two have played together since Doncic’s return, Porzingis has averaged 23.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.4 blocks and 3.4 3-pointers per game while hitting 50.6 percent of this field goal attempts. 

The Mavericks went 4-1 during that span. Doncic and Porzingis are thriving together. This is working.

This Kristaps-Luka experiment looks like it might work. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

“I’m trailing all the time now as the big guy,” Porzingis told Mavericks.com last week of switching to center. “I’m not just running down and staying in the corner, or on the perimeter waiting for something to happen.

“So it’s much better like this. I like playing this way much better. That’s what I’m more used to.”

Mavericks a threat for a playoff upset?

Will the arrival of the Unicorn alongside Doncic’s emergence lead to playoff success this season ahead of schedule? It’s hard to say. The West is stacked at the top, and the Mavericks entered Monday sitting in seventh place.

If the playoffs started today, that would add up to a first-round matchup with the Denver Nuggets. With the Mavericks avoiding both of the Los Angeles juggernauts, that sounds like a matchup ripe for a first-round upset.

Of course the playoffs are weeks away, and a lot can and will change in the standings. But if the Mavericks stay healthy and remain in the bottom half of the bracket, they’re going to amount to a matchup nobody wants in the first round.

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