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As Mavericks ascend with Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis could swing their fortunes

Mavericks big Kristaps Porzingis

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 28: Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the Dallas Mavericks poses for a portrait during NBA media Day on September 28, 2021 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

There’s a special class of NBA players who’ve wowed at a young age. Players who proved they were All-Star-worthy by 23. Not just sneaking into an All-Star game as an injury replacement, either. Selected a starter by fans or reserve by coaches. Players who were the focal points of their teams. With a usage percentage above 30 that season.

In all, 18 players have qualified.

The list includes all the superstars you’d expect. Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal. Kevin Durant. The combination of star and go-to status certainly presages long-term success.

Of the 18 qualified players, 15 have made a subsequent All-Star game. Most of them have made many more All-Star games.

Two of the exceptions – Hawks guard Trae Young (who qualified in 2020) and Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (who qualified in 2021) – probably need just a bit more time. Both look like All-Star mainstays.

And then there’s Kristaps Porzingis.

Porzingis looked like a budding superstar when he made the 2018 All-Star game at age 22 with the Knicks. A unicorn capable of bombing 3s, slamming dunks and blocking shots.

But his progress has stalled since joining the Mavericks, adding pressure to Dallas’ bid to win around Luka Doncic.

The Mavericks used so much capital to get Porzingis. They traded two first-round picks (one which became No. 21 pick Keon Johnson this year and a top-10-protected 2023 pick) and took the expensive contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. (who actually turned into a helpful contributor) and Courtney Lee in a 2019 deal with New York. Dallas then gave Porzingis a max contract that summer. With so many resources burnt, the Mavericks have limited options if Porzingis doesn’t pan out. That’s especially true because they didn’t lure another star with available cap space in 2019 or this summer.

Maybe Porzingis will deliver. He’s still 7-foot-3 with a smooth shooting stroke. As he adds distance from his torn ACL, he could regain athleticism. A coaching change offers a fresh start.

Porzingis is not necessarily quite as far from getting back on track as it seems. He scored 20 points per game by shooting 54% on 2-pointers, 38% on 3-pointers and 86% on free throws last season

But his defense really lagged. He wasn’t aggressive enough offensively.

Of course, he might point the finger at Doncic not involving him enough. There has been friction between the two.

Porzingis playing better would probably help.

Doncic will carry Dallas a long way. At just 22, he has already proven capable of leading a reasonable supporting cast into the playoffs and putting up a fight. The Mavericks have him locked in for five more years.

But as any superstar goes through his prime, championship expectations rise. Dallas is running out of other avenues to surround Doncic with the type of star teammates usually necessary for a title. Tanking for a high draft pick is no longer viable. Doncic’s super-max extension makes opening major cap space difficult.

The Mavericks made their bed with Porzingis.

Now, they’re hoping he’ll awaken.