Laid-Back Cavs Rookie Kevin Porter Jr. Makes His NBA Mark
The first thing an opposing player or coach will do when they see a rookie on the scouting report is find his weaknesses. What can’t the kid do?
Kevin Porter Jr. didn’t have a perfect rookie season and he still needs plenty of fine-tuning. But he did prove one thing: the lefty from USC can do it all.
Need someone at 6-6 who can distribute? Porter handed out seven helpers against Brooklyn and averaged 4.0apg over his last five games before the season was suspended in early March. Can he get after it on the glass? He snagged nine rebounds against Atlanta, eight against Miami and grabbed at least four in four of his last six games. He was also the first Cavs rookie to post back-to-back games with at least five boards and five assists since Kyrie Irving in 2012.
Defensively, he led the Cavaliers in steals on 13 occasions – and takes great pride on that end of the court. (“Usually, my defense gets my offense going. Usually, a couple of stops and a couple of fast break points gets me going.”)
How about scoring? He proved he can fill it up all season long, but his improvement was noticeable as the season progressed, averaging 12.0ppg – almost exclusively off the bench – since December 1. That ascension was punctuated in a dramatic comeback overtime win over Miami at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on February 24.
In the victory, the Seattle native went off for a career-best 30 points, going 9-of-18 from the floor, including 4-of-7 from deep and 8-of-10 from the stripe, adding eight boards, three dimes and three steals off the bench. He became just the third rookie in franchise history to net those numbers – joining LeBron James and Ron Harper.
"I think we were all proud of KP after having a game where he got thrown out, another game where it was really tough for him on the road on a back-to-back – he came out and had a career night,” praised Kevin Love after Porter’s signature night. “So that just shows you a ton of growth.”
In a sign of true maturity, Porter turned that night’s focus on the team goal.
"You can play a perfect game, but if you don’t close at the end, it doesn’t matter,” said Porter. “We were just extremely happy that we were able to close this comeback because we’ve come back a lot of times this season and we weren’t able to close the majority of them. So this one was definitely meaningful for growth and our future.”
Porter, who just turned 20 this past May, was voted by his rookie peers to be the steal of the 2019 Draft – and with every passing game that looked more and more like the case.
"When me and (Darius Garland) are out there, I feel like we just play more freely. We're both rookies, so right now just feeding off each other is what we try to do most. And off the court our chemistry is crazy. So, on the court, it makes it that much easier."
Acquired in a draft night deal via Milwaukee and Detroit, Porter spent just a single season at Southern Cal after arriving as a Top 30 high school recruit out of the Pacific Northwest – averaging 9.5ppg in 21 games with the men of Troy.
Before his arrival on USC’s campus, Porter was forced to grow up fast. His father was shot and killed when Jr. was just four years old.
"My dad is with me every step of the way,” said Porter. “He's been with me every step of the way. And I know that. My mom always says that he's living through me. At times, when she sees me doing something that's kind of like a replica of him, you can see it on her face. She just smiles.
"I’m honored to have to have his name to share and to be able to carry his legacy the way I am right now. Because if it wasn't for basketball, I don't know what I'd do. I was blessed with a gift and I just want to fulfill it as well as I can.”
Porter was fortunate to make his NBA entry with two fellow first rounders – each taking the pressure off the other.
Dylan Windler – the 26th overall pick – was the only rook to suit up for Summer League, but unfortunately never played a minute in the regular season. Like Porter, Darius Garland came to the pros with sparse college experience. And like Porter, he slowly began to figure out the NBA game as the season progressed.
"When me and D.G. are out there, I feel like we just play more freely,” said Porter midway through last year. “We're both rookies, so right now just feeding off each other is what we try to do most. And off the court our chemistry is crazy. So, on the court, it makes it that much easier.”
Overall, Porter tallied double-figures in 21 of his 50 games and in two of his three starts – topping the 20-point plateau twice and dropping 30 on Miami to hand the Heat their first OT loss of the year.
"He puts the work in, but you know he’s talented,” praised Coach JB Bickerstaff. “With him, it’s a lot about the experience but it’s the confidence too. You know, once he got comfortable and he got going, there’s not many plays that he can’t make.”
With the NBA’s truncated regular season, the Cavaliers weren’t able to find out just how good they – and their rookies – could actually be. Garland and Porter were getting better by the game and finally tasting some team success.
But that just makes next year that much more enticing. Add Windler to the mix in 2020-21, and the Cavaliers will have one of the most dynamic young cores the Association.