Re-living the moment: Michael Porter Jr.’s rust as real as his talent

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) attempts a basket over Portland Trail Blazers forward Mario Hezonja (44) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center.
Dec 12, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) attempts a basket over Portland Trail Blazers forward Mario Hezonja (44) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of two years, members of the Denver Nuggets front office, coaching staff, roster, and fans all alike have been waiting patiently for the arrival of Michael Porter Jr., but as the 2019-20 season has trudged along, Porter’s inclusion has been far from a constant.

But after back-to-back games as a member of head coach Michael Malone’s rotation, that seems to be changing.

Porter’s 10 minutes of action against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night represented the first time in his young career that Porter logged double-digit minutes of playing time in back-to-back games and after the Nuggets home win over the Trail Blazers, Malone vocalized that Porter will continue being a member of the Nuggets rotation going forward.

So, with Porter finally getting a real shot to become an important piece of the Nuggets puzzle, how has he performed?

With so much good and so much bad to dissect, let’s just dive into the good and bad from Porter’s last two games — the road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and win at home over the Trail Blazers.

Shaking off the rust

In both games, Porter’s rust has been unavoidable as he continues to make bad mistake after bad mistake.

This is to be expected for Porter, who has barely logged over 100 minutes this season and is working to get used to the breakneck speed of NBA basketball.

The rust that has built up over the years is hurting Porter on both ends of the floor, but the only way that he will be able to refurbish and restore his game is by getting out onto the floor and making the mistakes that he needs to learn from.

Offense

While Porter is trying to shake off all of the rust he accumulated over the better part of two years of not playing organized basketball, he is also just making bad decisions on offense that are leading to unnecessary mistakes that are turning Malone’s hair a lighter shade of grey with each passing play.

 

There is no reason for Porter to get fancy with his finish in the clip above after getting by Matisse Thybulle. If Porter either goes up to dunk it or lays it off of the glass, this is a guaranteed two points or a goaltend by the trailing Joel Embiid.

Instead of getting an easy layup in transition — which would have pushed Denver’s lead to three points — Porter blows the look and it led to a dunk in transition by Thybulle that gave the 76ers the lead. That dunk began what ended up being a 21-6 run by Philadelphia which allowed the 76ers to take complete control of the game before halftime.

While some of Porter’s mistakes can be chalked up to lack of playing time, this is not one of them. Porter simply has to convert that layup and his decision to put extra flare on it negatively impacted the Nuggets as a team in a massive way.

Even with the fact that Porter has hurt the Nuggets during his time on the court, there are multiple issues that could be remedied by just getting more playing time at the NBA level such as some turnovers, like the one below.

 

For Porter, this is a pass that he has likely made on multiple different occasions at the high school and collegiate level, but in the NBA, those passing lanes disappear in an instant.

For Porter, who has only played a total of 127 minutes at the NBA level, the speed of the game at the NBA level is not something he fully understands yet and that wisdom will only come with more in-game repetitions.

There is no substitute for full-speed playing time at the NBA level. No amount of G-League playing time or practice runs will ever completely emulate the speed of the professional level. Until Porter gets more minutes and continues to make these type of mistakes with the Nuggets, they will continue to rear their ugly head from time to time.

Simply stated, Porter will almost assuredly have to make this mistakes and learn from them to get them out of his system.

Look at Porter in the clip below. He had not gotten a shot off in a while to this point so when he came off this dribble-handoff with Mason Plumlee, his sole intention is to get a shot off.

 

As Porter began hunting for his spot, he does not remain aware of what is happening around him. Porter drove too early and did not allow Monte Morris enough time to finish his cut. Because of that lack of patience, C.J. McCollum was able to stunt down which immediately led to a mental breakdown from Porter. Instead of keeping his dribble alive, he leaves his feet without a plan and commits the turnover.

