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Michael Porter Jr. was once thought to be the next great prospect, injuries stalled him initially, but now he is ready for the spotlight.
The Denver Nuggets are ready. After compiling talent through the draft — whether in the lottery (Jamal Murray) or second round (Nikola Jokic) — they surged to a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals. The goal is to at least repeat that success for this upcoming season.
If they are to do that, then the player they selected with their most recent lottery pick, Michael Porter Jr., will need to take a step forward.
Flashback to 2017. Porter Jr. had just completed a tour de force senior season in high school. He led Nathan Hale, coached by former NBA star Brandon Roy, to an undefeated record (29-0), he was named MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, he also received the Gatorade National Player of the Year award, and to top it all off, he was the clear-cut number one prospect for the 2018 NBA Draft.
A 6-foot-10 teenager that could dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, defend, and play nearly every position had general managers across the league salivating at the thought of adding Porter Jr. to their team.
However, he would not remain atop that pedestal.
During his one year at the University of Missouri, Porter Jr. would suffer a back injury that would sideline him for all but three games. Porter Jr. attempted to play through the injury, but he asked out of the game just moments after it began. He tried to make a comeback during the SEC Tournament, but it was clear that this wasn’t the same can’t-miss prospect anymore.
A back injury is surely a red flag for any player, and when he was forced to cancel a workout for lottery teams because of back spasms, it turned Porter Jr. into a sunk cost for many front offices.
Holding the last selection in the lottery that year, the Nuggets had already found their two foundational pieces in Murray and Jokic, and the opportunity cost was too much to pass up. With Denver focused on making the playoffs in 2018-19, Porter Jr. was able to take the year to get his health back in order.
Last season, we got our first look at the revamped and rehabbed version of Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. planned to make his NBA debut in Las Vegas during summer league but put on hold after he suffered another injury during practice. Despite it not being serious, Denver shelved him until the regular season anyway.
Yet, in the first 20 games, he received a mixture of DNPs, spot playing time, and 20-plus minute nights. Many wondered if the promise of potential superstardom was long gone. If Porter Jr. couldn’t crack Mike Malone’s rotation ahead of Will Barton, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Juancho Hernangomez, then becoming a perennial All-Star likely was out of the window for him.
Following a deal with Minnesota that shipped out Malik Beasley and Hernangomez to the Timberwolves, a path to more playing time opened up for Porter Jr., and he showed flashes of the all-around game that made him a surefire pro in high school.
What did we see from Michael Porter Jr. in the bubble last year?
In Orlando, Porter Jr. turned those flashes into sustained production for Denver. Injuries and opt-outs might’ve forced Malone’s hand early, but Porter Jr. delivered in a big way and played his way into consistent minutes as the Nuggets went on a run in the bubble until they ran into the Los Angeles Lakers.
Heading into his third season, there aren’t any restrictions on Porter Jr. He should be as close to that dominant 17-year-old who captivated the entire basketball world.
That’s exactly what Denver is hoping to see.
Craig and Grant left in free agency, and there’s a huge hole to replace. Both players were the go-to options to defend players like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. For all of his offensive skill, Porter Jr. was nobody’s first choice as a defender. However, his combination of size, length, and athleticism make him a solid choice for such a role if he ever puts it all together on that end of the floor.
Yet, even if he can’t replace Craig and Grant’s defense, he can definitely make up for the offense of those two and then some. Both were consummate 3-and-D role players. Neither was really asked to create their own shot; they more or less spotted up around the 3-point arc or made basket cuts for Jokic to find.
But Porter Jr. is much more than a 3-and-D type. Granted, his marksmanship as an outside shooter was part of the reason that made him such a highly sought after recruit. He showed last year that he can still consistently knock down perimeter shots.
That shooting stroke isn’t limited to catch-and-shoot chances, though. Porter Jr. can rise over any defender and drilling shots in the paint, from midrange, and beyond the arc. He stuck his neck on the line during the playoffs by stating that he felt he should be more involved offensively, and to his credit, when the Nuggets turned to him, he found ways to produce.
Porter Jr. can create his own shot at any time. The trick as we advance will be figuring out how to be more efficient in his isolation scoring. We saw, far too often, Porter Jr. settling for contested shots rather than get all the way to the rim or use his passing vision to take advantage of a rotating defense.
While the Murray and Jokic pick-and-roll partnership creates some of the best offense in the entire league, having a player like Porter Jr. to turn to will only make the Nuggets more dangerous.