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The Underdog

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Michael Porter Jr. was born to be a star. In Denver, he’ll have to embrace a new role: the underdog.

High School Basketball: 40th Annual McDonald’s All-American Games Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Porter Jr. was born to be a superstar.

He is the son of the University of Missouri’s assistant basketball coach and the nephew of that same University’s head women’s basketball coach. His two older sisters both played for the University’s women’s basketball team and his closest brother, Jontay Porter, will return for his sophomore season with the Tigers before heading to the NBA as a likely first round draft prospect. There are also four more, younger Porter siblings, all of whom are gifted basketball players at lower levels.

Porter Jr. is the type of player who has mixtapes on YouTube from his 8th grade season, where even back then he was identified as one of the top players of his age group in the entire country. You can see in those videos the making of a high-profile prospect. A long, wiry frame that is surprisingly coordinated and athletic. A soft touch on his jump shot and a knack for getting to his spots on the floor.

In 2014, at just 16 years old, Porter Jr. leapt (quite literally) onto the national spotlight with a poster dunk heard around the world. The then 6’8 sophomore caught the ball on a fastbreak, raised the ball in his right hand and took off from a half step inside the free throw line, leaping into and over a poor, unsuspecting high school-aged defender who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The highlight went viral and earned the #1 slot on that night’s SportsCenter top 10. Already an up-and-comer, Porter Jr. went from a promising young prospect to an internet sensation and made his mark on the short list of the county’s best young high school players.

As a Junior, he led Father Tolton High School to a Missouri state championship. That following summer he led his AAU team, MOKAN Elite to the EYBL Peach Jam championship. Despite being one the premiere AAU tournaments in the country, Mokan Elite dominated the competition winning the championship game by a score of 93-65. Porter Jr. earned co-MVP honors behind a 7-game tournament average of over 26 points and 11 rebounds per game. Later that same month, Porter Jr. led Team USA in scoring en route to a FIBA Americas U18 championship under head coach, Shaka Smart.

From that point on, Porter Jr. wasn’t just a star, he was thee star. Jerry Meyer, the Director of Scouting for 247Sports placed the 6’9 scorer as his top prospect in the class of 2017. He was also voted the nation’s best college recruit by a collection of the nation’s top college coaches, ahead of DeAndre Ayton.

After his father was offered a job as an assistant coach for the University of Washington’s men’s basketball program, the Porter family moved to the pacific northwest where Porter Jr. would join Nathan Hale high school for his senior season. Hale’s basketball program finished 3-18 the season before Porter Jr. arrived but went undefeated in his lone season, capturing the 2017 Washington Class 3A state championship behind a perfect 29-0 record, beating national powerhouse teams like Oak Hill and Sierra Canyon along the way.

He went on to earn both the Gatorade national player of the year award and the Naismith prep player of the year award and was listed as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com, ESPN, Scout Media, and 247Sports. In a podcast last week, Nate Duncan had this to say of him:

“I was extremely impressed...I have been going to the (Nike) Hoops Summit since 2014, he had he most impressive scrimmage of any USA player that I’ve seen and I was really just blown away by how good he was.”

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In contrast, there’s Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

ESPN cut to a commercial break as the Nuggets selected Jokic with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, denying Jokic the typical highlight reel and summary from the studio analysts covering the draft for ESPN. Jokic himself was asleep in his home country of Serbia when news broke that he had been drafted. He was absent at the introductory press conference a few days later when then Nuggets General Manager, Tim Connelly joked to the media “no questions about Nikola Jokic?” Most in the media had never even heard of the 6’10 Serbian so all of the night’s questions were about first round picks, Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris.

Jokic is the sort of anti-star that seems perfect for the city of Denver. His nonathletic looking fame and casual-seeming style of play make it easy to overlook the fact that he is one of five players in the history of the NBA to score at least 3,000 points, grab at least 2,000 rebounds, and throw at least 1,000 assists in their first three seasons in the NBA and one of just two players on the list (Larry Bird being the other) who entered the league after 1980. Jokic somehow put up those numbers in nearly 3,000 fewer minutes than Bird.

