A back injury cost him the overwhelming majority of his college exposure. Yet, the upside of Michael Porter, Jr., a consensus top-three high school prospect, far exceeded the risk that injuries would continuously interrupt his career. The Denver Nuggets, with two star-level players on their roster already, decided to expense the fourteenth overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft on the 6’11” forward. A second back surgery ensued almost one month to the day after being drafted, and Porter, Jr. missed the entirety of what would’ve been his traditional rookie campaign.
Porter, Jr. made his debut in 2019. The Nuggets, fresh off a particularly strong campaign in the Western Conference, acquired Jerami Grant from Oklahoma City and already employed Torrey Craig. The experienced wing depth, especially for a team with championship aspirations, rendered Porter, Jr. a well-kept secret, not a necessity. The rookie once thought of as having Kevin Durant-level upside had an efficient but, ultimately, unimpressive rookie season. He put on just over 16 minutes of mileage per game and averaged less than one steal and one block per game despite his physical metrics profiling favorably on the defensive end of the court (6’11” with a 7’0″ wingspan). With the fluidity, athleticism, and skill Porter, Jr. had displayed throughout his life, everyone knew the scoring would come naturally. That Porter, Jr. was often disengaged and non-resistant on the defensive end of the court was disappointing. For a team that prided itself on defense, Porter, Jr. controlled his own destiny. He showed his superstar potential in spurts, but his lack of dedication on the defensive end ultimately limited how much he could be trusted.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic overtook the nation, and the NBA was forced to suspend its season. When play resumed in the Disney bubble that the NBA constructed in Orlando, Porter, Jr. was determined to end his rookie season with a lasting impression–and he did. Porter scored more than twenty points in four out of seven regular season games played in the bubble, all of which came on a notable four-game streak in which he scored thirty-or-more points twice and never scored fewer than twenty-three. The nature of the scoring was more impressive than the numbers, themselves. Porter connected on fourteen of thirty three-point attempts. Nearly 13% of those attempts featured a defender within four feet of him. Just 35% of his total field goals came off of the catch. Porter, Jr. connected on nearly 67% of his field goals within ten feet of the basket, and over 42% of his attempts came within that radius. In those seven regular season games in the month of August, Porter, Jr. averaged 22 points per game with splits of 55.1% on field goals, 42.2% on three-point attempts, and 93.1% from the free throw line. He also pulled down 8.6 rebounds, dished nearly 2 assists, created 1 steal, and rejected just under 1 shot per game. The scoring came naturally, as projected. But, Porter established himself as a presence on the glass and, while still not experienced enough or physically capable of offering resistance on the defensive end, showed a dedication to contributing to stops that inspired confidence amongst the Denver brass.
The Nuggets opted for their more experienced options in the playoffs, as most teams logically would. But, Porter evidently left his mark on the franchise. The Nuggets allowed Torrey Craig to depart for Milwaukee, and chose not to outdo Detroit’s offer to Jerami Grant. Denver fortified its power forward depth, re-upping Paul Millsap and adding JaMychal Green. The Nuggets are all in on Michael Porter, Jr., clearing the path for him to take on starting small forward duties. Very few decisions in the NBA are easy, but this is one of them. Porter, Jr., who showed those hints of Kevin Durant blood that made him worthy of top-three recruit status in high school, is a restricted free agent in 2022. Until then, he’s owed an average of $3,278,120 per year. If he stays healthy, and if those flashes of greatness weren’t just lightning strikes, the Nuggets will have one of the most cost-controlled young stars in the NBA–and his ceiling is higher than those of Denver’s two already-defined cornerstones. The Nuggets have their work cut out for them in the West, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a League Pass watch on a Saturday night.