Porter’s bad decision is obviously the focus of the clip above, but if you watch the clip fully through you will see Barton getting in Porter’s ear after the mistake to give him advice. Because Porter was allowed to work through his mistakes at the NBA level, he also received the added benefit of in-game coaching from Barton who is showing him the reads he missed.

Those moments are crucial for Porter, who is understandably uncomfortable playing at the speed of the NBA game right now. Being able to see the game through the eyes of one of the Nuggets veterans will only expedite his development.

Defense

Porter has been far from perfect on offense, but he has been disastrous on defense, which was, and is, expected.

Porter predictably relied on athletic ability and size to get by on defense at the high school level and during his time in the AAU circuits. Then, after only playing 53 total minutes in college, he found himself in the NBA after being drafted by the Nuggets 14th.

After redshirting for his rookie season and not logging a single minute of action, Porter was clearly behind when it comes to defending mentally and physically both on and off ball.

Porter’s effort has not been the issue most of the time. He has actively looked to be a helpful defender, but he is so far behind mentally right now which has led to mistakes like the one below.

 

Porter is defending Ben Simmons, who is much stronger than him at this point in each of their careers. Instead of sagging off of Simmons, like every other defender would, Porter for some reason gets into his body near the three-point line and commits a foul with just 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

Porter has to be aware of what is going on around him. Simmons’ lack of outside shooting is one of the most documented aspects of any players game and yet, Porter is pressing him as if he is about to step back for a 3-pointer. Because Porter is so far up on Simmons, he ends up getting his hands caught in the cookie jar and gets whistled for a foul.

Every aspect of that bad defensive possession could have been avoided with a better knowledge base and more awareness on defense from Porter.

That lack of awareness manifests itself when Porter is defending away from the ball as well, like below when Porter gets sucked too far into the paint and gives up an open 3-pointer because of his lack of understanding of Denver’s defensive scheme.

 

It appears the defensive scheme above is built around sending Will Barton III to double Embiid once he puts the ball on the floor. With Barton being sent to double, that leaves Porter with the task of splitting the difference between his own man, Furkan Korkmaz, and Barton’s assignment, Mike Scott.

Porter is aware that he is defending Korkmaz, but does not seem to realize that when Barton doubles, Scott will be open. Instead of sticking close to either perimeter shooter, Porter gets sucked into the paint which left two wide open shooters for Embiid to kick out to.

Porter’s defensive issues are not only off of the ball. He is also really struggling on the ball as a defender. Just look at how Carmelo Anthony, who has been out of the league for a year and is in 35 years old, just blows by Porter who failed to contain him on the perimeter.

 

Maybe Porter is still working to get his hips more flexible after going through back surgery and maybe his drop foot issue is making it difficult for Porter to turn and recover, but the more realistic answer is that Porter’s center of gravity is incredibly high and he did not work to fight Anthony as he dropped his shoulder and turned the corner.

Rookies are almost always complete disasters on the defensive end, but Porter is also trying to fight off two years of rust while playing inconsistent minutes. That is a tough challenge for Porter, but one he has to accept and battle with.

It will take time, but Porter has the physical gifts to be an impactful defender — which will be discussed later in this piece — but right now, he is a disaster on that end despite his best efforts.

While making mistakes is part of being a rookie in the NBA, Porter has to realize that he is competing for minutes on a Nuggets team that has championship aspirations. The only way he can continue to earn the trust of his head coach is by limiting his mistakes and being a star in his role.

That makes the elimination of unnecessary mistakes priority number one for Porter.

Moments of incredible talent

Even while Porter’s rust continues to lessen the shine of his skill set, there have been moments where his incredible talent has been on full display on both ends of the floor.

As with everything in life, there is good with the bad and that is no different for Porter, who has shown how gifted he is on offense while also showing small improvements defensively.

Offense

When Malone was asked what he is looking for from Porter on offense, he stated that he wanted Porter to learn where to be when playing off the ball and how to be an impactful offensive rebounder.

Porter has taken those two challenges and is working to master them.

