You could almost feel the growing rage of Nuggets Nation as that first preseason game hit halftime. After over a year of anticipation, and for some much longer, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone still denied the fan base what they desperately desired. Michael Porter Jr. had yet to get up off the bench. It wasn’t for a lack of being ready. After all Porter was the only one on the bench to forego his shooting shirt, seemingly ready to run onto the court in a moments notice. It would take Malone another seven and a half minutes before he gave the rookie his moment. After two years, MPJ was back.
That opening game had it’s moments. Porter started by knocking down a step back J. It was the type of shot that often gets derided for it’s low efficiency, but one every person lives with when it’s behind that perfectly smooth J that everyone had heard so much about. From that moment on Porter has only shown more reasons why he is an NBA ready player. He finished the night with nine points but it came almost entirely on isolation moves. The next two games Porter showed he was more than just a superb one on one baller. He cut off ball, he crashed the offensive glass, he erased shots at the rim on defense. Back to back double digit scoring performances to go with his highlighted all around game has this Nuggets fan base abuzz.
Yet, in the final tune up before the regular season it appeared that MPJ is still sitting on the outside of the rotation. Malone elected to start Torrey Craig and bring Will Barton off the bench at the three spot. Porter once again waited until late in the game to get minutes where he had his worst performance thus far in a Nuggets uniform. Though Malone said on the radio just yesterday that he hasn’t come to a final decision on the small forward spot, it doesn’t appear that for right now Porter is going to be seeing much court time. However, Malone did leave the fans with one tantalizing soundbite: “I’ll say this, Michael is such a talented player I’m going to have to find a way to play him this year.”
There’s plenty reason to do find playing time now though, and one can argue that it’s what the Nuggets should do in the interest of winning basketball games as well. Above all else, Porter appears to not only have the higher ceiling in comparison to players like Craig and Juancho Hernangomez, but there’s evidence that he might already be at a higher floor. The problem of course is we have a total of four games to go off of and many of the minutes that MPJ got were against the back ends of their opponents roster. However, the evidence we do have makes a strong case in his favor. He nearly averaged 10 points in 16 minutes a game, he displayed versatility on both sides of the ball and most importantly, he left little doubt to his ability as a shot creator. He didn’t just play with the third stringers, he dominated them. Being able to to create shots for yourself is a skill that can get you minutes on it’s own if it’s elite and MPJ showed an ability to do it at a higher level than we’ve seen from his counter parts and their potential elite skills (Juancho’s 3 point shooting, Craig’s perimeter defense).
The versatility should also not be overlooked. Another big factor in why MPJ should be in this rotation right now is because of his combination of size and speed. The Nuggets simply don’t have another player like that on their roster. While Juancho can give them comparable length, he lacks the athleticism and playmaking ability at Porter’s level. Craig provides the defense and has had periods of very strong outside shooting, but he just doesn’t have the size to match up with the bigger wings of today. Porter certainly doesn’t have the defensive chops of a Craig yet, but his athleticism and length, as well as a willingness to improve and learn, make him a potential terror on the defensive end. There’s an argument here that you’re better off letting Porter take his licks now on defense and learn from them, rather than waiting until further down the road before metaphorically tossing him into the fire.
That’s the biggest argument against playing Porter now, that baptism by fire. It goes back to that two year long wait and whether or not someone who’s returning from that ordeal can weather an eighty-two game season. Those concerns are legitimate. The Nuggets hope to have the services of Porter for many seasons to come. Still, there are other ways to manage the issue, and the Nuggets have already done a lot on that front. This is not a case of rushing a kid out there because you need to put butts in the seats, the Nuggets can do that already. They’ve taken their time to make absolutely sure MPJ is 100% and there’s no reason to not do that now. If he needs a night off give him one, if you don’t want to play him on back to backs, fine. That doesn’t mean you have to squeeze him out of the rotation entirely though.
Don’t be shocked Nuggets Nation if Porter racks up some DNP-CDs to start the season. Malone is old school, he’s going to go with the guys who got him here and for now that’s Barton and Craig. However, even Malone can’t deny the talent brewing inside this kid and that talent’s need to shine on the court. The Nuggets are going to find a way to bring in this new weapon and add it to one of the already most potent rosters in the league. Like the rest of you, I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.