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Kevin Porter Jr. has star potential, and a lot to work on

Kevin Porter Jr. shows flashes of star talent, but he’s a raw project. How likely is he to reach his ceiling if he’s drafted where he’s projected?

Kevin Porter Jr. is a shiny object in the 2019 NBA Draft. This class doesn’t have much in terms of star potential, and there are few players who demonstrate the ability to create their own shot for a large portion of their offense. Outside of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Ja Morant, and Darius Garland, the class is thin in terms of players who could one day be the primary initiator at the NBA level.

So when Porter dusts plays like this off every once in a while, it’s hard not to get enthralled.

Porter, a 6-foot-6 freshman for USC, came into the year with little recruiting buzz, but when he started displaying this type of shot-making ability, he quickly rose up boards and got hype as a potential Trae Young duplicate. But as the year has gone on, and Porter missed time with a quad injury and apparent conduct issues, that noise has cooled. But he still has his fans, and there are certainly teams that will be wowed by his athletic gifts and skill as a ball-handler.

If you rate prospects for ceiling, it’s not hard to be enticed by Porter’s positives — he’s a crafty ball-handler with wing size that can create space with his handle, and also shows flashes of strong finishing. He has finished at 67 percent at the rim this year per The Stepien’s shot chart data and shows good shake and shot-angle changing when he attacks off the dribble.

He is going to be a useful transition scorer in the NBA. He also shows the beginnings of some nice work breaking down opponents, using a strong in-and-out dribble and step back mechanics to create open shots on offense. He’s also developing as a shooter, showing comfort shooting off the dribble:

And looking capable off the catch as well.

It’s easy to see how, with honing, Porter’s scoring skill set might one day put him in the All-Star conversation, or at least in the position to be an 18 or 20 point per game scorer that earns a near-max contract at some point on his NBA journey. In this class, just a hint of that potential may entice a team to take him in the top 10. However, with his skills, you would expect Porter to be leading USC as a scorer, or at least starting. But he’s only started four games this year, and only averages 21.5 minutes per game — even as USC has basically fizzled out as a .500 team in a bad conference. Digging into the reasons for this disparity in playing time and role from ability unveils some concerning issues for Porter’s long-term growth.

Chief among these is feel for the game. On both ends, Porter has issues with simple awareness problems, with concerning habits that can really impact his NBA value. For instance, Porter seems to premeditate his moves and actions when he gets the ball off the catch and doesn’t have a good sense for when to shot-fake and drive or fake and pass away.

He also doesn’t read the pick-and-roll very well, and these opportunities often turn into isolations because he doesn’t read the coverage correctly. Here, you can see him get confused by the hedging big, and then also miss the dump-off pass to the big once he gets into the paint.

Porter is a decent passer with good vision, but this pass at the end of the previous clip shows how much he forces passes at times. Porter doesn’t have great touch, particularly on interior passes, and he can be very turnover prone when tasked with primary creation responsibility. His ability to react to being pressed isn’t ideal either, and he gets tunnel vision when he has to create quickly.

It isn’t just the offensive end where Porter has poor feel, either. His defense is most likely the biggest reason he isn’t seeing the floor this year because he consistently gives up baskets with poor positioning and awareness when defending off-ball. On the ball, Porter’s fine — he uses his agility to stay with quick guards and deny open lanes, and he’s strong enough to contend with bigger wings, as well. But off-ball, he’s a mess. He misses rotations and switches, forcing teammates to scramble and creating open shots down the line:

More concerning is his transition defense, which he does not seem to understand or care about. He doesn’t act on the concept of tagging players streaking to the basket from the wing and struggles to locate unguarded players on the wing. And at worst, he’s just on autopilot.

Even on good possessions, where he’ll string a couple of good actions together, it’s undone by wild and out-of-control closeouts.

The feel problem is a huge counterweight to Porter’s ceiling as a player. For Porter to hit his ceiling, he can’t just score points — he has to create value for his team’s offense through that scoring, which comes from passing, decision-making, and shot selection. Porter isn’t very strong in any of those areas at this point. Couple that with his lack of off-ball defensive fundamentals, and it’s very easy to see a path to a situation where Porter peaks as a bench scorer who can’t be very useful on a good team, like a Gerald Green type.

It’s important to think of Porter as a project. He won’t be considered that way by many because of his advanced on-ball skills, but he’s nowhere close to developed enough to play rotation minutes right away. Porter is going to basically have to learn NBA defense from scratch, and he is going to need coaching help to understand situational offensive production outside of transition and spot-up chances. That’s going to take significant time, and it’s likely going to be important to keep him off the floor early on and keep expectations tepid.

Next: The Step Back 2019 NBA Draft Big Board: March Update

But that’s going to be a challenge, particularly if he gets overdrafted into the top ten, for instance. A situation like the one Collin Sexton walked into in Cleveland, or even one like Miles Bridges has played for Charlotte, might be a little beyond what is going to be beneficial to Porter’s development. Instead, a slow development curve like the one the Los Angeles Clippers appear to be giving Jerome Robinson might be the best option. But that’s a hard sell for some fan bases and front offices, especially when the positives of Porter’s game stand out so much in this class. Porter’s a project that is probably worth betting on for the right team. But he can also be a dangerous use of a high draft pick for the wrong one.

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