At just 8-7 and scrambling for footing near the bottom of the Western Conference, it was no stretch to say the Denver Nuggets were disappointed in themselves to start the year. But, as we leak into the second month of the 2020-21 season, things have begun to heat up in the Mile High City.
In recent weeks, the Nuggets have won five straight to improve to 11-7 and fourth in the conference. And, while much has contributed to their improved play, the team’s turnaround has a lot do to with the return of their young forward, Michael Porter Jr.
In three seasons, Porter’s career has been a bit of a roller coaster. But, now, he’s proving himself to be one of the best young players in the NBA. Drafted 14th in the 2018 NBA Draft, Porter missed the entire 2018-19 season due to a back injury sustained at the University of Missouri, only to be handled with extreme caution in his sophomore season.
Even in those limited minutes, however, it was clear that Porter was special. And, this season, he’s truly been able to put his talents on display; the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Porter has seen a significant bump in minutes and, with that extra time on the floor, has averaged 18.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and shot 55.6 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three. His 69.4 percent true shooting percentage is also fifth in the NBA for non-centers with at least 75 shots on the season.
Still, Porter can do more. He’s looked, arguably, like the team’s second-best player this season but, for whatever reason, the Nuggets’ coaching staff has moved Porter to the bench in recent games. Whether they think Porter is a roleplayer — which, at this point, it’s obvious he’s anything but — or are simply trying to protect him from further injury, Denver must reverse course; if they truly want to compete in the West and for an NBA title, the Nuggets must feature Porter more, not less.
Yes, Porter, a strong shooter and elite finisher, is an offensive weapon. But his impact on the game goes far beyond that end of the court. Porter is also an excellent rebounder — his 13.3 percent rebound percentage is fourth-best on the Nuggets’ roster — and, on defense, can leverage his size to make an impact almost anywhere on the floor. In fact, Porter is first on the team in blocks per game (.9) and second in steals (1.5).
He’s not without his flaws of course. While he certainly has the frame and tools to be one of the NBA’s best defenders, Porter is often caught sleeping on the defensive end. While there are flashes from time-to-time, he needs to improve in this area, especially on-the-ball, to reach his full potential. Likewise, Porter has struggled as a distributor so far in his short career; in 63 career games, he’s totalled just 56 assists, good for an average of .9 per game. If he can improve as a passer, it would allow Porter to further exploit opponents on the offensive end and would be a major boon to the Nuggets’ offense.
But let’s not act like Porter is trailing in his development. Every player is different and some just take more time than others to refine and perfect their game before they make the “star” leap. It took Paul George, a player that Porter is oft-compared, four years before he had a season as prolific, offensively, as Porter is having right now — and that was in his second season as the Indiana Pacers primary weapon on offense. Brandon Ingram, often regarded as one of the NBA’s best young scorers and a core piece to the future of the New Orleans Pelicans, took four years to reach All-Star status and, as recently as last season, was regarded with a bit of skepticism or hesitancy before that.
Neither of those players are perfect Porter-analogs, of course. But what those examples do show is that, with time, Porter can continue hone his craft and, eventually, become an even greater weapon for the Nuggtes than he is already. That said, Denver has to provide him with enough on-the-court opportunities for that to happen. And that just might require a move back into the starting lineup.
In the long run, Porter might just be the player that could push Denver over the Western Conference hump and to a title. But, in order for him to do that, they have to understand who he is as a player and how he can best make an impact for this team. Can he have an impact from the bench? For sure. But could that hurt Denver, or even stunt Porter’s growth, in the long run? Could it keep Porter from being the best version of himself and, by extension, keep Denver from being the best version of themselves?
In Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets have a generational talent. And it’s about time they start treat him like one.
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