Michael Porter Jr.’s maturation during NBA Playoffs paying dividends for Denver Nuggets
One of Michael Porter Jr.’s most impactful sequences as a Nugget might have come in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The highly-touted rookie was isolated on defense against Paul George, a six-time All-Star. Porter Jr. stayed on his feet, forced a steal and ignited what appeared to be an easy fastbreak opportunity. However, seconds later, Clippers guard Lou Williams blocked a layup attempt from Denver’s Monte Morris. Resourcefully, Porter Jr. scrambled and used his 6-foot-10 frame to shield the loose ball from the opposition, collected it and hit a mid-range shot.
Earlier in the postseason, it is a situation that might have played into the opposition’s hands, but Porter Jr.'s ability to quickly adapt and adjust on the NBA’s biggest stage shows just how far he’s come since the start of the season.
“Every game, I’m getting a better idea of what we want to do offensively. I’ve just got to make sure the effort is there every night.” Porter Jr. explained Sunday in a press conference. “When my shot is not falling, I just have to make sure that I’m impacting the game defensively and being a good defender.”
Porter Jr. finished Saturday’s game, a 110-101 win for the Nuggets, with 11 points and seven rebounds on 50 percent shooting. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but Game 2 was one of the most complete performances in his young career.
His journey to the NBA is well-documented. He was the top high school player of his class, according to Rivals, and drew comparisons to Kevin Durant and Joe Johnson. Injuries would sideline what was expected to be a dominant 2017-18 season by the forward and saw his draft stock plummet as a result. The Clippers, based on a report by their medical staff, elected to pass on the gifted scorer twice in the 2018 draft, trading for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and picking Jerome Robinson instead. Neither player is currently on Los Angeles’ roster and Robinson currently has career averages of 4.5 points per game.
"It was brutal for us," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters about the decision. "We had him on our board, just the medical report, the red flag was so hot."
"We got the one guy we wanted in [Gilgeous-Alexander]," Rivers added. "And the second pick, when he was on the board, it was a brutal pass because everyone in the room knew his talent but it was more the injury concern. That was the only other concern."
Porter Jr. would ultimately land in the Mile High City with the 14th overall selection in the 2018 draft. After a redshirt season spent rehabilitating, Porter Jr. launched his first NBA campaign during the 2019-20 season. While most NBA lottery picks have the luxury of playing for a rebuilding team, Porter Jr. had to gain his footing while being on one of the league’s elite teams. There have been ups and downs, but there’s also been a lot of promise.
There was a two-week stretch in January when he looked every bit as effective as the two top vote-getters in this year’s Rookie of the Year award—Ja Morant and Zion Williamson—averaging 14.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.3 steals and shooting an unbelievable 51.2 percent from downtown. When the NBA restarted the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Porter Jr. rose to become one of the best players in the league and was justly tapped a second-team All-Bubble choice after putting up 22 points and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 55.1 percent from the floor during seven seeding games.
Expectations soared as many hailed the rookie as the third cog in the Nuggets’ offense. Then, the postseason began and set forth a new challenge for Porter Jr. Unlike the regular season, where the turnaround is quick and teams don’t have a lot of time to prepare for an opponent, the playoffs are all about the details. The Utah Jazz harped on Porter Jr.’s inexperience on defense for mismatches. Despite going from being a starter in the seeding games to a reserve in the playoffs, it didn’t curtail Porter Jr.’s effectiveness.
Denver found itself down 3-1 in its first-round matchup against the Utah Jazz, Porter came off the bench to score 15 points and five boards in Game 5 to extend the series. In Game 6, the rookie only hit one of his seven field-goal attempts but had the highest plus-minus of the game at 21 and a lot of it came down to his hustle. He contributed a team-high 12 boards. Instead of remaining a “specialist”, as coach Michael Malone would call it, Porter Jr. realized his ticket to staying on the floor is to add other wrinkles to his game.
All of that culminated in Game 2 against the Clippers Saturday.
Porter Jr. only played 17 minutes but was highly-efficient and effective throughout the game. He had two steals and constantly used his frame to impact the game on both ends. His teammates and coaches have noticed his improvement.
“He’s stayed in attack mode and has definitely helped our bench unit,” Monte Morris said Sunday.
For a player who wants to be among the league’s top players, if communication and versatility are what it takes to be on the floor, then the buy-in is there.
“Communication is a big way to get yourself involved in the game. I’m just trying to get better at being in communication with my teammates out there and not being silent,” Porter Jr. said. “Especially when things aren't going great on the court, as a team, we tend to get a little quiet[and] we need everybody to step up and just use their voice and just make sure that we're all on the same page at all times.”
In a late August interview, Malone stressed the importance of Porter Jr. learning and improving from within the locker room.
“It takes a village,” Malone said on Aug. 26. “Michael has a lot of talent [but] he's still a very young player as a rookie. I think people forget when Nikola came in, he was not a starter. He earned that. When Jamal Murray came in, he was backing up Gary Harris. He worked his way into being a starter.”
Malone added, “So I think people recognize Michael is a special talent. He's still very young and anything we can all do collectively to aid in his development and growth is only going to speed up his process, which is only going to help the group.”
It looked like that development certainly played a role in Game 2 and could be a factor for the rest of the series.