Michael Porter Jr.’s defensive upside could bring Denver to a new level

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) goes to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) during the second half at FedExForum.
Jan 28, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) goes to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

When someone mentions Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., the immediate thought that pops into everyones’ head is just how dynamic and gifted he is offensively, but his defense is seldom one of the first aspects of his game that comes to mind.

Porter is rarely percieved as a potential difference maker on the defensive end of the floor and for good reason. He played a meager 53 minutes for the University of Missouri before declaring for the NBA Draft and during his minutes at the NBA level, he has made the Nuggets a much worse defensive team when on the floor. Still, that is to be expected. Rookies rarely come into the league ready to defend at a high level and Porter was stuck with an even worse hand than most.

Once drafted, he proceeded to miss the entirety of his rookie season after having his another back surgery — his second prior to being old enough to drink alcohol. Before his short collegiate career, Porter never had to worry about defense. He finished out high school by putting together one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory when he averaged 36 points and 13 rebounds per game for Hale High School in Seattle. Because of his complete dominance prior to college, there was no need for Porter to give an incredible amount of attention to developing on the defensive end of the floor. His athleticism and size more than made up for any shortcomings he may have had back then.

But once he arrived in the NBA, those shortcomings became red flags and he had to quickly make up for quite a bit of lost time. Losing nearly two full years of basketball — his entire college career and the totality of his rookie season — meant that Porter had to catch up quick or find himself on the bench.

That fact was made crystal clear to him from the moment he arrived in Denver and the same sentiment was conveyed to the media as early as media day.

“When we drafted him a few years ago — when Tim drafted him — we made that decision,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone explained all the way back on media day. “It was ‘hey, he fell for a reason, but we believe this kid has incredible talent’. His size, his length, his shooting ability, and just his raw talent are something that we really appreciate.

“He just has to continue to work on his game, buy into what we are doing, and understand that we are a team that prides themselves on defense first and foremost.”

So Porter went to work and did everything he could to catch up to the speed of the NBA not only as a scorer — his bread and butter — but also on the defensive end of the floor.

This was unexpected by most. Not many phenoms are as coachable or as receptive to criticism as Porter has been. Additionally, many players of Porter’s talent level refuse to play any style other than their style. Porter’s willingness to be coached and his dedication to improvement and winning at all costs has spearheaded his ascension up Malone’s rotation.

So what ways has Porter grown and what kind of upside does he have on the defensive end of the floor? While his defensive metrics are awful at best, the film shows the makings of a potentially terrifying defender.

The most important development is that Porter has shown quite a bit of effort on defense which solidified his dedication on that end of the floor.

In the video below, Porter gets his shot blocked and he fails to get back on defense for a split second. If you watch carefully, you can almost see him mentally working through what comes next which is why he was a step slow, but his effort more than made up for his slower decision making as he gets the chase down block.

 

There are only a few wings in the NBA with the same mixture of size, speed, athleticism, and coordination that Porter has. On that chase down block, he shows off each of those skills by making up for his slow reaction with his speed, displaying his coordination by perfectly timing his steps to time the block and the athleticism to rise up and block the shot way above the rim.

And the only way he was able to unlock the ability to use all of those innate skills is by giving maximum effort on defense; something he has shown a willingness to do more often than not.

Effort is one part of producing on defense, but so is fearlessness. Porter has never been short on confidence, but having to match up with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo is an entirely different challenge than anything he has ever faced on a basketball court. Still, Porter did not back down and managed to log two blocks on Antetokounmpo in the same game.

 

No, neither of those blocks are incredibly impressive or dramatic, but its Porter’s complete willingness to step up to the best the world has to offer and battle. Because of his mix of effort and fearlessness, he was able to make life a bit more difficult for the reigning MVP; something that not many players are able to do.

Then, as the season began to log more minute as the season continued to progress, he was able to start pairing his effort and fearlessness with a better understanding of where to be and how to defend within the Nuggets scheme.

That is when his weak side rim protection began to shine as it does below when Porter erased Jonas Valanciunas’ layup attempt despite giving up 50 pounds to him.

 

What is even more encouraging about the clip above is the awareness that Porter displays. You can tell he knows he has to cover for Jokic because Valanciunas is extremely crafty in the high post. Porter also knows he has Kyle Anderson in the corner, who shot just 25.8% from three-point range this season. Because of that understanding of the opposition, Porter is able to keep an eye on Jokic so that when he bit on the pump fake, Porter was able to slide over and block the shot without worry of Anderson burning them from the corner.

