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NBA Daily: Kevin Porter Jr. or James Harden?

After a tumultuous start to his young career, Kevin Porter Jr. has found his stride with the Houston Rockets. Is he the next star of H-Town? Dylan Thayer breaks it down for this feature on Basketball Insiders!

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Soon-to-be 21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. hasn’t had the most conventional rise to fame in the NBA in his young career thus far. In just his second season, KPJ is on his second team after a one-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Things in Cleveland didn’t end very well as tensions were high between the team and him. He was arrested before the start of this season in Ohio on gun charges which caused him to miss time. Then, following a trade with the Brooklyn Nets which netted the Cavs Taurean Prince, he was made available after throwing a fit in the locker room. His locker was moved in favor of the newly-acquired Prince, and this led to the breaking point in the marriage between the Cavs and their sophomore player. He was then subsequently moved in a trade with Houston for a top-55 protected second-round pick. 

Many had begun to doubt the future of his career, as to this point he hadn’t shown that he could stay out of trouble. He even missed time in college for unknown reasons that were cited as personal conduct issues, so more red flags in the NBA had sent waves around the league that he couldn’t keep his name out of negative headlines. Further adding to this notion, he was recently fined by the NBA for violating Health and Safety protocols when he visited a strip club. He didn’t have your average childhood growing up as he saw his father, Kevin Porter Sr., be murdered when he was only four years old. KPJ carries this with him every day and made it known recently in a tweet where he made sure to let the people know he’s KPJ, not just Kevin Porter. 

In Houston things were dire. The team had just lost the best player to don a Rockets jersey since the great Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and became destined for a porous season. The team went from relying on the former MVP in Harden to giving John Wall the team leader role coming off an Achilles injury. So the idea of getting KPJ for free and to see if they could develop him into the player he looks destined to become was a low-risk, high-reward move for the team to make. 

Porter Jr. was raved about coming out of high school as a five-star player. He committed to play college basketball at the University of Southern California, and many predicted that he was going to be one of the top picks in the 2019 draft. This was a strong thing to say at the time as the 2019 draft class looked to be full of future great players in the NBA. 

The potential of him becoming something seemed very likely. He crafts his game around that of his idol, James Harden. Mimicking the play style of the elite guard, Porter Jr.’s game is full of isolations with the ball and gaining enough space to get a quality shot off on his defender via stepback jumpers. While these plays are very entertaining and show the true talent of his game, some draft analysts didn’t think his game would translate well as they highlighted the inefficiencies and lower percentages that may not work in the modern NBA. That didn’t stop the Cavaliers from getting Porter Jr. right at the end of the first round of the draft, 30th overall in a trade with the Detroit Pistons.

As the talent and skills are there, the job now for Porter Jr. is to put time into his game and letting the coaching staff in Houston help him to develop as a player. This is something that the organization has proven itself to be good at with raw players like Montrezl Harrell, Danuel House Jr., Ben Mclemore and Patrick Beverly to name a few. There’s also the nine-time All-Star, Harden, who took his game to new levels on the Rockets, so KPJ should be in good hands. 

In the short amount of time, he has spent with the Rockets, KPJ has put the league on notice. He isn’t just some player with attitude issues that will never make it in the NBA, he’s a 20-year-old guard capable of making a huge impact on the game whenever he is on the floor. His scoring ability is undeniable, and in the 24 games he has played for the Rockets so far, he has produced nine games of 20 or more points, a feat he only accomplished three times in the 2019-20 season. However, he put everyone on notice when he came in and dropped 50 points, 5 rebounds and 11 assists in a game where he willed the Rockets to a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s not every day that a 20-year-old sophomore player leads the worst team in the league to a win over a title contender, but that’s exactly the kind of player that KPJ can be.

Another knock on his game that held him back in the past as a prospect coming into the league was his inability to be an effective playmaker. So many scouts labeled him as just a pure scorer who thrives with the ball in his hands on isolated possessions, but he has proved them wrong. After a season of playing off the bench in Cleveland, Porter Jr. has put his passing ability on display as a starter in Houston. Last year, he only had three games out of fifty with five or more assists, which is nothing compared to the eighteen games he has had of that nature this season, in only 24 total games, per Basketball-Reference. As the lead guard with John Wall out for the season once again, KPJ has fulfilled the role very well both scoring effectively and moving the ball for better looks at a shot. 

As the Rockets attempt to climb out of the hole as an organization left behind by the departures of Harden, executive Daryl Morey, and head coach Mike D’Antoni, they have set themselves up well with Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr., and Jae’ Sean Tate looking like they will be big contributors down the line. KPJ however can be the alpha and leader of the group if he continues to grow as a player. He has put in work since last season, as he has increased his averages across the board in his tenure with the Rockets. Not much can be said to take anything away from these improvements either because even though he’s now on the worst team in the NBA, he was on the second-worst team last year. 

Do the Rockets have their replacement for James Harden in the 20-year-old guard? It may be too early to jump the gun and say yes, but it is clear that they have found a diamond in the rough. KPJ’s game is even modeled after the former star of Houston making him a great pick to become the next fan-favorite in H-Town. The future is bright for Porter Jr. and the Rockets, and if he can continue to put in the work off the court he could be a perennial All-Star one day with all of the talents he brings to the table.

Dylan Thayer is a Contributing Writer for Basketball Insiders, and a Sport Management student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

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