Moore: Michael Porter Jr.’s Potential Has Finally Emerged

Moore: Michael Porter Jr.’s Potential Has Finally Emerged article feature image

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Denver Nuggets guard Michael Porter Jr.

  • Denver Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. took full advantage of his first career start over the weekend. Is this a sign of things to come?
  • Matt Moore analyzes how Denver can get the most out of MPJ moving forward.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Dec. 30, a day after Michael Porter Jr. dropped 19 points in 26 minutes for the Nuggets. On Jan. 2, he followed that up with a career-best 25 points against the Pacers.

If last night was real, it will shape things significantly for the Denver Nuggets. If it was a mirage, it was still an entertaining-as-hell one.

Paul Millsap and Gary Harris were given the night off to rest injuries on a home-home back-to-back Sunday night vs. the Sacramento Kings. Jerami Grant took Millsap’s starting spot, providing a stretch-4 with athleticism — the only real reserve 4 on the squad outside of Jarred Vanderbilt.

But the wing spot did not go to one of the veterans. Coach Michael Malone didn’t give it to Torrey Craig for his defense, or Malik Beasley for his offense, or Juancho Hernangomez for his Juancho-ness.

Instead, Michael Porter Jr., the heralded rookie who has been desperately trying to claw into the rotation, got his first career start.

And man, some stuff happened.

Porter Jr.’s first season healthy enough to play (after missing about about 16 months of regulated basketball between the college and pro level) has been a series of counterarguments clashing in a storm of intrigue, and I do not use a phrase that ridiculous lightly.

He did not get any minutes to start the season, even with the Nuggets offense flagging. This led fans to suggest he clearly needed to play, despite the fact that a rookie is never the solution to a veteran team’s offensive problems. Then he earned minutes, but not consistently, and only in short stints, leading to a constant back-and-forth locally.

Here’s how it went:

The big problem was his shooting. Porter was shooting less than 30% on jump shots prior to Sunday night. His defense was terrible; you knew that going in. You can’t expect a 6-9 rookie forward known for his scoring ability with a history of back surgeries to be good defensively. That’s just not going to happen.

But if he wasn’t going to hit shots, he wasn’t going to get consistent minutes. Malone put him into the rotation, carving out five minutes minimum for him in the first half of games, but if the games were close, he wouldn’t play the second half. He would miss shots, and the team would lose his minutes in part because of his defensive issues.

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There was also talk that he needed minutes with Nikola Jokic to maximize his capacity, but that was a long-term goal for Denver. Those minutes with the Nuggets’ MVP are precious; Jokic makes everyone better, gets everyone buckets, helps everyone get paid. Those minutes have to be considered with an eye toward veterans who have earned their place, not just those who maximize Jokic or have the most potential.

But there were signs of growth over the last few weeks. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Porter started grabbing defensive rebounds — the Nuggets as a whole love his potential as a rebounder — and bringing the ball up court, looking for his shot in transition. He didn’t convert, but it was a sign of his growing confidence to a level of assertion.

He started hitting corner-3s, a very big deal for Denver’s spacing.

The Kings game provided the opportunity Malone was looking for: a back-to-back vs. a sub-.500 team, at home, with two starters out.

And MPJ made the most of it.

He had several putback dunks — again, the rebounding — but some of his offensive moves only guys of his talent level can make. Like this one-legged, twisting, off-balance runner:

This stepback is tough shot-creation, the most valuable offensive asset in the league:

That’s over 6-foot-10 Richaun Holmes, by the way.

And MPJ even made a twisting sidewinder pass to the corner, which Will Barton rewarded by getting it back to him.

MPJ finished with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting with six boards. There were still problems; Nemanja Bjelica scored 27, and most of it was on Porter:

But there’s a reason that the Nuggets have sunk so much into Porter and have been so patient with his recovery. They know that their long-term title aspirations rest on Porter’s ascension to being a star player next to Jokic and Jamal Murray.

His potential is incredible. He’s struggled to learn the offense; his defense is a mess (though Malone singled out MPJ’s growth on that end post-game). But this game finally showed what Porter can be, and that is an awesome offensive weapon.

On Sunday night, Porter finally showed what he’s capable of doing for the Nuggets. Now, can he earn minutes enough this season to stay in the rotation through the playoffs?

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