Denver Nuggets balancing optimism, caution with Michael Porter Jr.
There was a palpable amount of buzz after Michael Porter Jr. announced he was ready to play in the 2019 NBA Summer League. That excitement was especially felt by the Nuggets’ ownership, front office and coaching staff, all of whom have been carefully preparing the 20-year-old for his return to action.
“Michael is as talented as a player as we’ve had come through our doors in a long time,” Team President and Governor Josh Kroenke said in an interview with Altitude Radio Monday.
Porter Jr., Rivals No. 1 college basketball recruit in 2017, has endured a long journey back playing the sport he once dominated as an elite high school star. When healthy, his ability is unquestioned. He was the MVP of the 2017 McDonald's All-American Game, which featured seven of the top 10 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, including DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba and Trae Young among others.
Porter Jr. has all the tools on offense and the versatility to play either forward position at 6-foot-11. The key will be how he responds in his recovery after not playing competitively for almost 16 months due to injury. The Nuggets took a calculated gamble in deciding to draft Porter Jr. after he surprisingly slid to the No. 14 pick last June. Considering their strategic method in helping Porter Jr. rehabilitate from a severe injury, the team will likely take a measured approach in integrating him into the rotation.
“He looks great, he’s attacked his rehabilitation in every way one can hope for,” Kroenke said. “I think it’s important to keep expectations in check because this is a young man who hasn’t played in a competitive basketball game in 15-16 months already. It’s going to take a little bit of time no matter what. That being said, if Michael stays healthy, I think he has a chance to be a very good player.”
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone agrees with that assessment.
“When you miss a whole year, it doesn’t happen right away,” Malone said.
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Still, there is plenty of optimism from what Porter Jr. has shown in his work to get back on the court, especially in practice opportunities. There wasn’t a single player who didn’t rave about the former Missouri product’s ability – even if there were some jokes about his trash talking.
"I'm super eager [to watch him at Summer League], Mike's been talking all year,” Paul Millsap said in his final media availability of the season. “He's very confident in his game, and he should be. I like his mentality and approach to the game. He's a confident player. He's got a lot of swag and sauce to him."
Although fully recovering from a significant injury and getting back to game speed will be Porter Jr.’s biggest challenge, he will face another test in cracking a talented Nuggets rotation. The team won 54 games last season and that was with several talented players being unable to carve consistent minutes in the rotation. It’s something President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly noted in his final press conference of the season.
“He’s on a 54-win team where minutes were already at a premium,” Connelly said. “While he’s extremely talented and he’s worked his tail off to hit summer – he’s so excited and he’s chomping at the bit to play – we’re going to make him earn his spot in the rotation.”
Connelly added, “It’s a competitive locker room and I don’t think anyone is laying down so Mike can take their minutes.”
But make no mistake, there are high expectations within the Nuggets organization for Porter Jr. and what his ceiling can be. The team was the No.2 seed with him essentially being in a red shirt year. Figuring out where he fits in an already deep roster is a good problem to have.
“What I've seen from Michael this year in flashes is a guy with tremendous size and length that's got deep range, can put the ball on the floor and has great athleticism to finish at the rim,” Malone said. “The fact that he will be a rookie next year helping us in some shape or form is exciting for him, it's exciting for us, and I know for our fans as well.
“This will be a really big summer for Michael, and I know he's excited and looking forward to those challenges, and just getting a chance to play without all of those restrictions."