25-under-25, Denver Nuggets

25-under-25: Michael Porter Jr. at No. 14

Can Michael Porter Jr. cement himself as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming scoring dynamos in 2021-22?

Michael Porter Jr. is a walking bucket.

During his first season as a full-time starter with the Denver Nuggets, he averaged 19.0 points on 54.2 percent shooting. He was one of only two players leaguewide who knocked down 2.8 triples per game at a 44.5 percent clip, joining Brooklyn Nets 2-guard Joe Harris.

With Jamal Murray likely to miss part of the 2021-22 season as he recovers from a torn ACL, Porter will have the opportunity to cement his place as one of the NBA’s best young scorers. If he does so, he could earn himself an extra $35 million after agreeing to a five-year designated max extension with the Nuggets earlier this week.

Jamal Murray’s absence will give Michael Porter Jr. a chance to establish himself as indispensable to the Denver Nuggets

With a 6-foot-10 frame and a silky smooth shooting stroke, Porter can rise and fire over just about anyone. He ranked in the 91st percentile among all forwards in points per shot attempt as a rookie, per Cleaning the Glass, and he jumped up to the 96th percentile this past season.

Porter might not ever live up to his lofty predraft comparisons to Kevin Durant, but he boasts multi-time All-Star upside if he stays healthy. However, that’s a big if for someone who underwent a microdiscectomy to repair two bulging discs in his back in November 2017 and a second spinal surgery in July 2018.

Both ESPN and 247Sports had Porter as the second-ranked prospect in the recruiting class of 2017, trailing only Marvin Bagley III, but he slipped to No. 14 in the 2018 NBA draft because of concerns about his back. The Nuggets held Porter out for the entire 2018-19 season to allow him to rehab, which has paid dividends since.

However, health isn’t his only concern.

Throughout his rookie season, Porter often found himself in head coach Mike Malone’s doghouse because of his struggles on defense. Opponents routinely targeted him on that end of the floor, and Malone tended to give him a quick hook whenever that happened.

Porter still isn’t an elite two-way forward like Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, but he made strides defensively last season. In early April, Malone told reporters that Porter had “grown up” and now “cares” on defense. That might not sound like high praise, but it’s a marked improvement from his tone the prior season.

“Yes, we want to develop Michael Porter, but we also have to find ways to win,” Malone told reporters in March 2020 while explaining why he made Porter a DNP-CD one night. “And tonight, I just went with a group that I felt was going to give us the best chance to win. And so Mike’s just gotta stay engaged and stay ready, and I have no doubt he will.”

If Porter continues to improve on defense, he’ll only get further into Malone’s good graces. Granted, Malone might not have another option at this point.

Although Nikola Jokic is fresh off an MVP season, he can’t do everything for the Nuggets, particularly with Murray sidelined. Denver lost Jerami Grant in free agency last summer and Paul Millsap this offseason, which leaves Porter with far less competition for playing time. Malone might have to live with the 23-year-old taking his lumps on defense because of his immense scoring upside.

Aside from Jokic, Murray and Porter, no other Denver player averaged more than 12.7 points last season (Will Barton). Aaron Gordon mustered only 10.2 points per game in his 25 appearances for the Nuggets after coming over at the trade deadline. Barton, Gordon, Austin Rivers and Monte Morris all might shoulder more of Denver’s scoring load until Murray returns, but Jokic and Porter will be the clear go-to options.

In the first 15 games after Murray went down, Porter averaged 25.4 points on 57.9 percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds. He also drilled 4.1 triples per game on a scorching 50.8 percent clip. He was more hit-or-miss in the playoffs — he followed up a three-point outing in Game 4 against the Portland Trail Blazers with 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting and 12 rebounds in Game 5 — although he still shot 47.4. percent overall and 39.7 percent from deep over the Nuggets’ 10-game postseason run.

While scoring will be Porter’s bread and butter throughout his NBA career, becoming more well-rounded could help him maintain his effectiveness on nights that his shot isn’t falling. He averaged a middling 1.1 assists in 31.3 minutes per game this past season, and his 5.6 assist percentage was tied for the fourth-worst among the 137 players who played at least 1,500 minutes.

Porter could also stand to tighten up his handle, too. The Nuggets’ offense will continue to run through Jokic and Murray (when healthy), but having a third option who can reliably create off the dribble for himself and others would only make them more dangerous.

Until Murray returns, Porter will have a clear runway of opportunity this season. He’ll have a chance to prove that he’s a long-term building block for a Nuggets team with legitimate title aspirations.

And if he makes an All-NBA team, he’ll earn himself an extra $35 million, too.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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