Heading into the 2019-20 season, the much-anticipated debut of Michael Porter Jr. received plenty of attention. Once touted as a top prospect in the 2018 draft class, Porter Jr. fell to the Nuggets at No. 14 as a result of a back injury suffered during his time at Missouri.
After a year of rehab, recovery and preparation, Porter Jr. was set to take the league by storm right from the get-go, at least if you asked a healthy portion of Nuggets fans.
However, things are rarely that straightforward in life, especially when you’re on a successful NBA team that won 54 games the previous season while boasting one of the best second units in the league.
“I hope, in the long run, he looks back and thinks ‘I’m glad it wasn’t easy’,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said following Porter Jr.’s first NBA start last week. “Early success can retard development. Michael is on a really good team that won 54 games last year, so he has to earn everything, and he has.”
In that start, the 21-year-old forward dropped 19 points and six rebounds in a healthy 26 minutes of action. Porter Jr. showcased all of the intriguing aspects of his game in Denver’s 120-115 over the Sacramento Kings, from his impressive rebounding to his ability to knock down shots both as an off-ball player and after creating space with the ball in his hands.
Just last night, Porter Jr. had his most impressive performance of the season, as he scored 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the field, which included several 3-pointers, drives to the basket and athletic finishes around the rim. The performance was a sign of what Porter Jr. can do when his shot is falling and he can attack mismatches all over the court, providing a glimpse into the dynamic scorer that the 21-year-old can develop into.
Let’s take a closer look at how the rookie forward has put his stamp on the Nuggets throughout the first portion of the season.
One of the most impressive and surprising aspects of Porter Jr.’s performance so far has been his ability to contribute on the glass, specifically on the offensive end.
Porter Jr.’s 9.3 offensive rebound percentage ranks second on the team among players in the rotation, with Mason Plumlee having a slight edge at 11.1 percent. It should also be noted that Porter Jr.’s 9.3 percent is not far out from the top 20 offensive rebound percentages in the entire league.
Meanwhile, Porter Jr. ranks third on the Nuggets in total rebound percentage at 15.5 percent. Simply put, when he has been on the court this season, Porter Jr. is looking to attack the boards early and often.
Against the Rockets on New Year’s Eve, Porter Jr. recognized that he was being boxed out by Eric Gordon, a much smaller defender. Not only did Porter Jr. have the size advantage in this matchup, but he also had a great sense of the open spots around the basket to better position himself for a potential miss. The result was an impressive one-handed rebound and layup:
One of the premier highlights from Porter Jr.’s first start against Sacramento was a putback dunk he had after coming down from near the baseline following a miss by Monte Morris:
That level of athleticism simply can’t be taught and is a driving force behind Porter Jr.’s tantalizing potential.
“We’ve been struggling rebounding and he’s so long and tall that he helps you on the glass,” Malone said. “He’s coming along and I appreciate how patient he’s been, since it has not been easy.”
When Porter Jr. has been on the floor this season, the Nuggets’ offensive rebound percentage has increased by 3.4 percent, which puts him in the 86th percentile. Furthermore, Porter Jr. is in the 100th percentile when it comes to his offensive rebound percentage and the 99th percentile in defensive rebound percentage, per Cleaning the Glass.
The offensive end can come easy to Porter Jr., but his effort and tenacity on the boards will play a key role in his playing time and ability to impact the game when on the court this season.
Given the style of play in today’s NBA, being able to knockdown 3-pointers as a wing player is downright essential in order to succeed as a key cog in a team’s offense. For Porter Jr., his shooting is even more important as he moves around off-ball to receive catch-and-shoot opportunities.
When he isn’t cutting towards the rim for layups, dunks and rebounding opportunities, Porter Jr. can be found hanging around the arc, waiting for the prime opportunity to position himself for an open look from deep, where he has shot 39 percent so far this season.
Given his soft touch and ability to get off shots over smaller defenders, it would behoove Porter Jr. to look for the three more often. He has a 3-point attempt rate (percentage of field-goal attempts that are 3-pointers) of 35.3 percent, while 12.1 percent of his shot attempts have come from “long two” range (between 16 feet of the basket and the 3-point line).
Cutting down some of those long-twos in favor of 3-pointers will help Porter Jr.’s efficiency and provide even more floor-spacing for Denver’s guards and big men.
Still, the numbers paint a positive picture of Porter Jr.’s ability to be an above-average 3-point shooter throughout his career, which will be crucial as he continues to serve as a secondary or tertiary option on offense at times.
Few players are truly elite when it comes to consistently scoring in one-on-one situations. It is a rare skill in the NBA and players that possess it are often driving forces of the top offenses in the league and are regular All-Stars.
In the pre-draft scouting process, Porter Jr.’s potential to develop into a go-to scorer in such situations made him a tantalizing prospect, especially given his size at 6’10”. During the first portion of the 2019-20 season, the results have been mixed in this regard for Porter Jr.
As the 21-year-old has worked to get into a rhythm on the offensive end, he has often had to rely solely on his size to shoot over smaller defenders, which isn’t a bad recipe for success against the right matchups.
For example, against Houston earlier this week, Porter Jr. came off an off-ball screen and received the ball in the high post before he quickly realized that Gordon was once again defending him and as a result, an opportunity for a quick-trigger shot was open.
Meanwhile, when matched up against slower big men, Porter Jr. has shown solid footwork that can create an open shot. In the fourth quarter against the Kings, Porter Jr. worked his way into a side-step 3-pointer, one of his most impressive one-on-one baskets of the season up until this point.
Once Porter Jr. knocked down a couple of shots early against Indiana, one could see the confidence he had later in the game. With the game being a back-and-forth affair throughout the third and fourth quarters, Porter Jr. unleashed a crazy stepback 3-pointer that Doug McDermott had no chance in defending:
While blazing quickness or a tight handle may not develop for Porter Jr., he can certainly serve as the perfect option to attack mismatches given his size and soft touch on his shot. On Denver’s second unit, such a player certainly serves a purpose in order to generate easy offense when the starters are getting a rest.
“I knew that Michael — if he is given minutes and given a chance to play — he is just too talented, the game comes too easy for him, especially offensively,” Malone said. “This is just a glimpse of what’s to come.”