If Porter can consistently be that engaged on the defensive end of the floor, the Nuggets defensive ceiling will be raised dramatically, but the only way that Porter can find that consistency is by mixing in patience to go with his effort, fearlessness, and understanding of the Nuggets defensive system. When he is able to do that, he can have some truly remarkable defensive moments like this block on Jaren Jackson Jr.

 

Porter knows that he has Jerami Grant and Jamal Murray with him away from the ball to provide help, so he sags closer to the rim ready to provide weak side rim protection. Once Jackson slips the screen, Jokic and Juancho Hernangomez are pulled way out of position which leaves Porter as the last line of defense.

If Porter wasn’t patient, he wouldn’t have been able to perfectly defend Jackson just by positioning. Porter stays low, but not so low that he cannot contest the shot. What that does is put Jackson in no-mans-land. He can either pass to a non-shooter in the corner, take the contested floater, or try to drive through Porter. No matter what Jackson chooses to do, Porter is in position to be impactful. Jackson opts for the floater and all Porter has to do is stretch out his seven-foot wingspan and block the shot.

Again, when Porter started to put all of these different skills, his ability to impact the game on defense is so obvious.

Once again Porter shows off the patience to read the play, the understanding of the Nuggets defensive scheme to rotate from the top of the key and is able to utilize his size and athleticism thanks to his effort to get the block at the rim.

 

This needs to be clear: that is a very tough read that Porter made in the video above.

He has to know that Mason Plumlee is not back down the floor yet and there is no one protecting the paint. Porter also knows that Malik Beasley is defending Allen Crabbe in the corner, who is a much better outside shooter than Keita Bates-Diop, who Porter is guarding. Porter also knows that they are not out-numbered in transition so if he leaves Bates-Diop, Denver can still rotate to cover for him.

Porter managed to account for all of that in just about two seconds. Once he had his bearings, he was able to react immediately after Morris got blown by on the perimeter to block the shot using his length and athletic ability once again.

That level of understanding of personnel and situation is tough to grasp considering how fast the NBA moves, but Porter began to find a rhythm in that regard and his talent became even more obvious.

Then, as a cherry on top of what was a fantastic year of defensive development by Porter, his instincts began to sharpen. Look at how quickly he shifts from providing help on one side of the rim to blocking the shot on the other. There is no time to think on that play, but Porter is starting to understand the speed and style of the NBA in a way that he can react without thinking which is something he was unable to do earlier in the season.

 

If Porter can continue to dedicate himself to defense in a way that these types of plays become normalized, the Nuggets have the makings of a scary defensive group when also including the likes of Jerami Grant, Gary Harris and also Jokic, who is wildly underrated on that end of the floor himself. That amount of athletic ability, length and versatility is something that every NBA team is striving for.

That is why the Nuggets are so excited about what Porter can bring to the table. There were and still are no illusions about the challenges that Porter was and is going to face on his path to becoming a strong defender, but they know just how good he can be and will continue to push him in that direction because when he puts it all together on defense — like in the video below — he becomes much more than just a shot maker.

 

Porter fights over both screens, gets in the passing lane to disrupt Fournier’s rhythm, and perfectly recovers back to Aaron Gordon. From there, Porter does a great job of staying in front of Gordon despite giving up quite a bit of strength, forcing him to his left and then blocking his shot at the rim.

Porter is still years from being a finished product on the defensive end of the floor and he unequivocally made Denver worse on defense this season, but to assume that means he will never grow into a strong defensive threat is foolish.

In just 48 games Porter showed his dedication to defense through his effort and managed to sharped his understanding of the defensive schemes as well as his instincts. His athletic ability returned and he was able to become comfortable with the speed of the NBA. While no one truly knows what the future holds, Porter did what he can to debunk a lot of the narratives surrounding his defense.

Maybe Porter becomes so lethal as a scorer that defense once again gets push to the side or maybe his injury history catches up to him derailing his progress, but in his rookie season Porter proved he has what it takes to be massively impactful on defense.

“To fight through the injuries that he has fought through says a lot about who he is as a person and as a basketball player,” Paul Millsap explained. “He still has a lot to learn from the basketball aspect of it, but anytime you’re fighting back like that and you’re a young guy and you don’t get too down on yourself and you come in every single day working, success is ahead for you.”

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