When Michael Porter Jr. was drafted fourteenth overall, he came to Denver with one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in recent franchise history placed upon him by fans of the Nuggets.
The Nuggets All-Star and franchise player Nikola Jokić was unheralded when he was drafted in the second round — fans watching the draft coverage famously were treated to a Taco Bell commercial while Jokić slept in his home country of Serbia when he was selected. Jamal Murray was hyped as a tremendous shooter, but fans knew he’d need time to learn how to play point guard in the NBA after not playing that position at Kentucky (Tyler Ulis started at point for Murray’s team).
But Porter Jr. was the No. 1 recruit out of high school, the best player in the country for his age group. No matter that back injuries had not only prevented him from playing at Missouri, but would result in him missing his rookie year as well. Nuggets fans held out hope that once healthy, he’d explode into the league with the same scoring ability as Carmelo Anthony.
After 21 games, Porter Jr. hasn’t been able to make nearly the impact Anthony did 16 years ago. The two players couldn’t have arrived in less comparable situations — Anthony joined a team that had the worst record in the league, while MPJ joined a team that would make the Conference Finals while he sat in clothes on the bench. Anthony had free reign over the offense, while Porter Jr. joined a team with a All-NBA caliber center with extraordinary ability to guide an offense.
Porter has had flashes of good and bad so far, which is to be expected. He’s been inconsistent in his inconsistent minutes, with some games where he’ll get minutes in the first and second half, and some games where he won’t get any minutes. At times it looks like he doesn’t know the playbook, despite a year on the bench to study, and other times he looks like there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be getting 15-20 minutes a night right now.
After watching a ton of film on him, here are some of my thoughts on Porter Jr. so far.
No better place to start then with what is Porter Jr.’s greatest strength - his ability to get the ball in the hoop, efficiently, and at a high volume. With his size, touch, agility, and ballhandling, he fits the mold for a high-level scorer on the wing. There have been moments where he’s shown the ability to grab a rebound (I’d argue his best skill so far has been offensive rebounding) and score, either by dribbling the length of the court all the way to the rim, pulling up at the 3-point line, or backing his way into a mid-range jumper.
Coach Malone frequently will have Porter Jr. spot up on the perimeter in the corner or at the wing. That gives him a clear role - stand here and be ready to shoot if necessary. He has a beautiful shot, with a solid base, smooth release, and easy rock to get his shoulders behind the ball. As good as it looks when he gets a chance, he’s shooting just 33 percent (9-27) on 3-point attempts. If you want more minutes because you want to help space the floor, you need to make shots when you take them.
MPJ looks healthy and explosive on cuts, tip dunks, alley oops, and drives, showing a level of athleticism that few of his fellow frontcourt mates possess. He can make tough shots, especially around the rim, but he too often gets blocked or can’t cleanly collect a pass in traffic. With just 11 free throw attempts, he clearly isn’t comfortable with contact from stronger, older NBA players. Before his minutes this season, he was only used to sharing the court with high school students — opponents are much bigger, faster and smarter too at this level.
Porter Jr. is going to need to improve his ability to get to the free throw line when he posts up or drives, while also improving his perimeter jumper. The former skill should hopefully comes as he gains more trust in his body, while also building muscle to help him welcome contact, not avoid it. The latter skill will come with more minutes under his belt, in my opinion. Rookies hardly ever can shoot well, and Porter Jr. struggling there isn’t something to panic about at this point.
The turnovers, struggles catching the ball, and confusion are real issues. They are things that cause coaches to pull out their hair, because they are things that don’t have to happen if the required focus is there. Winning players don’t struggle with those things, which is one of the reasons why I don’t think Malone is willing to tolerate many of those mistakes during a game where the outcome impacts the team’s record. It’s smart for Malone to protect MPJ from making mistakes and causing an issue with the more experienced core and role players. If MPJ starts shooting over 40 percent on 3-point attempts, he’ll get minutes regardless of how many times he heads to the wrong side of the court and has to be rerouted by Barton or Jokić.
Porter Jr. hasn’t registered many assists, and most of his have come on passes to Juancho Hernangomez, who will connect on trailing 3-point attempts. His role on offense doesn’t include him doing much playmaking, so to expect him to do more than hitting wide open guys from time to time isn’t fair to him. Eventually it would be nice to see him become more comfortable with a role as a playmaker in isolation, but that seems like a Year Two responsibility, not a Year One thing.
