At their first dinner together, Wes Unseld Jr. brought a notebook to the steakhouse.
Porzingis was a bit flustered in the moment. Back in mid-February, he was still settling in after joining the Wizards in a deal at the trade deadline that sent point guard Spencer Dinwiddie and fellow Latvian Davis Bertans to the Dallas Mavericks. Although Unseld caught him off guard, Porzingis appreciated the coach’s enthusiasm. It signaled that Unseld cared about his opinion, but it also was an example of the type of direct, free-flowing communication Porzingis has come to crave.
Now on his third team in seven years in the NBA, he finally knows what he wants in an organization.
Porzingis has been stuck in the same cycle for the past few seasons, one in which indomitable hype — first because of the tantalizing combination of his 7-foot-3 stature and his offensive acumen, then because of his pairing with Luka Doncic in Dallas — gives way to injuries, disgruntlement and, in Porzingis’s words, unmet potential.
In Washington, he has found a team with similar issues, and over Porzingis’s first 13 games, a promising partnership has suggested they might be able to deliver mutual renewal. In an interview this week, Porzingis called Washington the “perfect place” to help him reach his career goal because of the Wizards’ mix of young and veteran players, Kyle Kuzma’s and Bradley Beal’s talent, and the organizational embrace he has felt from the start.
“Here’s where I can go to play to my full potential,” Porzingis said, laying out his ambition.
So far — cautiously — so good. Since the 26-year-old returned from a bone bruise in his right knee, he is averaging 21.8 points on 47.2 percent shooting from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range while adding 8.3 rebounds.
With his first game against the Mavericks looming Friday, he scored a season-high 35 points in a win over Orlando on Wednesday. In the corner of the stands at Capital One Arena, one fan burnished a homemade sign that read in blue and red letters, in Latvian and English: “Sveiks Porzingi! Welcome to DC.”
If there is one thing Porzingis absorbed from slogging through ACL rehab and meniscus tear recovery earlier in his career, it’s how to chip big goals into tiny, digestible actions. He was at a sandwich shop when news of the trade came in — “I think some guy took a picture of me staring,” he said — and then came a text from Bertans.
“He didn’t know at first, and he was like: ‘Ohhh! Let’s gooo!!! Ohhh ... oh. Never mind,’ ” Porzingis said, reenacting his friend’s realization. “ ‘You want me to show you my house?’ ”
Porzingis declined, opting for an apartment for now, and set his mind on accomplishing his first mini-goal. The No. 1 thing the center wants to focus on in Washington is consistency, which means staying healthy, eating right, resting often, tending to his body and doing all the other little measures that add up to a long career.
Porzingis is aware of his reputation as injury-prone. He said it doesn’t bother him because it’s inaccurate.
“Of course, my body is particular, I’m 7-foot-3 — you know the way I move,” he said. “But the injuries that I’ve had have been contact injuries, the two major ones — the ACL and the meniscus. So that’s something you can’t really avoid. It can happen, and it happened to me. I haven’t had the best luck in that sense.”
As he works back to full strength, he also has had to build chemistry with his new teammates and begin to learn Unseld’s playbook. The coach said Wednesday that Porzingis tweaked his ankle twice in the past four games and bounced back without a problem.
He hasn’t thought too far ahead about what the future could hold in Washington. Playing alongside Kuzma excites him. His relationship with Beal is under construction while the guard is out with season-ending wrist surgery — it’s still at the breezy, getting-to-know-you phase in which the pair went back and forth Monday morning about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.
“Brad is pretty easygoing, on and off the court, and we’ll get along fine no matter how people see us coexisting. I think he’s an excellent player, multiple-time all-star; he’s going to keep doing that, and I’m going to bring my game up, I believe,” Porzingis said, noting that Beal has not re-signed with the Wizards but has said he is leaning toward doing so this offseason.
It wasn’t just the people who convinced Porzingis to call Washington “the perfect opportunity to me” multiple times during this conversation.
Back with the Mavericks, once he felt change could be coming, Porzingis surveyed the league and thought about where he would most like to live, not just play. He prefers the Eastern Conference, where the travel is quicker and the time difference to Latvia isn’t as bad, and Washington reminded him of European cities.
“It was the same architect as Paris, right, with the [traffic] circles?” he said. “... I thought, if I did not finish the season in Dallas, than this was it for me. And it worked out perfectly.”
Porzingis also likes the mixture of ages on the Wizards’ roster. One thing he learned from his experience with the New York Knicks and Mavericks is that communication is paramount in a healthy relationship. Another thing is that it’s important to be able to take your time and lay a foundation. His previous teams were trying to win a championship quickly. Porzingis likes that the Wizards have three young first-round picks as part of their core and that their key veterans are not yet 30.
“Anybody can have one great season, and it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, whatever.’ But something that you build with a foundation — ‘We’re playing this way; we’re being consistent; this is how we see everything’ — keep building. And then you make the little adjustments by having open communication, by letting the other guy know what you both need — poof,” Porzingis said, clapping his hands. “Little bit like a relationship.”
Porzingis is starting to build his own foundation in Washington, beginning with his health.
He will work on one thing at a time, as his rehab taught him: consistent minutes, then shoring up his shooting over the offseason, then defense. He believes that’s the only way to get results, and he avoids listing grand goals because of it. The only thing he will say for sure is that, years from now, at the end of his career, he doesn’t want to feel he could have done more.
“I believe my potential is — I still have to reach it,” he said. “... At the end, what I’m looking for is peace in my life. I don’t want to live in a crazy chaos life. I want peace. I want to be at peace with who I am.”