- Size and athleticism
- Top tier shooting talent
- Cutting and rebounding
- Historical comparisons
Nobody can replace Jamal Murray, but Michael Porter Jr. is sure going to try in his own way.
The Denver Nuggets have attempted to weather the storm amid several injuries. First, it was Murray, Denver’s starting point guard and second star, who went down for the season with a season-ending injury. Then, it was Monte Morris, Murray’s primary backup at point guard, who helped steady the ship in so many ways. If it had just stopped there, the Nuggets might not have to change a lot of what they do...
...and then Will Barton, Denver’s starting shooting guard and newest primary ball handler, went down with an injury of his own. The Nuggets appeared lost in the minutes following Denver’s latest absence, and the offense was atrocious in Denver’s loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday night.
Facundo Campazzo and PJ Dozier, Denver’s fourth and fifth guards in a healthy rotation, have been quickly elevated into starting roles. Both are talented players, but for a team with championship aspirations, it’s important to ask only of those players what they are capable of offering on a night to night basis. Volume scoring isn’t one of those things.
Fortunately, the Nuggets have Michael Porter Jr., an elite scorer hiding in plain sight just waiting to be unleashed. Porter is talented in many facets, but it’s his unique combination of skills that are leaving analysts scratching their heads at just how high the ceiling may go for the 23-year-old forward.
Let’s talk about what separates Porter as a star talent.
The first defining trait around Michael Porter Jr. has always been his size. At 6’10” and possibly still growing taller, Porter was consistently renowned as one of the most un-guard-able players at the high school level, making him the top high school recruit in the Class of 2017.
Early in his first college season at Missouri, Porter suffered a scary back injury that required surgery and an extended absence. Upon his brief return, he didn’t look like the same athletic, physical freak he had always been touted as growing up.
That didn’t stop the Nuggets from taking a chance on him. In the 2018 NBA Draft, the Nuggets had the 14th overall pick. After a 46-36 season that left the Nuggets on the doorstep of playoff contention, it was clear that the Nuggets had an elite center in Nikola Jokić and high quality guard prospects in Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. What they missed was the traditional size and athleticism at the forward position that so many teams need to compete at the highest levels, and when Porter slid to the Nuggets at 14, there was very little conversation about other options before the Nuggets selected the 6’10” forward out of Missouri.
Denver gave Porter all the time he needed to return to full strength. He sat out his first NBA season entirely, having a second back surgery that alarmed many fans and analysts at the time. When he returned, the Nuggets eased him in as slowly as they could, with head coach Michael Malone emphasizing the need to build proper habits to contribute to a championship contender. Porter’s minutes fluctuated throughout his true rookie year, and it wasn’t until The Bubble when the Nuggets let Porter loose.
In just about 24 minutes per game, Porter averaged just over 11 points per game, fourth on the team behind Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Jerami Grant. It was clear, however, that Porter was going to be special. His dynamic shooting, athleticism, and aggressive mentality were always on display, and the 2020-21 season was always going to be about how quickly the Nuggets could get Porter pointed in the right direction.
It’s pretty clear that Porter’s in the correct headspace now, and the Nuggets are reaping the benefits.
Size and Athleticism
As Porter moves further and further away from his two back surgeries, he appears more and more athletic and in tune with his body than ever before. He leverages that size nicely, and as his role continues to grow and he receives more and more freedom within the offense, he shows off that dangerous size in countless ways.
When Porter grabs a rebound, his first instinct is to push the ball in transition. The Nuggets have empowered him to do this, as long as his only move isn’t to pull up from deep three-point range anymore. Instead, Porter navigates the defense well and takes advantage of a matchup against another 6’10” player in D.J. Wilson.
Porter makes Wilson look small on this play, taking his time and attacking a crease in the transition defense as Wilson scrambles to recover. The nicest thing about this move is the patience that Porter displays, taking his time in an advantageous situation. He gently puts his shoulder into Wilson’s chest after assessing the situation, slows down his steps, and rises up over Wilson for an easy bucket generated by Porter’s size and coordination.
Another way the size/athleticism combo manifests itself is with jump shots inside the arc. By attacking off the catch, Porter leverages the fear his outside jumper puts into the heart of his defender and immediately gets the step he needs. When the quicker defender recovers, Porter calmly rises over the top of Kendrick Nunn, listed at 6’2”, and rolls in a mid-range jumper from just inside the elbow.
Porter isn’t the only tall scoring forward able to do this, but it does feel like a rite of passage toward stardom. In tough scoring situations, teams always need something they can fall back on, and Porter’s tough shot making made easier with his size feels like an important step in the right direction.
Elite Shooting Talent
Few things in the NBA are as beautiful as Michael Porter Jr.’s jump shot. A clean, silky smooth delivery with a springy jump and high release, Porter has the aesthetic of a jump shooter that’s always knows the shot is going in. When he’s straight up and down and lined up with the basket, there may not be another player in the NBA that can outshoot Michael Porter Jr., and the only name that comes to mind is Stephen Curry.
Porter averages 1.36 points per possession in transition, good for 90th percentile in the entire NBA and an elite number. When nobody picks up Porter in transition, he’s going to hunt for his shot. Teammates feed him those catch-and-shoot opportunities consistently, knowing that transition threes by a 6’10” shooter can be debilitating for the opposition. Porter converts those shots at an incredibly high clip, and though the Nuggets want him to hunt for the best shot most times, an open transition three from Porter is one of the most valuable shots the Nuggets can create because it so frequently finds the bottom of the net.
