The Denver Nuggets are never talked about when discussing teams we should watch out for in the future. Unlike the New Orleans Pelicans or the Dallas Mavericks, we don’t associate Denver with the words youth and upside. This is rather unusual because of three facts.
Fact No. 1: The Denver Nuggets are the 11th youngest team in the league, just 0.02 years behind the 10th place New Orleans Pelicans. The Mavericks, on the other hand, are the 4th oldest team in the NBA.
Fact No. 2: Their best player, Nikola Jokic, is only 25 years old, and is arguably the best center in the NBA already.
Fact No. 3: Their core of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris has only been to the Playoffs once; last season, when they lost in seven games to the Portland Trailblazers during the Second Round.
That’s a profile that fits teams who are treated as Nex Big Thing in the league. But there is one fact that supports why they aren’t talked about in the same mold as Pelicans and the Mavericks.
Fact No. 4: Outside of Jokic, the Nuggets don’t have someone who crosses the elite tier of players in terms of pure talent in the NBA.
The Pelicans have Zion Williamson and potentially Brandon Ingram. The Mavericks have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Nuggets may have The Joker, but it’s highly doubtful Jamal Murray or even Gary Harris reach that level so the Nuggets can have a championship-level duo.
That’s where Michael Porter Jr. comes in.
Drafted 14th by the Nuggets during the 2018 NBA Draft, Porter was considered by many as a high-risk, high-reward prospect.
During Missouri’s season opener against Iowa State, Porter Jr. injured his lower back which required surgery. He would return on March 8, 2018 to play against Florida State, but he certainly did not look healthy. He ended his college career with the following resume:
Three total games played, 17.7 minutes per game, 10 points per game on 33.3 percent field goal shooting, 6.7 rebounds per game, and one questionable back. It wasn’t the prettiest sight and his stock dropped tremendously entering the 2018 NBA Draft. That’s why it was such a risk for the Nuggets to take him in the lottery.
But it should also be noted that coming out of high school, Porter Jr. was widely considered as the top prospect of his class. He was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game and he scored 19 points in 23 minutes during the Nike Hoop Summit. He had all the tools of a top pick in the NBA.
With elite size (6’11”, 7’0” wingspan), athleticism, and skill, Porter Jr. was being compared to players like Kevin Durant and Paul George coming into college. Mind you, these comparisons to Porter were widely accepted. He was THAT good. You couldn’t blame Nuggets fans for feeling excited after this pick, even with the red flag of his questionable health. They were hoping for a huge payoff for taking a skilled prospect who fell to their laps.
Five games into the NBA restart and Porter has been rewarding the trust from the Nuggets faithful. He’s averaged 25.6 points per game on 53 percent field goal shooting, grabbing 10.2 rebounds per game as well. However, Chris Vernon of The Ringer NBA Show’s The Mismatch made this point about Porter’s performance so far in the bubble:
“I don’t think he (Porter Jr.) has that level of opportunity when the other guys (Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris) come back,” said Vernon. “His coach is (Mike) Malone and we’ve seen how the way he’s dealt with Porter the entire season.”
“I’ve seen the way this is dealt with. I saw that (with) Malik Beasley. Jamal Murray would be hurt, Gary Harris would be hurt, Malik Beasley would be installed in the lineup; he’d score 36 points in a game! Just like Porter is doing right now! And then when those guys come back and there would be games you didn’t even know he was on the team. And I think that would be the trajectory for Porter right now.”
While there is reason to believe Vernon’s point – Malone isn’t particularly friendly towards rookies – there is one big thing which separates Porter from Beasley: pure talent blended together with the skill of Denver’s franchise player.
Every elite basketball team needs shot creators and shot makers. Jokic fits the mold of the former while Murray is somewhere in between those two classes of players. The Nuggets have needed that third elite piece who didn’t need the ball to produce. Porter fits the exact mold of they need.
This season, 59.9 percent of Porter’s shots have required zero dribbles. These shots of his have been a steady blend of two-pointers (52.2 percent of shots with zero dribbles) and three-pointers (47.8 percent of shots with zero dribbles), and he’s converted on his attempts with blistering efficiency (70.2 percent on 2FG, 40.4 percent on 3FG). It helps with 6’11” and athletic, but an underrated quality that helps Porter’s production has been his spatial awareness.
MPJ has taken full advantage of Denver’s motion offense to get his buckets. He’s been able to successfully find his spots for cuts to the paint, spot-ups in the three-point area, and put backs coming off rebounds. He doesn’t need the ball to produce. It’s been the biggest reason why he’s worked so well with Jokic. He takes a lot of shots, yes, but if you’re that good at making them, that shouldn’t be a problem in the long run.
In an era of crafty guards and hyper-versatile wings, Porter brings to the table a skill that is needed in any era of basketball: getting buckets. With incredible spatial awareness, elite physical tools, a varied skill set, and impressive efficiency, it’s not a hot take to call Porter Jr. a generational offensive player.
He still has some lumps to his game. To enter the Durant-George territory he was being pegged as a high schooler, he’ll need to work on diversifying his game a bit more. He’s still a limited playmaker (0.8 assists per game) and his defense needs improvement (-0.7 Defensive Box Plus Minus). He can’t just get buckets. To be truly elite, Porter needs to bring more to the table.
Of course, there will always be the discussion about his health. After all, he was forced to sit-out one entire season because of his back issues and he played in limited minutes before the NBA Restart. His back needs to hold up for the Nuggets to consider his acquisition as one of the biggest draft-day steals in NBA history.
Denver has one of the most talented young players in the league who also happens to fit perfectly with their franchise star. You rarely get something like that. If everything falls into place for Denver, here’s a fifth fact we may associate with them:
Fact No. 5: The Denver Nuggets are going to contend for championships because they’re an elite team with youth and upside.
When that happens, they have Porter Jr. to thank for pushing them to that tier in the NBA. He’s that good.