On around March 12th, the Denver Nuggets season appeared lost in more ways than one.

Denver participated in a fateful March 11th contest against the Dallas Mavericks, losing 113-97 in a game that both underscored the world’s larger issues as well as those of the Nuggets. A pandemic was quickly spreading throughout the United States, and it finally impacted the sports world that night. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for coronavirus, and the NBA season was postponed during the second quarter of Nuggets-Mavericks. During that game, Denver’s players looked less engaged than normal, and who could blame them?

Michael Porter Jr. played five minutes during that game on March 11th. He missed all three shots he attempted, grabbed one rebound, and was clearly an afterthought in a healthy Nuggets rotation. Porter was trying to fight through an ankle injury, and he was losing, both to his injury and any chance he had of contributing to Denver’s playoff rotation. He was on the outs, and the star potential he displayed in January felt like a fleeting memory.

Then, the pandemic happened, and Porter finally had the chance to sit back and take a breath. He got healthy, worked on his game, improved his skill set, and approved the season restart with a fresh mindset.

And…well…it’s worked out to say the least.

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“I’m not coming in here just trying to blend in with the team. I’m trying to do my part to help this team win a championship.”

That’s what Porter had to say after his bubble debut, an exhibition against the Orlando Magic. With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton nursing injuries, Porter has been afforded the opportunity to do just that. He isn’t blending in but rather standing out in a big way, so much so in fact that the Nuggets may have discovered the weapon to unlock the team as a championship contender on the fly.

It wasn’t without bumps. In Denver’s first game in the bubble, head coach Michael Malone gave Porter the wheel to the car, starting the rookie for only the second time in the 2019-20 season. The Miami Heat, Denver’s opponent, wrenched that wheel out of Porter’s hands and drove the car halfway off a cliff. The Nuggets were blitzed and lost a game that wasn’t very close. Porter had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting but just one rebound. His defense wasn’t good, and the Nuggets looked lost as a whole.

It was a good thing the Nuggets had to play again two days later, because the Nuggets were forced to forget that butt-kicking and find a way to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder. For Porter, it was a big test to see how resilient he could be, how impactful Michael Malone’s words to him would be and whether he could listen to critique and become a better player for it.

He could, and the Nuggets won because of Michael Porter Jr.’s big bounce back performance. 37 points and 12 rebounds on 12-of-16 shooting was exactly what the Nuggets needed, and Porter delivered in the pressure cooker.

The Nuggets needed multiple great performances in a row though. It wasn’t going to cut it for Porter to have one impressive showing. So now, he’s rattled off four in a row:

  • vs Oklahoma City: 37 points, 12 rebounds, 12-of-16 FG, 4-of-6 3P, 9-of-9 FT
  • vs San Antonio: 30 points, 15 rebounds, 11-of-19 FG, 5-of-9 3P, 3-of-4 FT
  • vs Portland: 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10-of-18 FG, 4-of-7 3P, 3-of-3 FT
  • vs Utah: 23 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-18 FG, 1-of-8 3P, 8-of-8 FT

Michael Porter Jr. became the first rookie in NBA history to string together more than two games of at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and one three-pointer made. All others have only strung together two games with those numbers, while Porter’s streak sits at four as of today.

Clearly, Porter has figured out some stuff, but what exactly helped him get from Point A (a player with limited minutes pre-bubble) to Point B (one of the very best players in the bubble so far)?

Confidence, and a coach willing to see past the mistakes to grasp the bigger picture.

Here’s what I’m seeing from Porter so far that changes the game for the Nuggets:

Elite Outside Shooting

The fewest three-pointers Porter has taken in a game in the bubble thus far is six. That was against OKC, and he made a point that game to be aggressive at the rim. Had he taken more outside shots, those would have gone in as well. He was in some kind of rhythm. But even in the games he hasn’t shot the ball well from the perimeter, Porter has felt comfortable taking those shots. As a result, he has been Denver’s only consistent outside threat in the bubble thus far, and the Nuggets have needed every single three-pointer.

Go under on Porter in a DHO and he makes the defense pay dearly. His high release, willing trigger, and ability to hit shots with a hand in his face have altered and will continue to alter how teams can guard the Nuggets. Being 6’10 has a lot of perks, one of which is nobody can block Porter’s jumper when he decides to go up.

In the bubble, Porter is shooting 5-of-11 on his pull up three-point shots thus far, good for 45.5%. The ability to rise up over the top and shoot from deep is ingrained in the NBA, and while Denver has other pull-up threats like Murray and Barton, Porter needs less room to get off his shot due to his high release point. That helps on pull-ups, but also catch and shoot threes. Porter is also shooting 11-of-27 on catch-and-shoot three-pointers (40.7%), and having a player that can do both as one of the primary scoring options is an absolute luxury.

Size Mismatch everywhere

More than anything else, Porter represents a physically overwhelming force that opposing teams just have no answer for on a consistent basis. Both offensively and defensively, the biggest saving grace Porter has going for him is his size. Even if the defense does a great job against him, he can rise over the top and score efficiently from everywhere on the floor.

On the defensive end, the Nuggets are still figuring out how best to utilize Porter, but it’s very possible that the best matchup for him is against bigger players that hover around the paint. Porter is tied with Jerami Grant for the most total blocks by Nuggets in the bubble, and it’s clear that Porter uses his length well at the rim.

