Draft preview: Southern Cal’s Kevin Porter a match for Pistons, but off-court questions cloud status

Kevin Porter Jr. could emerge as a dynamic playmaker in the NBA but will need to satisfy questions about character in order to move into the lottery.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS –Toronto is challenging Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the same reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.

Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson
is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.

The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.

The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.

Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.

The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.

Our draft preview series continues today with a profile of Southern Cal freshman wing Kevin Porter Jr.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Kevin Porter Jr.

ID CARD: 6-foot-5½ wing, Southern Cal, 19 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 20th by ESPN.com, 15th by The Athletic, 13th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: If you were to poll NBA scouts as to which prospect has the ability to become a 20-point scorer in the NBA, Porter would be one of the very few to get a vote. He’s got a combination of ballhandling, pacing and shot-making ability to enable him to create space for open shots. His best tool right now is a step-back jump shot, one that – along with his left-handedness – has evoked comparisons to reigning NBA MVP James Harden, someone Porter admits to emulating. “I get compared to James Harden a lot,” he said at the NBA draft combine last month. Porter says his best attribute is “being able to create off the dribble, probably my versatility, being able to play the one, two, three – guard the one, two, three.” Porter shot .471 overall and an impressive .412 from the 3-point arc in his only season at Southern Cal as a five-star recruit out of Seattle. Porter tested well athletically at the combine, showing good speed and lateral mobility on a solid 213-pound frame with a 6-foot-9 wingspan that portends well for becoming a disruptive defender as he matures.

SCOUTS WONDER: Based on Porter’s strengths, he should be an easy top-10 pick in an uncertain draft. That he isn’t speaks to the questions that hover over him. Immaturity is a big one. Porter was suspended for a violation of team rules amid a Pac-12 road trip in January on the heels of a six-week absence from the lineup with a thigh injury that raised further questions. Beyond that, there were only flashes of the elite scoring ability that is Porter’s reputation. While he scored efficiently, he only attempted 7.5 shots per game. And Porter averaged 1.9 turnovers against only 1.4 assists a game. All of that suggests that even the rosiest projections for Porter’s future probably mean he’s going to offer very little to an NBA team early in his career. Development is easier to assume with a player whose character questions are few and far between; that doesn’t describe Porter. Teams are going to have to do extensive background on him to be comfortable that what might be merely immaturity – Porter only turned 19 last month – isn’t something more deep seated.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 4.0 – That’s how many free-throw attempts per 40 minutes Porter managed in his only college season. He took a total of 46 free throws at Southern Cal. Those comparisons to Harden only go so far. Harden averaged 12.0 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes in 2018-19 for Houston. Porter’s step-back jumper is his go-to move right now, but it’s going to be a lot easier to defend without the threat of the drive to complement it in the NBA.

MONEY QUOTE: “I feel like people go through things. Me being my age, I was very immature. I’ve matured from that, I feel. I don’t regret it at all. It was definitely an experience I needed, just a reality check of where I’m at as a person. It changed me a lot – more accountable, more responsible. I just matured all around, on and off the court.” – Kevin Porter Jr. on his suspension and his experience as a Southern Cal freshman

PISTONS FIT: The Pistons need more scoring, in particular more scoring from the wing to complement Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. They’ve got a fixture in Luke Kennard, who isn’t as long or athletic as Porter but is much more polished offensively. Porter is likely headed for some G League time, where he’ll get all the repetitions he can handle. But the talent is so obvious with him that a productive summer could have Porter in position to accelerate his learning curve – if his gains in maturity are as he contends and he’s ready to hit the ground running and embrace coaching. The Pistons under Dwane Casey are aggressive with their player development program and Casey’s track record in Toronto shows he’s willing to trust rookies as long as they prove earnest workers and learners. Gauging that aspect of Porter’s makeup will be the biggest point of discussion when Ed Stefanski and his inner circle evaluate his merits.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s tough to narrow down the most likely Pistons picks to a handful given the volatile nature of the 2019 draft, but Porter probably would make the cut to a top five. He’d represent a gamble, for sure, but perhaps one more worth taking in a year where there might not be any sure-fire NBA starters available once you get past the top 10 or 12 picks. He’s a swing-for-the-fences type that might find himself fighting to stay in the league in three or four years but might also be earning some of those early-career Harden comparisons, too. Not to be overlooked here: Blake Griffin’s leadership was a breath of fresh air for an organization that hasn’t had anyone quite like him – not of his stature as a player or someone who’s been exposed to as much winning as Griffin has – since the run of seven straight 50-win seasons ended more than a decade ago. Perhaps it then becomes less a risk to put Porter in that environment than it would have been before Griffin’s arrival.

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