Porzingis: ''World Cup is going to be spectacular. I can't wait''
WASHINGTON D.C. (USA) - Kristaps Porzingis plays on the big stages of the NBA and before that, he experienced the loud and boisterous atmospheres and competitive games in Spain's Liga Endesa.
But the basketball Porzingis likes the most is when he has the name of his country, Latvia, spread across his chest, something that was reinforced this past summer when he helped the Baltic country stay on course for its first FIBA Basketball World Cup qualification.
"IT'S GOING TO BE SPECTACULAR. I CAN'T WAIT FOR NEXT SUMMER."
"It's when I most enjoy playing basketball, when it's with the national team," he said to FIBA.basketball. "To defend your country, and playing at home, it was an incredible experience. Those two games have charged me up for the season. I hope I can continue playing for the national team as I'm very eager."
Before suiting up this summer, Porzingis had last played for Latvia at FIBA EuroBasket 2017. They had one of the best teams in the competition and played in arguably the best game of the event in the Quarter-Finals. It was against Slovenia, however, and the team that had Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic made a few more plays to win a 103-97 thriller in Istanbul. Latvia left Turkey proud, but unfulfilled.
After several frustrating years, including non-qualifications for the 2019 World Cup and EuroBasket 2022, Latvia have struck back with a vengeance.
The national team clinched a spot in the World Cup with two game days still to play.
Porzingis had big performances. Against Turkey on August 25 in the Arena Riga, the man nicknamed "Unicorn" had 22 points, 14 rebounds and an eye-popping six blocks to fire Latvia to a 111-85 triumph.
Porzingis then intoxicated British fans in Newcastle upon Tyne with one of the best basketball performances they had ever seen with 29 points and 14 rebounds in a 87-80 Latvia win.
With the versatile, 2.21m (7ft 3in) Porzingis having returned to Washington to play in the NBA, his Latvia teammates finished the job of qualifying for next year's World Cup with an 80-60 triumph at Greece, followed by a 79-63 home win over the Brits.
"I'm very proud, very happy," he said. "We've put in the hard work during the summer. The first game against Greece in the window we won by 20. Those (players) that were there got the job done. All the country is happy. It's the first time in our history and we are delighted to go to the World Cup."
The World Cup is going to take the national team experience to a different level for Porzingis and Latvia. Yes, they have played in EuroBaskets, and many, especially on the old continent, view that tournament as the most competitive in international basketball.
View this post on Instagram
But the world will be watching next summer and it will be hard to beat the basketball crazed experience in the Philippines if, or once, Latvia make it there.
What Latvia's EuroBasket 2017 campaign taught Porzingis is that playing for his country is an important, even vital part of his career. He had just become a NBA sensation and in Turkey, Porzingis averaged 23.6 points and 5.9 rebounds. It was gratifying to help put his homeland in the spotlight.
"I loved the whole process," he said. "To train for the first time with the national team. I really enjoyed playing with that team. My vision was that we were going to win medals. We had the talent.
"We finished fifth. We lost to Slovenia and that was tough. That game still hurts. I wish we could have won that game. I hope I can have another chance in the World Cup and EuroBasket."
Porzingis admits that it still burns he could not take part in EuroBasketball 2022. Latvia's failure to qualify meant he had to watch as many of the world's best players, including two-time NBA MVPs Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Doncic, go to electrify crowds and he did not.
"It was tough for us not to go," he said. "We are top five or seven in Europe. I didn't like the situation. It was what it was. We didn't qualify. I enjoyed watching it, but I want to play."
Missing out on the EuroBasket also robbed Porzingis of the chance to spend time with the Latvian players.
"We are all friends, we get on really well," he said. "We play a different basketball because of that. We play without ego, we pass the ball.
"Everyone enjoys being in the national team. That is why every opportunity we get, we all want to go."
Now, Latvia's time has come. The European Qualifiers are the hardest to make it through because there are so many good teams yet the Latvians did. Now they will experience the World Cup, an event that will be held in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
"The World Cup is the first time for us, in such beautiful countries," he said. "It's going to be a great experience for everyone, not just me, the team, but our families and fans. It's going to be spectacular. I can't wait for next summer."
Latvia won't just be going to enjoy the sights. They want to win.
"Anything can happen," he said. "You can finish in the top three or 15. We have to see how it goes. (But) We are going to have talent to do great things."