When star guard Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL in mid-April, it was easy to assume that the Denver Nuggets would fall back from the pack of contenders atop the Western Conference. When both Murray’s backup, Monte Morris, and starting wing Will Barton joined Murray on the sideline with matching hamstring injuries soon after, it seemed all but assured that the Nuggets would suffer in the win-loss column.
Instead, Denver is scorching hot. The Nuggets are 9-2 since Murray’s injury and are tied for the league’s fourth-best net rating during that stretch. They’ve secured their place in the top four in the Western Conference standings and are now six games clear of losing home-court advantage in the first round and seven games clear of dropping into the play-in tournament.
MVP front-runner Nikola JokiÄ deserves the lion’s share of the credit, but there’s another Nugget who is actually taking his game to new heights to keep the team in the hunt. Second-year forward Michael Porter Jr. has stepped into a larger role, fulfilling seemingly every ounce of his promise and emerging as JokiÄ’s new co-star. Since Murray left the lineup, Porter has averaged 25 points and 6.6 rebounds in 36.1 minutes per game, shooting 56.9 percent from the field and 49.4 percent from 3-point territory.
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It’s tough to label Porter’s star turn a surprise. He was sold as exactly this type of talent during his terrific high school career, and when he entered college, he was considered a surefire one-and-done prospect and possible No. 1 overall pick. The back injury that limited him to only 53 collegiate minutes during his lone season at Missouri also caused him to fall from the top of the 2018 NBA draft to the bottom of the lottery, where the Nuggets selected him with the No. 14 overall pick.
Porter’s injury scared off a lot of teams — including the L.A. Clippers, whose team doctor was said to have written a report that stated Porter would never play basketball again — but because of their unique circumstances, the Nuggets weren’t one of them. The team had missed out on a playoff berth in an overtime loss on the final day of the 2017-18 regular season, but they’d still won 46 games and had a roster stacked with a star (JokiÄ), an emerging playmaker (Murray) and a deep cadre of role players. The Nuggets felt they could roll the dice on Porter because it seemed fairly clear they were going to be quite good for quite a while anyway; what they really wanted was a shot at a ceiling-raiser.
For a while, it wasn’t entirely clear that was what the Nuggets had on their hands. The back injury required two surgeries — one in college and one after he was drafted — and kept Porter on the sideline for his entire first year in the league. He was only occasionally in the rotation for much of his second year. Every time he stepped on the floor, though, his skill set tantalized, and when the season restarted in the bubble, Porter’s star shone brighter than ever.
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He was named to the All-Bubble second team for his performance in the seeding games, during which he averaged 22 points and 8.6 rebounds on a 55-42-93 shooting line. He was exposed a bit defensively during the Nuggets’ run to the Western Conference finals, but it was nonetheless clear that things were looking up.
Porter started this season remarkably hot, knocking down multiple threes in each of the Nuggets’ first four games. But he entered the league’s COVID-19 contact tracing protocols on Jan. 1, then contracted the virus himself before he was set to return. That three-week layoff delayed his breakout, as did the fact that the Nuggets brought him off the bench when he returned to the lineup.
Since rejoining the starters, though, Porter has been electric: He’s averaged 19.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a night while shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from deep on 6.3 long-range attempts per game. He even had a 17-game stretch where he scored in double-digits on better than 50 percent shooting in every game; only 16 players in the history of basketball have had a longer streak than that.
Porter was so good upon joining the first unit that Nuggets coach Michael Malone rearranged his rotation to stagger JokiÄ and Murray (who had been matched in the rotation for years), matching JokiÄ with Porter instead. Since Murray’s injury, Malone has staggered JokiÄ and Porter, and it’s actually worked: Denver has outscored opponents by an absurd 45 points in the 94 minutes Porter has been on the floor sans JokiÄ over the past 11 games.
Much of Porter’s effectiveness as a player stems from his outrageous scoring package. He just makes everything about putting the ball in the basket look completely effortless.
His size (6-foot-10) and high release point make his shot nearly impossible to block. Just six of his 650 career jump shots have been blocked, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and it’s rare to see a player more shot-ready than Porter is at all times. Watch him sliding around the arc while JokiÄ has the ball in the post, and you’ll almost never see Porter’s hands anywhere other than close together, right in front of his body, primed to catch, aim and fire.
