Reliving the moment: Michael Porter Jr.’s defense is slowly improving

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) before the game against the Miami Heat at the Pepsi Center.
Nov 5, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) before the game against the Miami Heat at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The one part of Michael Porter Jr.’s game that has held him back from more consistent playing time has been his defense.

Simply stated, he has been a liability on defense for almost every minute he’s been on the floor.

That is not to say he has not had strong moments; he absolutely has. The issue has been his inability to understand when to rotate and his inconsistencies on that end of the floor.

But on Sunday afternoon, Porter Jr. had his best defensive showing of the year in addition to his normal head-scratching mistakes.

He was rotating correctly, getting to his spots early, forcing he defense to keep swinging the ball, and even blocked a couple shots. His length was on full display as was his mental engagement to making sure his play on the defensive end of the floor was sound.

But once the fourth quarter arrived and the game was out of hand, Porter Jr.’s mental attentiveness to the game was nonexistent and his defensive impact went by the wayside.

With some good and some bad from Porter Jr.’s defense tonight, let’s dive into a quick film session, shall we?

Michael Porter Jr. shows promise on defense in first half

First and foremost, Porter Jr. being able to understand the basics of the Nuggets defensive schemes is paramount to his ability to become a constant member of the Nuggets rotation.

In the first half, Porter Jr. began to show an understanding of when and where to rotate.

In the clip above, Porter Jr. clearly sees that Mason Plumlee tried for the steal, but missed and took himself out of the play in the process. Because of that, Jonas Valanciunas had a free run at the rim, but Porter Jr. not only slid over to slow him, but came up the floor to meet Valanciunas as far away from the rim as possible.

Because Porter Jr. rotated over to make up for Plumlee’s mistake, he allowed enough time for Plumlee to recover and grab the steal; a steal that would not have been possible had Porter Jr. not rotated as far up the floor as he could instead of just meeting him at the rim.

It may seem small, but that one rotation led to a Monte Morris layup in transition that tied the game at 36 points apiece. Those are the small things that will help Porter Jr. earn the trust of his head coach.

Porter Jr. was much more than just a sound defender against the Grizzlies; he was wildly impactful in non-garbage time minutes.

Just like Porter Jr. does in the clip above, he sees the rotation he needs to make with Jokic hedging up the floor so far and makes it, but this time he ends up rotating onto 7-footer Jaren Jackson Jr., who outweighs Porter Jr. by 25 pounds and stands two inches taller than him.

Still, the Nuggets rookie was undeterred.

As Jackson Jr. re-screens for Dillon Brooks, he rolls into the paint — right into Porter Jr. who had rotated over to provide weak-side help — which is when the play by Porter Jr. really gets good.

Porter Jr. stays down the floor forcing Jackson Jr. to either take an out-of-rhythm floater or pass out. As Jackson Jr. fakes the pass, Porter Jr. stays low and in a strong defensive position so that when Jackson Jr. finally decides to rise up for the jumper, Porter Jr. is ready for it.

As soon as Jackson Jr. takes a rhythm dribble, Porter Jr. knows the shot is going up and perfectly times the block, which leads to a Hernangomez 3-pointer on the other end.

That combination of size, length, awareness, and versatility is what makes Porter Jr. such a tantalizing defensive prospect and he was not done impacting the game on the defensive end of the floor.

As Jokic turns the ball over in the play above, Porter Jr. realizes he is the last line of defense in transition. Because of that, he stays in front of the ball handler until Juancho Hernangomez picks him up. That is when Porter Jr. rotates over to Ja Morant and blocks his shot at the rim.
This is where Porter Jr.’s length and athletic ability can make up for so many miscues. Porter Jr. likely should have slowed Morant down before contesting his shot at the rim which allowed Morant to blow by Porter Jr. and get his hips to open up. Despite being out of position and a step behind the blur that is Morant, Porter Jr. rose up and deflected the shot away from the rim.
That is the type of defensive impact that cannot be taught.
To make the possession even better, Porter Jr. runs the break after blocking the shot, gets the ball in transition, and makes an on-the-move read which led to a pass to a streaking Hernangomez for the and-one opportunity.
Turning defense into offense is something the Nuggets need a lot more of and Porter Jr. was able to provide that in spades in the first half, but once he came back into the game in the fourth quarter, Porter Jr.’s defensive impact took a drastic dive.

Michael Porter Jr. follows strong first half with rough second half

For all of the positives that Porter Jr. showed in the first half, he also had just as many negative moments in the second half.

Ultimately, Porter Jr.’s lack of mental focus on defense led to his eventual benching, but more on that later.

For now, let’s start chronologically. Porter Jr. came in at the start of the fourth quarter and within two minutes, he was already making mistakes that should never happen, like in the play below.

 

First off, it is important to note that the Nuggets coaching staff wants Porter Jr. to be an impactful offense rebounder which is why he is constantly attacking the offensive glass, but with him going to the rim when shots go up so often, he has to be aware of opposing wings trying to get out in transition like Kyle Anderson does above.

Despite Anderson being one of the slowest players in the NBA, Porter Jr. allows him to get behind him which leads to a foul. Letting the opposition get behind you after a made bucket is a cardinal sin, but Malone stuck with his young phenom anyway.

Unfortunately, Porter Jr.’s defensive issues did not stop there.

On the very next defensive possession, Porter Jr. is defending Anderson once again. As Anderson rotates from one corner to the other, the Grizzlies run a pick and roll with Dillon Brooks handling and Bruno Cabloco rolling to the rim.

 

Maybe it was Brooks rejecting the screen that threw Porter Jr. off, but his rotation as the weak-side help defender was far too late and too far down the floor. By the time Porter Jr. had a chance to contest the layup, Caboclo had already jumped past him for the easy layup.

Again, that is a simple mistake that Porter Jr. has to be aware of, but despite his slip-up, Malone stuck with him.

Porter Jr. was not strong on defense for the next four minutes, but he was not actively hurting the team, but once Porter Jr. blew the switch below with just over six minutes remaining, Malone pulled the plug on Porter Jr.’s night and understandably so.

 

This is as basic as it gets for a defender. Denver is switching everything on the perimeter, but when the Grizzlies run staggered screens, Porter Jr. hedged out instead of switching which leaves Brandon Clarke wide open for a dunk.

After Porter Jr. messes up the switch, you can see Malone call a timeout, point at Torrey Craig to enter the game, and he shakes his head as Malone tells Porter Jr. to take a seat on the bench.

Yes, Porter Jr. showed improvement on the defensive end of the floor against the Grizzlies, but he also had inexcusable mistakes as well. If Porter Jr. wants to break into Malone’s rotation, he has to eliminate those mental mistakes from his play.

Malone has said multiple times that Porter Jr. is going to have to earn his playing time and after 12 games, that is still unequivocally the truth.

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