Query Results Table
Crit Crit Crit Crit Tota Tota Tota Shoo
Rk Player From To Tm Lg AST TRB PTS WS G GS MP
TS%
1 Oscar Robertson 1961 1963 CIN NBA 2347 2536 6861 45.7 230 10056 .565
2 Sidney Wicks 1972 1974 POR NBA 1116 2497 5599 13.4 237 9250 .491
3 Larry Bird 1980 1982 BOS NBA 1268 2584 5247 34.5 241 222 9117 .541
4 Maurice Stokes 1956 1958 TOT NBA 1062 3492 3315 16.1 202 7544 .406
5 Nikola Jokic 2016 2018 DEN NBA 1006 2081 3402 27.1 228 187 6214 .611
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2018.

And it’s not just Jokic. Denver’s projected starting lineup next season will likely feature three players drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA draft. Paul Millsap was taken with the 47th pick in the 2006 NBA draft and Will Barton was taken with the 40th pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Gary Harris was a first rounder, taken with the 19th pick but was not considered a starting-caliber player when he entered the league, getting just 719 minutes as a rookie despite playing on a Nuggets team that won just 30 games.

Other than Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles are the only lottery picks on Denver’s roster. Murray was taken 7th, one spot after another high-profile shooter in Buddy Hield. Lyles, who was the 12th pick in the 2015 NBA draft was cut out of the rotation and thrown to the curb in Utah before getting a second chance in Denver.

Even the Nuggets as an organization are something of a second-class franchise, a forgotten member of the flyover teams, at least according to the national media. Despite 50 years of professional basketball in Denver, the Nuggets have been left out of the national discussion since Carmelo Anthony took his talents to New York. You could almost count on one hand the number of nationally televised Nuggets games Denver has gotten over the last five seasons as the league’s television partners are seemingly committed to ignoring markets like Denver.

Just last week when it was announced that Jokic would be receiving a max extension from the Denver Nuggets, ESPN mistakenly played a highlight reel of Jusuf Nurkic, completely aloof to the fact that Nurkic and Jokic aren’t just different players, but more importantly, former teammates and divisional rivals.

Even here locally, Pepsi Center is usually the last place to find a superstar. The Denver Broncos soak up an overwhelming majority of the sports spotlight. The backup running back for the Broncos has as much star power in Denver as the starting small forward for the Nuggets. If Michael Porter Jr.’s destiny up until this point was superstardom, his new path has led him as far away from superstardom as possible.

After a back injury forced him to miss nearly all of his lone season in college, Porter Jr.’s stock as the best prospect in his class began to fall, first out of the number one slot but eventually sliding somewhere around the middle of the lottery. After a planned workout in Chicago shortly before the draft left him aching, scouts and front-offices became even more bearish on the prospect of Porter Jr. making a full recovery and becoming the star he seemed certain to become just a year ago. It wasn’t until draft day that rumors started to swirl of him falling all the way to 14.

And yet, it seems fitting that at a time when the Golden State Warriors are looking to win their fourth NBA championship in five years by adding yet another all-star in DeMarcus Cousins, the Nuggets would add another under-the-radar piece of the puzzle. At a time when LeBron James would not even consider bringing his talents to the Mile High City, the Nuggets would instead double down on their slow burning approach.

Earlier this week, Connelly told The Gazette’s Paul Klee: “It actually makes me more steadfast in our approach...Draft, develop and create an internal sense of loyalty and togetherness.”

In other words, the Nuggets are embracing the fact that they always are and always will be underdogs in the NBA. And that’s exactly what Michael Porter Jr. is now - an underdog. He might not realize it just yet and back when he was busy winning high school championships, MVPs, and player of the year awards he probably never envisioned he’d wind up with this label. But now as he steps inside the Pepsi Center practice floor in preparation for his rookie season in the NBA, the former five-star recruit will start out his professional career on the comeback trail, working through rehab to join a roster of second sons and second-rounders.

“We don’t need a savior,” Connelly told the media on draft night after acquiring Porter Jr. with the 14th pick. Instead, in a league full of superstars, the Nuggets just needed another talented but overlooked player to join their motley crew of underdogs.