Amidst a fairy tale season of player development and rapid success, the Memphis Grizzlies may have struck gold again by signing Jontay Porter.
To this point, misfortune has defined Jontay Porter’s career. After reclassifying to play with his brother, Nuggets wing Michael Porter Jr., at Missouri as freshmen, Michael suffered various injuries that allowed the brothers to play just three total games together. After returning to Missouri as a sophomore to be more of a focal point of the team, Jontay tore his ACL and missed the entire season. When his chance to finally leap to the NBA came, Jontay again tore his ACL after returning to the court to compete with his brother too early in his recovery. By the time of the 2019 NBA Draft, the two ACL tears scared teams away, despite a picture-perfect modern NBA skill set.
That makes the news all the more interesting that Porter will sign with Memphis, a team that orchestrates a picture-perfect modern NBA system. Agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Sunday that Porter would sign with the Grizzlies on a two-year deal, likely at the rookie minimum and not guaranteed for next season. While Porter has a long way to go until he can be expected to compete at a high level in the NBA, the situation looks perfect for him.
Since tearing his ACL the first time and leaving Missouri, Porter had been living with his brother Michael in Denver. That closeness not only gave Porter a taste of NBA life, it also showed Porter the diligence and focus it takes to come back from a major injury, as Michael did after the Nuggets drafted him in 2018. “It’s kind of given me a blueprint of how I want to do things and how to live that lifestyle in the NBA and on the court, too,” Porter told me at the NBA Draft combine last year. Those habits will help him adjust now that he is with the Grizzlies
The fit could not be better stylistically. Porter is a smart play-maker at the elbows and from the pick-and-pop. He made 36.4 percent of his 110 3-point attempts in his one season at Missouri and developed over the course of the season at attacking closeouts and making plays off the bounce. Within head coach Taylor Jenkins’ “random motion” offense, Porter will simply have to read, react and shoot. As with Jaren Jackson Jr. in his second NBA season, Porter could not be in a better situation to maximize what he’s good at offensively.
The defensive comparison is not so much in Jackson but starting center Jonas Valanciunas. Thought to be merely a salary-matching piece of the Marc Gasol trade with Toronto last winter, Valanciunas inked an extension with Memphis shortly after the trade and has been a steadying force in the frontcourt ever since. In helping the Grizzlies jump to the eighth seed, Valanciunas has turned in one of the best defensive seasons of his career. Like his mentor Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee, Jenkins is allergic to giving up shots at the rim. Like Budenholzer’s center, Brook Lopez, Jenkins wants his big men dropping deep into the paint when defending the pick-and-roll. That simplified style makes use of Valanciunas’ size and discipline.
It should do the same for Porter. The checklist for Porter’s NBA landing spot was a place where he could play freely on offense and be insulated defensively. Not only does Jenkins’ system help him do that on both ends, but he will also be helped by the presence of Jackson and the equally athletic Brandon Clarke in the Grizzlies’ frontcourt, as well as the play-making of Ja Morant on the other side.
After strange rumors linking Porter to Portland surfaced after the draft, Porter has found a home that makes perfect sense for him as a player. Memphis will also, like Denver did for Michael, allow Porter to continue to rehab and develop out of the spotlight of a huge market.
The biggest next step physically will likely be building muscle and reworking the integrity and strength of his right leg after two surgeries. Porter was noticeably light at the combine last year, and said his priority until he made it to the NBA was to get bigger and stronger and properly conditioned. Those will likely be checkpoints Memphis wants to see (or already has).
From the Grizzlies’ perspective, it’s another shrewd, high-value move. For merely the cost of a roster spot and a (likely) minimum salary, Memphis’ impressive player development program gets the chance to work with a potentially elite third big man who fits with its other talent. The acquisition comes on the heels of other smart, low-risk, high-reward moves such as drafting the highly productive big man Brandon Clarke at No. 23 last summer, trading for versatile guard De’Anthony Melton, and signing backup guard Tyus Jones when Minnesota balked. Despite the relative inexperience of the Grizzlies’ front office (run by 30-year-old general manager Zach Kleiman), they’ve nailed several moves like this in a row now.
With a core of Morant, Jackson, Clarke, Melton, Dillon Brooks and recent trade acquisition Justise Winslow, the Grizzlies have their core of stars and starters. The best teams don’t stop there. As Sam Hinkie might say, the smartest teams try for as many bites at the apple as possible. Memphis signing Porter is exactly that. If it doesn’t work out, the move will be forgotten and very little will have been lost.
Yet just a year ago, Porter was thought by many to be a first-round prospect regardless of the first ACL tear. That player is still inside him. And the Grizzlies may have just gotten that player on a cost-controlled contract with the ability to integrate him into their system, which fits him perfectly. It’s a home run.