The Denver Nuggets took a gamble when they selected Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
One worth taking, but a gamble nonetheless.
Porter has been on the NBA radar for a long time but only played three games during his one-and-done season at the University of Missouri because of a back injury he suffered in his collegiate debut that required surgery. Even though the Nuggets weren't drafting for an immediate need like many of the teams ahead of them were, they used a valuable pick on a player with serious long-term health concerns.
Those concerns mounted when Porter was sidelined for his entire rookie season due to a second surgery on his back.
This season, however, Porter has been mostly healthy. An ankle injury sidelined him for a few games around All-Star Weekend, but he's appeared in 48 of Denver's 65 games, posting averages of 7.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.4 blocks. His numbers don't jump off the page compared to some other players in his class, but Porter has put the potential that the Nuggets were drawn to in 2018 on display time and time again.
Along the way, he's earned the adoration from NBA Twitter. Here's why.
Porter is an undeniable talent
Watch Porter play for a couple of minutes, and it's easy to see why he was being talked about as one of the best prospects in the 2018 NBA Draft prior to his freshman season at Missouri. He's the type of wing every team is looking for in today's NBA - he's tall, he's long, he's athletic and above all else, he's highly skilled, to the point where he's already an effective player with and without the ball in his hands.
The latter bodes well for his future with the Nuggets because it gives him an incredibly high floor as a stretch four next to two-time All-Star Nikola Jokic in Denver's frontcourt. According to NBA.com, around a quarter of his field goal attempts this season have been catch-and-shoot 3s. He's made 41.3 percent of those opportunities, which is one of the better rates among this season's rookies.
Porter hasn't taken as many catch-and-shoot 3s as other first-year players, but there's reason to believe that number is somewhat sustainable.
For one, he had the reputation of being a good shooter coming into the NBA. We didn't get to see much of him at Missouri, but he proved to be a solid shooter throughout high school. Secondly, he passes the eye test with flying colours. He has smooth mechanics and his size allows him to get his shot off against taller defenders.
Ultimately, it's hard to believe someone who shoots like this won't develop into at least an above average 3-point shooter.
He's more than just a spot-up threat, too - Porter has flashed some potential as a shooter off of screens.
It helps that Porter has shown signs of being a dynamic cutter as well. It hasn't made up a huge chunk of his scoring thus far, but he ranks in the 80th percentile in efficiency with 1.44 points per possession.
It's important for anyone on the Nuggets to embrace that part of their game because of how much of the offence runs through Jokic. Porter has already proven to be a willing cutter when he's engaged, and his 7-foot wingspan makes him a relatively big target for Jokic to pass to, one who can finish strong at the rim.
According to NBA.com, Jokic has assisted Porter 14 times this season. It might not sound like much, but that represents close to a third of the shots Porter has made in the limited minutes he has shared the court with Jokic. With how well they already complement each other, this could very well be the start of a special partnership.
"He definitely be looking out, for sure," Porter told NBA.com's Carlan Gay of what it's like to play with Jokic. "I know he's always looking to pass, so I try to find my little spots where he can see me and he'll give me the ball."
Porter's ability to play off-ball gives his future a high floor. It's what he can do with the ball in his hands that gives him a high ceiling.
While he hasn't created much of his own offence in Denver - two-thirds of his baskets so far have been assisted, and many of his unassisted baskets have been putbacks - Porter has the makings of a versatile scorer, particularly in isolation. His size makes him a tough matchup for guards, whereas his skill and quickness make him a tough matchup for power forwards and centres.
Again, he hasn't created much of his own offence yet, but the early returns are encouraging: Porter ranks in the 83rd percentile with an average of 1.05 points per isolation possession, per NBA.com.
Eventually, Porter is the type of player the Nuggets should be able to go mismatch hunting with, either by setting screens on Jamal Murray to attack guards or on Jokic to attack bigs. It would add another dimension to their late-game offence if he does grow into that player. He's sort of a bridge between Murray and Jokic, giving the Nuggets another shooter, ball-handler and post-up threat, only in the body of a 6-foot-10 forward.
It's telling that Porter's favourite player growing up was Hall of Fame forward Tracy McGrady. Not that you should expect him to reach the same peak that McGrady did - that peak being an All-NBA First Teamer and legitimate MVP candidate - but the way Porter moves around the court and the ease with which he scores is McGrady-like.
Even McGrady agrees.
"I was watching T-Mac highlights yesterday," Porter told NBA.com. "I'm nowhere close to that yet, but I feel like he's someone I feel like I can take bits and pieces from his game if I'm going to become the player I want to become."
