Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Denver Nuggets see from Michael Porter Jr.?
The Denver Nuggets had to wait more than a year to get their first look at Michael Porter Jr. in real game action. The 6-foot-10 forward was originally projected as one of the top players in his class but fell to Denver at the No. 14 pick in the 2018 draft, largely because of a back injury that cost him all but three games of his freshman season at Missouri. He had a second surgery after being drafted and sat out all of the 2018-19 season to recover.
For the Nuggets, landing Porter was an enormous opportunity. His injury issues made him far from a sure thing but here was a player with star talent waiting for them at the very end of the lottery. As a high schooler, Porter stood out with the incredible mobility and shooting touch of a high-level wing, but in a power forward’s body. With the long-awaited opportunity to play actual NBA minutes, did he show that same potential?
What did we expect?
Expectations for Porter Jr. became increasingly vague since it had been so long since he’s played meaningful basketball. He was essentially out for two years and came into the NBA with just his high school resume and about 53 minutes of college basketball. Digging deep, this Cole Zwicker scouting reporting from January, 2017, gives at least some impression of the player Porter Jr. was thought to be:
He doesn’t have the quickest release, but he has soft touch and his elevation gives him a distinct advantage shooting over players.
Outside of shooting, Porter Jr. can handle fluidly in the open court and in straight lines, and does a decent job keeping his head up to find open teammates. It’s hard to assess his ability to create on-on-one in NBA creation settings such as in pick-and-rolls when he faces athletes who he can’t just blow by (we’ll get to this), and ball-skills in this setting are definitely something to monitor moving forward.
With Porter Jr., it felt like the only real givens where his combination of shooting and size, with everything else a mystery. This season was really about just getting him back on the court and seeing how his skills and athletic tools began to manifest against this new level of competition.
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What did we get?
In terms of raw numbers, the Nuggets got everything they possibly could have hoped for from Porter Jr. this season. Most of his stints were off the bench and situational (he made just one start and averaged 14.0 minutes per game), but he put up 19.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per 36 minutes.
In addition to his robust counting stats, Porter Jr. made 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers, shooting over 40 percent on both pull-up and catch-and-shoot attempts.
He was solid inside the arc as well, shooting 64 percent in the restricted area and a respectable 40 percent on mid-range jumpers. And he even flashed potential as a high-volume, high-efficiency primary scorer, ranking in the 83 percentile in scoring efficiency on isolations.
Everything Porter Jr. did this season with regards to scoring efficiently is exciting because it raises his floor — at the very least, he has value as a complementary scorer or spot-up shooter. But it is that last point, his potential as an efficient primary threat that should cause the most optimism for the Nuggets.
Porter’s offensive skill set — shooting and handle — fit on the wing but, at 6-foot-10, he has an enormous advantage over most other wing players. According to the NBA’s defensive matchup statistics, he spent more than half of his possessions defending 2s and 3s, even if he was nominally the 4 in most Nuggets lineups. If you look at the opposing players who were tasked with defending Porter, he had a height advantage of at least three inches on nearly 75 percent of his possessions. He shot over 50 percent on those possessions, averaging 33.8 points per 100 possessions.
The height advantage made it relatively easy for him to get off clean spot-up looks even in the face of aggressive closeouts. But you could also see how comfortable he was rising up to shoot over the top of a defender off movement or off the dribble.
All that just raises his ceiling as a difficult shot-maker and makes him more valuable, whether as a situational match-up buster or as a primary scoring threat. Even if his role ends up leaning more secondary he demonstrated plenty of comfort finding other ways to score — back cutting defenders for easy lobs, sprinting out in transition and chasing down easy points on the offensive glass.
There are still plenty of questions left for Porter Jr. to answer. For all that he showed on offense, it still came in just 670 minutes and he reaching his potential means both staying healthy and replicating these moments again and again on a larger scale and in higher leverage situations. And although his steal and block numbers look impressive, he still has a long way to go at that end of the floor (which is particularly important when you consider a long-term fit next to Nikola Jokic).
Still, the mission this season was mostly to get Porter Jr. on the court and get to see if his talent still looked like star material when matched up against NBA players. Mission accomplished.