The blocks are nice, but Porter Jr. has only one lone steal on the season, and it was more a result of being in the right place at the right time. He is one of four players in the NBA to have played over 175 minutes this season and have just one steal, according to Basketball Reference — he’s in a group with Goga Bitadze, Daniel Gafford, and Juancho Hernangomez.
Porter Jr. has a couple chase-down blocks this season, with a few coming immediately after he either gets blocked or commits a turnover. I guess there’s something to correcting your own mistakes, but it is something that made me chuckle. He has shown little awareness for rotational help, either closing out on shooters or rotating over to contest shots. He often will give up position when boxing out, getting caught watching as he tracks the path of the ball, waiting for a chance to jump up and spear the ball.
He does have one advantage for man-to-man defense in the post, and that is he’s 6’10”, and he won’t get any smaller at any time. He can get knocked aside fairly easily, but he is able to recover and contest due to his size. The problems come in the post if the ballhandler can get their shoulder into him, bumping him back, or get him in a situation where he needs to quickly move his feet. He is able to help affect shots when he closes out due to his length, and he can contest shots just by jumping up with his arms raised. On the perimeter, he needs to improve his stance, footwork, play recognition, and positional awareness.
All these things should be expected when considering the level of experience that Porter Jr. has. It’s very important to remember that he last played in high school, and was away from the game for two years. The fact that he can even be on the court at times is impressive on it’s own. This more highlights the need for the team to have a G-League team where they could send him to get 25-30 minutes a night to get repetitions under his belt.
As he continues to practice, play, and develop physically, he’ll improve certain weaknesses. In order to get to the level of a starter for a contender, he’ll need to watch a lot of film and put in a lot of hours of practice, learning where to go, when to go, and how to get there. The Nuggets defense succeeds because the players know where to go and where to try to force the ballhandlers. It’s something that took the other starters a few seasons to learn — we can’t expect MPJ to pick it up immediately.
Who Should MPJ Pattern His Game After?
When I think of a basketball player that MPJ should model his game after as he continues to progress along his journey in the NBA, the first player I thought of was Elena Delle Donne.
Delle Donne is a legendary player in the WNBA. At 6’5” and 188 lbs, she has the size of a WNBA center but she has a game that is more comparable to a guard. She’s an elite shooter, and became the first player in WNBA history to have a 50/40/90 season. She was the No. 1 recruit in high school, and has battled through various injuries, as well as Lyme disease, to win the league MVP award twice. Della Donne also lead the Washington Mystics to a championship in 2019, battling through three herniated disks, a broken nose, and a knee injury.
Della Donne can score at all three levels on the court. She can let it fly from the perimeter, but thrives on finding mismatches inside the arc and getting points inside. With her height, she can shoot over most of the other small forwards she gets matched up against. If a power forward is switched onto her, she can put the ball on the deck, using her speed, agility, and footwork to create space. If she gets to the free throw line, it’s as close to a guarantee as you can get. She can spot up, run pick and roll, post up, cut, isolate, and shoot off motion. She’s one of the most complete offensive players to play the game. With her height, she’s a good rebounder, and she’s become less of a liability on defense as she continues to gain more experience. She’s been unlucky with injuries, having never played every game in a season, but always manages to battle back from whatever besets her.
If MPJ had as productive of a career as Della Donne has had in the WNBA, the Nuggets would be perennial contenders and would have a player capable of earning the first championship for the franchise. He’d need help, just like Della Donne, but with the right combination of personnel, it could be done. It’s always going to help to have a player that can score nearly every possession when things get tough in the postseason.
So far he’s shown that he has the tools to be an elite scoring option in the NBA, but he is incredibly raw. While getting game repetitions would accelerate his learning, he needs to demonstrate an understanding of solid fundamentals before he’s rushed into a situation where he could develop bad habits. I expect him to get about 600 minutes this season, about 1400 minutes next season, then 2000 in the last year of his rookie contract.
Porter Jr. needs to devote himself to improving his game, ironing out the details that I’m sure the coaching staff is highlighting for him. MPJ is at the beginning of his basketball career, and needs to continue to make the most of the opportunities that have been given him. With time, I think he is going to become an excellent basketball player, and a valuable part of the Nuggets rotation. I don’t see evidence that he’s ready to become 15-20 minute a night player, let alone a starter, at any point this season.