And it’s not like Porter is hunting shots he can’t make. On the contrary, he appears to be a potentially all-time shooting talent. He made 42.2 percent of his threes as a rookie and is up to 44 percent this year, on a healthy volume. Prior to this season, the only other players to connect on at least 44 percent of their triples while taking at least six of them per game were Stephen Curry, JJ Redick, Duncan Robinson, Peja StojakoviÄ and Klay Thompson.
Among NBA players with at least as many career 3-point attempts as Porter, only five (Steve Kerr, Seth Curry, Hubert Davis, Joe Harris and DraÅ¾en PetroviÄ) have connected at a higher rate. He’s also one of just five players 6-foot-10 or taller to make at least 40 percent of their career threes, and nobody that size has ever shot the deep ball better than Porter has so far.
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He’s not exactly binging on easy looks, either. During the Second Spectrum era, 345 non-centers have taken at least 500 contested jump shots. Porter ranks seventh among that group of players in effective field-goal percentage on those shots and fourth in quantified Shooter Impact, the Second Spectrum metric for how a player performs versus an average player taking the same shots. Again, he is accompanied by all-time great shooters on both of those lists:
|Michael Porter Jr.
|Michael Porter Jr.
If Porter were merely an elite shooter with great size, he would be a really good player. But he’s much more than that. He has a wonderful understanding of how to hunt scoring opportunities, and specifically of how to get himself to floor locations where JokiÄ can find him for incredibly easy looks. He’s a very smart cutter, and he knows how to leverage his size advantage when the Nuggets set a screen for him to duck into the lane.
It’s cliché to refer to passer-shooter combinations as though they are quarterback-wide receiver duos, but it’s difficult to describe the JokiÄ-Porter mind-meld chemistry without resorting to it. At times, it almost seems unfair that the Basketball Gods have paired the game’s greatest big-man passer with a player like Porter, who is uniquely suited to taking full advantage of JokiÄ’s many gifts. There is simply not much opposing defenses can do with two players this big, with skill sets this well-matched.
That Porter is able to score this well, this consistently, on this type of volume before he is even really being asked to create for himself all that often is pretty remarkable. (He has one of the highest scoring averages ever for a player with his relatively low usage rate.) He’s posted up just 33 times this season, per Second Spectrum, isolated 80 times and run only 85 pick and rolls as the ball-handler.
By way of perspective, consider that Heat forward Nemanja Bjelica has 34 post-ups this season, Thunder forward Isaiah Roby has been entrusted with 79 isolations, and Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina has been the ball-handler in 86 pick and rolls. That’s how rarely Porter is tasked with creating his own offense. Being strictly a play-finisher at this stage of his career works just fine, but his skill set suggests plenty of room for growth once the Nuggets are more comfortable with him driving the action.
Perhaps the most intriguing development for both Porter and the Nuggets, though, is his improved defense. Opponents have gone from scoring 1.28 points per possession when running a pick and roll with Porter’s man as the screener last season to just 1.03 points per possession this season, according to Second Spectrum. He’s done a better job closing out on shooters, contesting shots at a higher rate and getting a bit closer to them, on average, than he did last year. As Malone said earlier this season, Porter “cares” on defense now, and it shows.
As the Nuggets move toward the postseason, Porter’s commitment to defense will likely be put under even more of a microscope. The team acquired Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline so that he could handle the toughest forward matchup on any given night, but playoff opponents will be unsparing about hunting Porter in open space, as they did a year ago. At the same time, he’ll be the focus of even more defensive attention himself, as opponents will almost surely prefer getting beaten by the likes of Gordon, Barton, Morris, P.J. Dozier, Facundo Campazzo or any of the Nuggets’ other complementary players to letting JokiÄ and/or Porter get theirs.
When Porter reentered the starting lineup, he looked like the team’s playoff wild card — the guy whose emergence could dramatically change its fortunes if everything went according to plan. The team’s injury issues have thrust him forward in the pecking order, to the point where his success or failure at handling the playoff crucible seems likely to be a determinative in the Nuggets’ ultimate fortunes.
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