OPJ: A new year, a new start

After a season that was cut short, Otto Porter Jr is back to full health and feels ready to do whatever is asked of him this season to elevate the Bulls play.

It's almost as if Otto Porter Jr. is a living palindrome, which is a word or phrase that's the same backward or forward. Because we never seemed to know whether Porter was coming or going. The 6-8 versatile swingman was moving forward when he came to the Bulls for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker in February 2019.

The Bulls quickly played their best that season thanks in large part to Porter with 37 and 31-points games in a 7-5 stretch and shooting 49 percent on threes with the Bulls. Then it was backward as he was shut down for the last 11 games for vague injury and competition reasons.

Then came Porter again last season, part of a hopeful crew that declared a playoff goal until nine games into a tentative start Porter went in reverse again. He missed almost four months with a foot injury and then had a brief cameo before the virus shuttered the season. Like in binary code, his voltage was low and his switch was turned off. Porter averaged five year lows in scoring, rebounding, assists and shooting. The versatility of the Big 0 was adding up to a zero. Porter became something of a symbol of the Bulls lost season.

Can his return to full health, as he says, be a harbinger of the switch going back on for the Bulls? Perhaps not No. 1 in the league, but producing some high voltage again for the Bulls.

"I had a lot of games left at the end of the season last year that would have been key for us with me coming back from injury," Porter was musing Friday on a Zoom media call from Bulls training camp. "Getting traded, having a short period of time and then getting hurt, so…. I think this year will be a really good year for them (fans) to tune in."

If only…,but this time Porter says it's serious. Just, you know, the injuries.

"Just really focus on the healthy aspect part of it," Porter said about this season. "Making sure I get my body right, knowing it could lead up to a big season this year with the Bulls where we're looking forward to doing big things. My foot is feeling great. After the season last year, whenever I got back out there, my foot felt 100 percent. Unfortunately (the season) got cut short. It's a new year, a new start, and we're going from there. You can't really change the past. For this upcoming season, I'm just looking forward to it. Get the opportunity to get back out there with my teammates and our coaches, and going from there.''

Porter's status and resolve often remains perhaps the most perplexing among many Bulls carrying uncertainties. Though just 27, he carries a world weary mien. He's generally cooperative with media, if somewhat aloof and laconic. Though teammates apparently see a more relaxed manner. With the Washington Wizards where he played well enough to be a vital third cog in a playoff machine and earned a $100 million contract, he often was considered detached.

But his play provides an unusual adhesive power for an NBA team, an accurate long distance shooter with excellent ball handling and passing skills. It was apparent when he came to the Bulls and made you yearn for more. And then he was basically nowhere to be seen for now close to two years. Porter's contract ends after this season and he becomes a free agent. Though it's insulting to suggest he'd arise primarily for financial motivation. He's been regarded as a supportive teammate and has been a regular well of resources already for rookie Patrick Williams.

Porter at his best can be the gear that helps the Bulls accelerate to competitive speed, perhaps the model for the so called basketball unicorn, that 6-8 player both strong and swift who shoots from outside and who defines the modern so called NBA positionless game.

But can he be counted on? Bulls coach Billy Donovan earlier this week said Porter's health and maintaining it is one of the main priorities this season. Porter is expected to start at small forward because at his best no one is close to his talents. But the Bulls also are wary of extending him too much because of his recent injury history and the daunting schedule ahead. Starter? Reserve? Thirty-two minutes? Twenty-four?

"That's totally up to his decision," Porter said of Donovan. "He's doing a good job of communicating with our trainers and with me, just making sure I'm coming in and getting extra work done as far as for my body. Out there on the court I just want to feel my best, and right now I feel really good, really strong, and the foot is feeling really strong, and we'll go from there. As far as the minutes and such, that's totally up to coach. I told him that I would play whatever he wanted me to do, play however many minutes. It's totally up to him. I'm definitely down for doing that.''

Training camp always brings optimism and hope. But Porter at his best—heck, even just playing—elevates the Bulls well beyond anything seen last season. So perhaps this is an audition for more than just the rest of the league, but for his own team. The Bulls are much better with Porter's skill and veteran knowledge. He's averaged double figures in more than 30 playoff games. Most of his teammates have needed tickets to playoff games.

And Porter says he's worked.

"Ball handling was really my biggest thing, being able to handle the ball in transition," he said. "And my shooting, making sure I'm able to get to my spots, feeling comfortable in shooting long range this year. Leadership skills, things like that."

Porter said he took to reading sports psychology during the time off. Discovering what elites in their sport, like Michael Jordan and Phil Mickelson, experience at crucial moments. The Bulls finally hope to have some.

"We've got a lot of new guys, a lot of coaching staff new. Everybody's just very excited," said Porter. "Being away from the game for so long, starting late as we are now and just the excitement of just getting back out there on the court. We added some great pieces for our squad that's gonna help us be successful. And, of course, coach Billy Donovan, is well known. He has a style of play that he's willing to bring here, very successful in past years. I think everybody's very excited for this year."

For the Bulls, perhaps it's just binary. It's 0 and won.