It has been far from pretty and far from perfect, but the effort to fill that role on the floor has been clear from Porter.

 

Look above as Porter grabs a defensive rebound, pushes the pace, gets off the ball, smartly cuts to the rim, and makes himself available for a pass before re-spacing back to the corner. Those are all smart off-ball movements by Porter, who finished the play by attacking the offense glass from the corner and nearly grabbing an offensive rebound.

No, the possession above did not go in the Nuggets favor, but it was such a perfect encapsulation of Porter’s willingness to fill a role that Malone has tasked him with filling. It may not always work, but the effort and intention is undoubtedly there.

One of the ways that Porter can help the Nuggets offense is by being an off-ball finisher and picking his spots to slice into the paint for a dunk off of a cut, like he does below.

 

The Nuggets do not have a wing player with the size, athletic ability, and multifaceted offensive skill set like Porter does. Porter is a threatening jump shooter who has some guard skills and the size to close space rapidly. That is why, when he cuts to the rim like he does below, he can be so impactful.

All Porter has to do is wait for Scott to take one step towards the driving Barton to give him enough room to slice right behind him. All Barton has to do is drop the pass off to Porter cutting down the baseline and watch as the 6-foot-10 Porter easily rises up for the dunk.

Because Porter is so mobile and so long, he only needs a sliver of daylight to finish at the rim.

But Porter is much more than his height.

What makes Porter’s offensive skill set so tantalizing is his picture-perfect jump shot which is the basis for the rest of his offensive style of play.

 

The corner 3-pointer that Porter makes above is absurd. He is fading into the corner and is nearly behind the backboard when he releases his shot, but Porter is one of the most gifted shooters at his size to enter the league in quite some time.

That type of shot-making combined with Porter’s guard-like skills and his 6-foot-10 frame are the physical ingredients for a terrorizing offensive talent.

Defense

Despite his obvious struggles on defense outlined extensively above, there have been some moments where Porter is showing that he is beginning to grasp Denver’s defensive schemes.

Look at Porter defending Thybulle in the corner and all of the activity he manages to include into the defensive possession.

First, Porter does a good job of communicating with Plumlee that he is not switching the screen that Thybulle sets for Horford.

Secondly, Porter sticks with Thybulle, but also stays aware of Simmons, who is trying to drive into the paint. Porter is the low-man in this situation and needs to provide help defense if Simmons gets to the rim. Porter’s stunt down leads to Simmons kicking the ball to the corner.

Third, Porter does not leave his feet despite the pump fake by Thybulle, who was hitting shots from deep all night at this point. Porter contains Thybulle until he swings the ball, stays aware, and stays in position to deter Tobias Harris from driving into him.

That is a perfect defensive possession for Porter.

Here is one more example of Porter not only understanding the game plan, but also finding ways to be impactful on the defensive end of the floor.

 

Instead of just sticking with Scott on the perimeter, Porter uses his quickness and length to bother Embiid’s post-up.

Porter first stunts down to get Embiid to think about kicking out, but Porter is ready as he jumps back out to Scott. At that point, the shot clock is down to six seconds which tells Porter that Embiid has to shoot it. Because of that awareness by Porter, he is able to help double Embiid in the post and force a missed shot.


 

Porter is no where near where caught up to speed, but the only way he will ever get to that point is by working through his mistakes. Malone knows this and that is why he will keep playing Porter to allow him to work through his issues in real time.

The only way Porter can ever become the player that the Nuggets hope he can be is by getting playing time. It will be ugly at times and Malone’s frustrations will be evident, but those are the growing pains that need to be experienced to get the best version of Porter

“I think the more he plays — and I am going to continue to play him — the more he gets those first and second quarter minutes where it is not just the end of the game and he is getting minutes with our starting group, the game is going to slow down for him,” Malone told reporters after the Nuggets win over the Trail Blazers.

“When the game does slow down for him, I think he’s got scary potential.”

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