Zach Collins is bigger than Porter and should be able to power up a quality shot attempt at the rim. He was unable to do so.

Another way Porter’s size comes into focus, and possibly the most important way, is his rebounding on both ends of the floor. He currently leads the Nuggets in rebounding in the bubble, even ahead of Jokic, by a significant margin. When guarded by small forwards, most of whom are smaller than him, Porter does a good job of getting rebounding position. He doesn’t just fly into the picture from the perimeter but establishes himself early.

Combine his size, length, and rebounding position on the defensive end, and there’s definitely an opportunity for him to be a plus defensive player in the near future. He has to work on recognition, awareness, and hustle on the perimeter, but you can’t teach the coordination and execution he displays at the rim below.

With Paul Millsap quickly aging and appearing to be less of a rim protection threat defensively, it appears that the Nuggets may have need for another back line defender within their defensive scheme. Many thought Jerami Grant would fill that role, but he’s a man-on-man defender primarily and will spend most of his time guarding elite wings. Porter could spend some time in that role though. He has the size, and it will keep him from defending the perimeter so often that the Nuggets’ defense is compromised.

Just a thought.

Complementary skills to Jokic and Murray

When the Nuggets drafted Porter, one of my more immediate concerns was about his shot selection. In the modern NBA, the midrange and isolation game is mostly obsolete, but Porter showcased a lot of midrange shots in his film in the EYBL and in his few games at Missouri.

Porter started playing games though, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. He attacked the rim, but the jumpers he settled for were mostly threes, and hitting those shots at a high rate meant his efficiency was pretty high for a rookie. He wasn’t starting, but there were at least signs of a highly efficient offensive player.

That has translated in full over the last several games. Here are his shooting numbers in the bubble based on the zones in which he takes those shots:

  • Restricted Area: 22-of-30 (73.3%)
  • Paint (non-RA): 1-of-4 (25%)
  • Mid-Range: 5-of-10 (50%)
  • Left Corner three: 5-of-11 (45.5%)
  • Right Corner three: 0-of-5 (0%)
  • Above the Break three: 11-of-22 (50%)

All in all, just 14 shots have come from inefficient zones on the floor while the other 68 make up the majority of his shot profile. Just 17% of his shots would be deemed “inefficient” by analytics nerds like me, a far cry just the consistent jab-step mid-range jumper Melo utilized for the majority of his career. Even then, 17% is a good number to keep opponents honest and forced them to guard him from that range. It makes him more dangerous from everywhere.

The most important thing to know about Murray and Jokic is that their mid-range skills are some of the best in the NBA. Murray is one of the better pull-up jump shooters in the middle ground, and while the best thing for his efficiency is push that out even further, it doesn’t always work in the flow of Denver’s two-man game in fourth quarters. Jokic is as great of a mid-range jump shooter as any big man, and his isolation game works there, as well as his post up shots in the paint that aren’t in the restricted area.

The Nuggets have long needed a volume scorer in the two most efficient zones on the floor to keep their offense at an elite level, and Porter represents that. He frequently generates easy looks for himself, and in a Denver offense that often works way too hard to find a good shot opportunity, Porter’s complementary skills both inside and outside can make life easier.

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This stretch in the bubble has been a great reminder to the Nuggets organization, Nuggets fans, and the NBA at large that there’s another special talent in Denver learning how to play. First, it was Nikola Jokic. Then, it was Jamal Murray. Now, it’s Porter. There’s no need to rank any of the three players either. All will be important in dethroning title contenders on a championship run, and all will do so in different ways.

Jokic is the engineer of the operation. He’s dynamic in that role, one of the best playmakers in the world, and the fact that he’s also 7’0 gives the Nuggets options.

Murray is the technician, the meticulous worker who exploits any inefficiency he finds. He can set up Jokic and others, but more often that not, he and Jokic will work to set him up for a good look that they can find at any time. A great fallback option for when the offense isn’t working the way it should.

But Porter…Porter is the multi-tool, the piece of the puzzle that will have his hand in everything and make life easier for the entire group. He will help the normal offense run at peak efficiency with his outside jumper, keep defenses honest with his cutting and offensive rebounding, and break opponents in half when he pulls up from three in transition in a critical moment.

Having three pieces on the floor that can work well together at the same time will be extremely important for the Nuggets going forward. Defenses know they have to key in on the Murray-Jokic two-man game to stop Denver’s offense. Now, they need to deal with an elite off-ball shooter, cutter, and rebounder who also has ball skills and can score from anywhere on the floor. The Los Angeles Clippers will have to devote one of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George to defend Porter. The Los Angeles Lakers will have to use one of LeBron James or Anthony Davis to be most effective. Having that level of respect opens up the rest of Denver’s offense to run more efficiently. Think about the opportunities Will Barton, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant will have as the fourth and fifth options? The dynamic completely changes.

I’m so high on Porter’s fit in Denver going forward. He’s going to be great for the Nuggets. It may take some time to iron out the kinks, but all three of Murray, Jokic, and Porter have the chance to be a Big 3 together. They have the talent.

Now, let’s see if they can take the next step.