One of the biggest questions heading into the 2019-2020 season centered around prized 2018 14th overall draft pick Michael Porter Jr. and how much he would actually play this season.
Nearly a year later and the question remains the same, just in a different environment. How much will MPJ actually play for the Nuggets in the bubble games and playoffs?
After taking a redshirt year to ensure full rehabilitation for a lingering back injury, Porter was ready to go but faced an uphill climb in earning minutes in a crowded and already successful rotation.
Porter caught a break in January when a rash of sudden injuries plagued the Nuggets. His minutes ratcheted up to 21.4 per game and he took full advantage. Backed by scorching 48% shooting from three and a natural disposition for rebounding, Porter averaged 12.3 points and 6.9 boards per game to help Denver navigate a tough stretch without some key players. The Nuggets went 11-5 in January and had some very memorable wins, including the incredible back-to-back victories over Utah and Milwaukee at the end of the month.
Just as Porter looked like he had earned his role as a scorer off the bench, however, an ankle injury suffered in that Milwaukee game derailed any progress made. In the last game before the season suspended on March 11, he tallied just under five minutes of playing time.
The talent Porter brings to the table is undeniable. His height enables him to shoot over nearly any defender and he grabs rebounds with ease, where the Nuggets are at league average. His 42.2% three-point percentage is second on the team behind only Paul Millsap. His jump shot is arguably the smoothest and off the bench he provides a scoring boost to a unit that often needs it.
But where there are roses, there are thorns. There have always been limits to his defensive abilities, particularly within the Nuggets’ scheme. Whether this is a product of him being a rookie and adjusting to NBA game speed or something more concerning remains to be seen; regardless, it’s not like he doesn’t give effort on that end. The issue has been that his defensive lapses have generally led to a short leash from Michael Malone, begging an answer to the paradox: how can he get better defensively if he doesn’t play?
As the Nuggets entered the Disney World bubble in early July it looked Porter was going to be a big loser from the season’s suspension. Glaringly, MPJ was absent from the team, with each day missed a nail in the coffin to his rookie campaign. When he finally did arrive, questions remained. Would he be in shape? Has he fully healed from that ankle injury from earlier in the year? How can he earn rotation minutes coming in two weeks behind nearly everyone else?
Any doubts were pretty quickly put to rest. In his lone scrimmage against the Magic on Monday, MPJ shined, putting up 19 points and grabbing seven boards off the bench. His ankle looked 100% and any concerns about his back seem to be in the past. Postgame he talked about how much he worked during the break to stay in shape so he could show up and contribute.
“I feel like I’m in a great head space. I know we’ve got a lot of good players, but my goal — right now — I’m not coming in here to like just try to blend in with the team, I’m trying to do my part to help this team win a championship and I think I could be a big part of that.”
The one obstacle to his success right now is still the balancing act between development and letting him play through mistakes, while also competing for an NBA title. This same core roster without Porter last season made it within four minutes of the Western Conference Finals, and with him only averaging 14 minutes a game this year is still in the upper echelon of the West. Make no mistake, the Nuggets are in Orlando to win a championship and that goal will take precedence.
That Porter is key to the Nuggets’ long-term success is almost a given at this point. He is that good, and along with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and possibly Bol Bol it’s not crazy to see the Nuggets continuing to play for the title in years to come. Yet ironically, Porter might be the one player this year that if he does pan out could help the Nuggets surprise some teams in the postseason and make that goal a reality even sooner.
The Nuggets are 11-3 this year when Porter plays over 20 minutes. Giving him at least that many minutes will unlock so many things for Denver now and help set them up nicely for the future. It will all depend on if he can get on and stay on the court.
The Nuggets restart the season tomorrow against the Miami Heat. Porter is ready. Will he finally get his chance?