In order to start, Michael Porter Jr. passed the most important test

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

Two days before the first start of his career, when no one knew it was coming, Michael Porter Jr. stood on the Nuggets practice court and talked about what might get him to that point. It was never a mystery. This test was one question, and Porter Jr. has always known the answer.

Defense.

“I took my mindset away from just scoring,” he told Nuggets.com. “Because that isn’t going to get me more minutes. I’ve got to get in there, try to be locked in defensively, know my rotations, know personnel.”

And he had.

Hidden in the five minutes he played in the Nuggets’ game against New Orleans on Christmas night was some of the most positive defensive film Porter Jr. had put out there all season. He was active. Attentive. Energetic. Three days later, Porter Jr. put more good defense on the court in the Nuggets’ win over the Grizzlies, and that included a weak side blocked shot. He knew he could stray away from his man to help on the Memphis ball handler driving the lane.

These are the things that caught the eye of Nuggets coach Michael Malone. So, when starters Gary Harris and Paul Millsap both missed Sunday’s game against Sacramento due to injuries, this is the equation that led Malone to put Porter Jr. in the starting lineup.

Defense + more defense + offense = Starting.

Porter Jr. had made the decision easy. Then he put together a night that he’ll never forget with 19 points that featured dazzling plays and verified all at once why everyone from Nuggets management to the media to the fans had been so eager to see him receive extended playing time. He’s got an extraordinary ability to do a lot with limited time. Porter Jr.’s 29 touches against Sacramento were the fewest of any of the starters and the third-fewest of any player that played in the game at all for the Nuggets. Yet he tied for the team lead in points, and was tied for second in rebounds (6).

Still, the process is the thing. It had been 779 days since the last time Porter Jr. started a basketball game of any kind. In this, his first on-court season in the NBA, he’s had to get used to everything – the speed of the game, playing off the ball, defensive principles, chemistry with teammates, learning the system. And he still is. But he’s got a foundation that is becoming more and more clear to see. More importantly for Porter, that foundation is becoming more solid with each practice, film session, and game.

Defensively?

“I think that I’m getting better,” he said. “My rotations are getting better. I’m starting to learn where to be at the right time; things like that. But it’s still going to be a process. But that’s really what I’ve got to pick up. That’s what’s going to keep me on the floor.”

Porter has already played minutes at shooting guard, small forward and power forward and is learning the plays from all three positions.

“It’s tough, but that’s what the great players do,” Porter Jr. said. “LeBron (James) knows where everybody on the court is supposed to be at all times, offensively and defensively. So, that’s where I want to be. Study the plays from every position, so I know what guys are going to do, where guys are going. And feel very comfortable.”

He smiled.

“(Malone) put me in one time at (power forward) and I had no clue what I was doing,” he said. “So, I’ve got to learn the four. And bringing the ball up, I want to be able to bring the ball up and tell people, ‘Double away, drag screen,’ stuff like that.”

There is more to be done. Porter Jr. knows that one night doesn’t make a career. But now, more than ever, Malone is ready to get Porter’s career jump-started.

“What are we waiting for?” Malone said. “Michael Porter is a huge part of our future. (Sunday) was a great opportunity to look into that future and look at what’s ahead.”

Malone is a process guy. He did not just hand Porter Jr. playing time for a reason – he wanted the player to earn the opportunity, understand what hard work is in the NBA, and appreciate the journey.

“I hope Michael, when he’s old and gray,” Malone said, “which is a long time from now, will look back and say: You know what; I’m glad it wasn’t easy.”

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