Denver Nuggets' Michael Porter Jr. reflects on eventful rookie campaign
Like millions around the world, Michael Porter Jr. didn’t initially understand the severity of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) when reports began to emerge of cases on U.S. soil. The rookie fully expected the NBA season to carry on as normal. Everything would change on March 11 when the Nuggets faced the Mavericks in Dallas.
“We were playing in Dallas. We were supposed to be on a three-game road trip so it was going to be a pretty long road trip. Halftime at that Dallas game, we'd heard rumors but we didn't think it was anything serious,” Porter Jr. told Nuggets.com in a phone interview on April 2. “We heard a rumor they were going to postpone the game. So, literally after the game, we were supposed to be going to San Antonio but we changed our [itinerary] and went straight back to Denver. Everyone was so confused. We didn't know what was going on.”
That would be the Nuggets’ final game prior to the NBA announcing it would suspend the remainder of the season until it was safe to play again. Immediately after landing in Denver, Porter Jr. decided the safest place he could be is back in Columbia, Missouri with his family. He would drive for 10 hours with a teammate who lives in nearby Kansas City. As the Coronavirus continued to spread through the U.S., taking away lives and significantly affecting the country’s economy, Porter Jr. admitted he’s been affected by the news.
“I know it's getting very serious,” Porter Jr. said. “My reaction has kind of changed. At first, I was taking it kind of lightly, now I'm seeing there's kids who are dying, kids who are getting really sick. I'm just doing my best to play my part, staying home with my family and not do anything to make anything worse.”
Trying to find positives through a pandemic might be difficult, but Porter Jr. points to a few things as a silver lining. Prior to the league suspension period, the 21-year-old was dealing with an ankle injury that he acknowledged was affecting his performances on the court. He’s also enjoying being able to spend time with his family.
“For me, it's tough not playing right now but for me I get a chance to rest my ankle, my ankle was kind of nagging me,” Porter Jr. explained. “I get a chance to be around my family, who with me being in Denver and my brother [Jontay] being in Memphis, we didn't know how much time we'd get to be together with people going their separate ways.”
Prior to his ankle injury, Porter Jr. was starting to round into the best form of his rookie campaign. He points to his game against the Kings on Dec. 29 as his favorite memory of the season so far.
“I think that was a really fun game,” Porter Jr. said. “It was my first time ever starting, it was good to go out there and play well.”
In his only start of the season, Porter Jr. scored 19 points and grabbed six boards. It would proceed a stellar month in January for the forward. Porter Jr. averaged 12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting a sizzling 52.2 percent from the field and an astonishing 48 percent from downtown. His most dominant game during that stretch might have come in Denver’s 107-100 win over Minnesota on Jan. 20. The former McDonalds All-American MVP dropped 20 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in that victory.
“I remembered my body was feeling good and I was feeling comfortable out there -- my confidence was pretty good,” Porter Jr. said in reflecting on January. “My teammates were finding me and trusting me with the ball. Things were going well. We were low on players so everyone [who wasn't injured] kind of got a bigger opportunity.”
Due to a combination of players returning from injury and Porter Jr.’s ankle being on the mend, his production dipped after he returned from a two-week absence. He conceded being on a team that is deep and expected to contend like the Nuggets means he doesn’t have room to make rookie mistakes. Still, Porter Jr. can look at his teammate Jamal Murray as an example of where the cautious approach worked in regard to development. Murray was drafted No. 7 by Denver in 2016 and had to fight to earn his playing time – averaging 9.9 points on 21.5 minutes per game in his rookie campaign. Prior to the league’s current hiatus, Murray is now entrenched as the Nuggets’ lead guard and is averaging a career-high 18.8 points.
“Yeah, it's just part of the process,” Porter Jr. said. “I play on a really good team. Coach [Michael] Malone is an old school coach, he trusts his older players. It will all come around. I'm just trying to continue to get better in the meantime.”
Porter Jr. is among the hundreds of NBA players, not to mention millions of fans, waiting for the league’s return. In the interim, he’s been utilizing his family’s private gym and doing drills with his father Michael. He’s also receiving workouts and check ins from Nuggets head strength coach Felipe Eichenberger. It’s a combination Porter Jr. hopes will get him ready to go when play resumes. Although Porter Jr. has largely fought for playing time this season, he’s largely satisfied with how his season has gone so far.
“There are things that could've gone better, but overall, it's happened in the way it's supposed to happen so I would say an A,” Porter Jr. said in grading his rookie campaign.
The aim is to build on that when things get back to normal.