Michael Porter Jr. has turned himself into a legitimate superstar prospect.

After sitting out the 2018-19 season to recover from back surgery and the Denver Nuggets taking things slow with him in the 2019-20 season, Porter appears to have recovered fully from a major back injury that many feared would cost him his career. The Nuggets have benefitted greatly as a result, having drafted Porter at 14th overall amidst some talented (and not very talented) players.

The 2018 NBA Draft featured one of the more talented draft classes in recent memory, and while Luka Doncić stands out as the Tier 1 star, Porter isn’t far behind. Despite missing his entire first season and playing sparingly in 2019-20, Porter already ranks seventh in win shares among 2018 draftees behind Doncić, Deandre Ayton, Mitchell Robinson, Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. There’s no doubt that Porter goes higher than seventh in a 2018 re-draft.

Porter has consistently shown talent throughout his career. His high school highlights featured legendary shotmaking and athleticism. His rookie season bucket highlights were incredible. There was never any question about his talent but rather questions about how he would apply that talent. His combination of size and jump shooting offered him the opportunity to consider several paths forward.

Rather than become an individual creator, Porter focused on play types more conducive of team play. The Nuggets are now better off because of it.

Porter’s reputation entering the league centered around his propensity to create shots for himself at the lower levels. Isolations, pull-up twos and threes, and shouldering the entire workload with a deep bag of moves. He showcased many of those moves in his rookie season, highlighted by a shot over Doug McDermott and the Indiana Pacers that drove Nuggets fans wild with excitement.

Rather than focus heavily on developing those shot attempts in his second season, Porter has made a commitment to developing other parts of his game, operating within the flow of the offense, and having others create shots for him.

Unassisted versus Assisted shots

Year Unassisted % of Field Goals Assisted % of Field Goals
2019-20 30.3 69.7
2020-21 20.9 79.1

One of the biggest concerns about Porter’s game was whether he would be able to adjust to Denver’s culture. A high level scorer of his talent often has the latitude to make mistakes in his early years while operating with the ball in his hands. Denver is the exact opposite landing spot, centered around Nikola Jokić’s passing so much that even Jamal Murray had to adjust greatly when entering the league. The Nuggets didn’t need Porter’s elite scoring talent initially. They needed everything else from him, including a willingness to learn and apply his skills off the ball more than he might have done anywhere else in the NBA.

It’s almost certain that he and the Nuggets are both better off for the growing pains they experienced collectively. The Nuggets struggled to work Porter into their system for a long time, but now, Porter is excelling in a number of off-ball categories.

Making the easy stuff look easy

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There are several players that, like Porter, are above 25% frequency and 90% scoring percentile on spot up opportunities; however, only two of them are as tall as Porter: Marc Gasol, who plays sparingly for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Trey Lyles, who plays sparingly for the San Antonio Spurs. Porter doing what he’s doing on high volume as a starter for the Nuggets is very impressive, and it opens up the offense for Porter and everyone else when he’s hitting shots the way he has.

Becoming a certified shot maker

Not being able to leave Porter alone on a 28-footer makes it impossible to help on other actions. Terrance Mann barely gives Porter any space, and Porter immediately makes him pay for it. Porter’s tall frame and high release make for an excellent outlet for Facundo Campazzo, who knows just where he’s going to pass the ball if Mann steps inside the three-point line.

Here, the Nuggets use the threat of Michael Porter to pull Paul George away from his help responsibilities defensively. The Nuggets set up a 5-4 pick and roll between Jokić and Aaron Gordon with Porter lifting on the weak side. If the Clippers don’t switch, then George is caught between helping at the rim and defending his man at the perimeter. He doesn’t move away from Porter this time, and Gordon is rewarded with an alley-oop. Assist goes to Jokić, but a nod to Porter for putting George in an unenviable position.

On handoffs, Porter has the opportunity to work with Jokić exclusively in two-man actions. Those are some of the most exciting and beautiful for Nuggets fans to witness because they emphasize the parts of each player’s game that meld together best. When Porter comes off a dribble handoff cleanly, it often results in an open jumper. This one in particular against the Lakers is scintillating.

The Nuggets are still hoping to get Porter more and more integrated as a focal point of the offense with the playoffs just a week away. With Jamal Murray suffering a season-ending injury, Porter was a natural replacement for what Murray consistently provided as a scorer. Both players are exceptionally talented, and Porter might even have a leg up on where Murray was in his second year from a versatility perspective.

Porter still has the ability to score in isolation, put his head down, and find his own buckets; however, the experience of developing off-ball has grown his game in ways he may never have known in New York or Cleveland or another city where he would have been a focal point immediately. His value off-ball compares him more favorably to a player like Klay Thompson than Kevin Durant at this stage of his career, but workshopping those skills has helped him become ready to contribute to a championship run sooner than expected. The Nuggets may need those other flashy parts of his game now, but developing as an off-ball player was necessary to become the best Nuggets player he can be.

Now, we will see that put to the test in the playoffs very shortly.

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