In the halfcourt, Porter remains a dynamic shooting weapon due to his size, quick trigger, and high release. Opponents must stay attached to him at all times, and even if the defender is close, Porter’s ability to rise above a contest is very unique. Few players his size have the shooting touch to take and make the shot below with regularity.
Size and shooting capacity are probably the two most important skills in basketball. The fact that Porter is in the 99th percentile in both categories makes him a unique player by definition. In practice, Porter’s size has translated to some incredible shots during his first years in Denver. Any team would be lucky to have his level of shooting talent on their roster.
Cutting and Rebounding
Regular jump shooters don’t often have the size to be effective around the rim as well, but Porter, as has been noted, is a special case. His 6’10” frame makes him an easy target for Nikola Jokić passes, and those two are perfectly suited for quick hitters to the rim.
With as much attention as Jokić draws, Porter takes advantage of it beautifully, creating and finishing shots at the rim by using decisive cuts.
MPJ has the most scoring possessions on cuts per game among all non-centers, non-Zion WIlliamson division, per Synergy. He’s in the 61st percentile on scoring efficiency, partially due to missing a few more shots but also due to the additional attention he receives as a cutter now. The word is out of MPJ in Denver’s cutting system as he is now the first priority for any defense while Nikola Jokić has the ball and is surveying the floor.
The Nuggets are finding additional angles though. As Jokić and Porter continue to work together, Porter has started to leverage his cutting more intuitively than before, and Jokić continues to find him.
The strength and dexterity it takes to make that shot under the rim is very high, and Porter manages it. His size aids him on this, but he’s also developing a higher comfort level as he becomes more accustomed to NBA life. Playing with Jokić has made his life both easier and harder, but the growing pains have been worth it, with Porter continuously finding new ways to score the basketball by adapting to Jokić’s basketball mind.
Porter’s size doesn’t only manifest on cuts though. He also rebounds the ball at a high level, with his 7.6 rebounds per game ranking seventh among all qualified forwards. The offense rebounding is where I want to focus for now. He averages 1.7 offensive rebounds per game, the same number as both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam. Porter spends so much time on the perimeter that a high number for offensive rebounding should be considered impressive. He’s not the most physical rebounder, but his instincts are good, and he crashes the glass often enough that teams are dedicating multiple players to box him out. Between him and Jokić, defenses are forced to prioritize rebounding.
Porter averages 1.2 putback possessions per game and 1.21 points per possession, according to Synergy. That’s good enough for 68th percentile, and the 1.2 possessions again make him an outlier for his position. Very few non bigs average over a possession per game on putbacks, and not only does MPJ do so, he excels there.
So, a player that can create shots for himself, operate as an off-ball scorer, shoot in the mid-range, cut to the rim, and be dangerous all over the court. That’s what Michael Porter Jr. is right now. He’s already one of the most versatile scorers in the NBA.
There are very few players in the NBA that can reasonably shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor and be successful. Via Cleaning the Glass, here’s a screenshot of the only two players that have shot 70% at the rim, 45% from mid-range, 40% from the corners, and 40% from above the arc during the 2020-21 season.
The Kevin Durant comparison always seems to crop up for Porter. Both are tall, athletic, and incredibly talented shooters and scorers. They’re unique in their own ways though, with Durant creating many of his shots with a silky smooth handle and Porter creating many of his shots with off-ball movement and cutting. Some time soon, Porter is going to begin developing that handle so he can create more shots of his own volition, and if he’s able to meld a consistent handle with his off-ball abilities, he may become a scoring champion one day, like Durant.
For the season Porter is currently having though, the combination of numbers he’s currently producing is actually something Durant has never done. On the season, Porter is averaging 18.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 44.3% from three-point range. Nobody outside of Porter has bested all three of those marks, and the only players in NBA history to exceed those marks while reducing the three-point % requirement are two MVP seasons of Larry Bird and 2017-18 Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s very rare to find a player big enough to grab rebounds that can score and shoot at such a high level.
Porter is finding his groove, and he’s doing it his own way. The ball isn’t in his hands all the time. He’s working within the confines of the Nuggets offense, playing off of Nikola Jokić’s passing, and he’s flourishing for it. Jokić finds Porter for all of the easy stuff and always has, but the turn in Porter’s game has happened at the same time as Jokić has trusted him to do the hard stuff too. It isn’t just spot up threes and cuts anymore, but dribble hand-offs, pick and rolls, and contested shots that Porter hits better than nearly everyone in the NBA.
The Nuggets are slowly adapting to Porter’s game, and they have to if they’re going to survive. There’s no knowing whether Morris or Barton will be 100% heading into the playoffs this season, and with Murray already out for an extended period of time, the Nuggets level of playmaking talent has already taken an extreme hit. Porter is capable of completely mitigating that with rapid development of his own personal game. He’s given no reason to doubt him at this stage, and the Nuggets have no reason to hold back anymore on the types of shots he’s allowed to take. He can make them from everywhere, and as long as they’re created with good intentions, the Nuggets are willing to let that ride.
Nobody knows how far the Nuggets can go without Murray. Losing such an integral part of the team so late in the season would be backbreaking for so many teams. It might still be for the Nuggets, who lack the off-the-dribble pop that so many teams need to succeed in a playoff environment.
And yet, the Nuggets still believe. They still think they can go far in the playoffs. Nikola Jokić being the MVP of the league is the biggest reason why.
Michael Porter Jr., in all of his talent and potential, is another of those reasons. There’s no telling where his ceiling goes from here. The Nuggets are hoping for something special, and they might be on to something...