When Michael Porter Jr. fell to the Denver Nuggets at 14th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, it raised some eyebrows. The 6-10 forward out of Missouri only played three games in college due to back surgery, and it’s claimed a medical report stated that he’d never play basketball again.
But at the same time, it was also seen as the steal of the draft. Scouts saw star potential in MPJ, and he was considered one of the best players available – but that was all dependent on health. These health concerns reappeared when a second back surgery forced him to miss all of the 2018-19 season. He finally made his NBA debut the following year, in October 2019 against the New Orleans Pelicans, scoring 15 points off the bench in a 122-107 loss.
But it was after the hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the start of bubble basketball, when Porter Jr. got the chance to show what he could really do.
The seeding games put the 22-year-old on the map.
He made All-Seeding Second Team, averaging 22 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game – taking advantage of the starting spot given to him due to injuries to Gary Harris and Will Barton.
Unfortunately, his stock, and level of play, fell a little in the playoffs. He lost his starting role in Game 4 of the Nuggets first round series against the Utah Jazz, and came off the bench in every game afterwards. Perhaps this move to the bench is what hurt his consistency throughout the playoffs. His scoring totals in each game from Game 1 to Game 7 of the Utah series were as such – 13 points, 28 points, seven points, nine points, 15 points, two points, 10 points.
So, what’s next? Well, with some improvement in certain areas of his game MPJ can create a Big-3 in the Mile High City. Alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Porter Jr. can become the third star in an impressive Nuggets team. He’s already an important part of Coach Malone’s rotation, but if he finds some consistency Denver can become true championship contenders.
There’s no doubt that Porter Jr.’s strengths are on the offensive end. This was seen in his career high performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the bubble, scoring 37 points in a variety of ways.
During the seeding games he shot 55.1 percent from the floor, and watching him play it’s easy to understand how he can be so efficient.
He was shooting 77.1 percent in the restricted area in the seeding games, and 70.8 percent in the playoffs, as his height and length make him a fantastic finisher around the rim. MPJ can control his body when he’s in the air, hanging around defenders before scoring with his right hand. This pairs well with his fantastic off-ball movement, as he cuts to the basket often – searching for those high percentage looks. Obviously playing with Nikola Jokic helps, as he knows that when he does move off back screens and towards the rim, more often than not the Joker will find him.
MPJ is also more than willing to drive and score, again, using his length and body control around the basket – just ask Montrezl Harrell.
His off-ball movement also helps when he’s shooting the basketball – as did his 42.2 3-point percentage in the seeding games. Porter Jr. is more than happy to come off screens or handoffs to receive the ball, and he can comfortably get his feet set and shoot. Again, he uses all of his seven-foot wingspan and high release point to simply get his jump shot off over smaller defenders. Shooting 41.9 percent on catch and shoot 3-pointers in the seeding games (attempting just under four and half per game) MPJ is also more than comfortable carrying the ball up the court and hitting pull-up threes – shooting 42.9 percent on these in the seeding games. Although his 3-point percentage dipped slightly in the post-season (to 38.2 percent), Porter Jr. has proven that he’s a more than potent offensive player, capable of scoring almost anywhere on the court.
His clutch 3-pointer against the Los Angeles Clippers, in Game 5 of their second round series, encapsulated everything that makes him such a great offensive talent. He caught the ball on the wing and used his high release point to easily shoot over Lou Williams.
There’s also no doubt that Porter Jr.’s weaknesses are on the defensive end.
His struggles at that end of the floor led to Coach Malone moving him to the bench after the first three games of the playoffs. The Utah Jazz exploited MPJ whenever he was on the court, forcing him to defend all kinds of actions, and then they’d come back down the floor and do it again. And again. And again.
MPJ was torched in the first round, in Game 1 especially, where the Utah Jazz scored 20 points on 16 pick and roll possessions that involved Porter Jr. defending the ball handler or the screener.
He struggles when it comes to defending ball screens, and his one-on-one defense isn’t much better either – he’s constantly getting blown by on drives. LeBron James took advantage of this when the Lakers faced the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, constantly forcing switches and going at MPJ. In fact, during the entire post-season, Porter Jr. gave up 1.15 points per possession when he was the defender in an isolation play. Maybe a lack of playing time in college hurt him on this end of the court, without the regular reps defending high level players, whereas in high school he could get by on his athleticism.
Interestingly enough, there were signs of progress in the Western Conference Finals. He moved his feet and stuck with LeBron James on a drive, didn’t get overpowered, and used his long arms to contest LeBron’s shot – forcing him into a turnover. The potential is there, he just needs to prove he can defend like that on a consistent basis.
Michael Porter Jr. has also faced some criticism off the court.
After Denver’s Game 4 loss against the Clippers he complained to the media about a lack of touches – leading John Hollinger to say that his pre-draft doctor’s report “might not have been the only reason” he fell in the draft. He also made some comments regarding the coronavirus and “population control” before the season restarted. His attitude might need some work.
Kevin Durant has been the basketball comparison for Porter Jr. and it’s easy to see why.
Both KD and MPJ can take the ball to the rim and score, and have the height and length that make their jump shots nearly impossible to contest. Even Doris Burke made the comparison on ESPN during Game 1 of the Utah series. Porter Jr. walked the ball up the court, then drained an above the break pull-up 3-pointer. But Kevin Durant has proved himself as a more than capable defender – unfortunately, the opposite of MPJ. Durant uses his reach and size to block and disrupt shots, and his long strides help him to recover back into position when he’s beaten on drives. Porter Jr. needs to take notes.
Michael Porter Jr. doesn’t need to become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate to help the Denver Nuggets. All he needs to do his improve enough defensively so he doesn’t give back all the points he can so effortlessly score on the other end. He has to be able to hold his own, instead of being the weakest link in a team that was middle of the pack in terms of defensive rating this year. Yes, some mistakes and inconsistency come with inexperience, and parts of his game will improve over time – but the whole organization will know that he needs work now.
The potential to become Denver’s third star, and join Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as the faces of the franchise, is there. The Nuggets proved this year that they’re set up to make deep playoff runs, and MPJ could make them real championship contenders.
Michael Porter Jr. showed glimpses of stardom in Orlando, but also room for improvement and a need for consistency. The Denver Nuggets may have struck gold – even if it does need some polishing.
Charlie is an American Studies BA graduate and a Sports Journalism MA student at the University of Lincoln. He’s also adamant that if Derrick Rose didn’t get injured in 2012 the Chicago Bulls would have at least one more banner in the United Center.