Porter will never likely be the passer McGrady was, but that shouldn't be much of an issue as long as he's on the same team as Jokic, who might already be the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen. The biggest need the Nuggets have is for him to develop into a go-to scorer, which is why what he's been able to do so far this season is so promising.
This all probably leads to a rather simple question...
Why doesn't Porter play more?
The simplest explanation: Porter finds himself in a rather unique situation.
Many players drafted in his position get to play through their mistakes on rebuilding teams. Porter, on the other hand, has spent this season trying to crack the rotation of one of the best teams in the league.
With that comes a short leash. He's only playing 14.0 minutes per game and he has received a number of "DNP - Coach's Decisions" despite being healthy enough to play most of the games he has missed.
"Most players, either they go to a team that isn't in the playoff run, isn't trying to win a championship that year and they're allowed to play through some mistakes, learn the game a little more," Porter told NBA.com. "But in my situation, we already got a really talented team, a really good team, so that curve for learning was just taken away.
"I just had to pick up and when I make mistakes, coach is going to play somebody else, and that's how I learn. I don't really get to play through my mistakes as much, but that's because of the team that I'm on."
"I definitely think there's pros and cons to it, but I would much rather be on a winning team and learn that way than be on a losing team."
The problems for Porter have been more defensive than offensive. He has the tools to at least be an average defender - especially if you account for his rebounding, which he believes is the biggest asset he brings to this team right now, along with his shooting - but, as is the case with many rookies, he still has a lot to learn. It's not the only way to measure a player's effectiveness on defence and it's far from perfect, but it is worrying that he currently has the second-worst Defensive Real-Plus Minus in the entire league.
The only player ahead of him? Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young, who has the reputation of being a revolving door on defence.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann highlighted a couple of plays recently from Denver's loss to the LA Clippers that showed how much room Porter still has to grow on that end of the court.
You can see why Michael Porter Jr. still has some work to do to earn consistent PT. 2 straight possessions here - Whiffs on pick-&-roll contain & offers no resistance on Green back-down. pic.twitter.com/22QPNH4Rpi- John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) February 29, 2020
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone pulled Porter out of the game at the end of that first quarter. He didn't return to the game again until there were 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter, by which point the Nuggets were trailing by 24 points.
When asked why he benched Porter after the game, Malone reportedly said that he thought the defensive-minded Torrey Craig gave them a better chance to win.
There's a debate to be had about whether or not the Nuggets should have that win-now mentality when it comes to Porter's minutes. While they currently have the third-best record in the Western Conference, they're not being talked about in the same way as the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers. Even the Houston Rockets have better odds to win the championship than they do right now. Would they be better off doing what they're doing or extending Porter's rope, even if it makes them slightly less competitive this season?
Young is an interesting comparison to Porter in that regard. They play an entirely different position and Young was a far superior player in his rookie season, but he had an opportunity to play through his mistakes in Atlanta, resulting in him being an All-Star in only his second season.
If Porter were to follow a similar trajectory - not necessarily an All-Star in his second season, but maybe a clear starter on a playoff team - there's no doubt that it would benefit the Nuggets in the long run because a full-fledged version of Murray, Porter and Jokic would give the Nuggets one of the best trios in the league.
Whether or not Porter is a part of Denver's rotation in the playoffs should this season resume remains to be seen, but he's a big part of the team's future.
Porter has already shown what he is capable of when he gets an opportunity. His best game of the season based on Game Score was when he went for 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a win over the Golden State Warriors. He's also scored 20 or more points in two games, one of which he did so on 11-for-12 shooting from the field.
Michael Porter Jr. recorded a career-high 25 PTS on 11-12 FGM to lead the Denver Nuggets to a 124-116 win over the Pacers.- NBA UK (@NBAUK) January 3, 2020
His .917 FG% is the highest by an NBA rookie in a 25-PT game since Detroit's Brandon Knight (also .917) against Cleveland on April 17, 2012. pic.twitter.com/1RMbA4TFch
The scary part? Porter says he is still recovering and getting stronger.
"I'm still learning a lot," Porter told NBA.com. "I didn't play in college really, so I'm pretty much from high school to the NBA. There's still a lot for me to learn in terms of the game, and physically I'm still recovering."
Health will always be a concern with Porter because of how debilitating back injuries can be, but if he can stay healthy, it's only a matter of time until he's being discussed as one of the best players to come out of the 2018 NBA Draft. And if he does become the McGrady-like scorer he has the potential to be, there's a chance Porter could be the piece that elevates this Nuggets team into being a true title contender in the years to come.
NBA.com's Carlan Gay contributed to this story.
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