Michael Porter Jr. has had an eventful tenure in his two years as an active player with the Denver Nuggets. Last season as a rookie, he earned his way into head coach Mike Malone’s rotation as the year wore on, truly coming into his own in the NBA bubble once the league ended its COVID-induced hiatus.
In the bubble and in the playoffs, Porter showed flashes of the promise of what may be to come in his future. He was, at times, unstoppable and spectacular on offense, but his defense was a major drawback.
Michael Porter Jr. showed flashes of what the future might bring last season, but that future has fully arrived for the Denver Nuggets in these NBA playoffs
In fact, his defense was often so porous that Malone had a hard time keeping on him on the floor in high-leverage situations once the playoffs began. And when your path through the NBA playoffs against the Utah Jazz, LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers includes Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis and LeBron James, there was simply nowhere to easily hide him on a game-to-game basis.
You don’t become great in the NBA by hiding effectively, though. One of the ways you can do it is by turning your weaknesses into strengths, or at least neutral stalemates. That’s something that Porter has been able to do this season, whether simply as a result of becoming more comfortable defending at the NBA level, taking more ownership of handling his defensive matchups, or his own growing maturity.
Porter isn’t going to compete with Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo for Defensive Player of the Year awards anytime soon, so his defensive progression is largely about simply making sure that his defense is never a detraction from his offense. And as his defense has improved to at least a passable state, his offense has improved at an even more dramatic rate.
His numbers on the season represent a huge increase year-over-year. As his responsibilities and playing time have increased, so has his production. After averaging 9.3 points in 16.4 minutes per game last season, this season he’s averaging 19.0 points in 31.3 minutes per game. Last season he shot 56.4 percent from 2-point range and 42.2 percent from 3, this season he’s shooting 62.8 percent from 2 and 44.5 percent from 3.
Porter’s true shooting percentage, which encapsulates twos, threes and free throws, rose from 61.7 percent to a ridiculous 66.3 percent, all while his minutes more than doubled from a total of 903 to 1912.
The pivot point in this season for both Michael Porter Jr. and his Denver Nuggets came when Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL on April 12th against the Golden State Warriors. It left these new-look Nuggets without their second-best scorer (behind Nikola Jokic, presumptive NBA MVP) while they worked to integrate trade-deadline newcomer Aaron Gordon, and it meant more would be asked of Porter.
Beginning the very next game against the Miami Heat, Porter commenced a reign of absolute terror. Between April 14th and May 11th, when the Nuggets essentially packed it in competitively with their NBA playoff seeding concerns in mind, he averaged 25.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. In this span, he shot 57.9 percent from the floor and 50.8 percent from behind the arc.
He was simply unstoppable alongside Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon. As a trio, the Nuggets outscored their opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions when they’ve been on the floor together.
The Nuggets miss Murray, without a doubt, and his absence will make life that much more difficult when the NBA playoffs begin against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday evening, but Michael Porter Jr. gives them a ceiling of unknown height. Like Murray rose to true stardom last season in the NBA bubble behind his ridiculous scoring outbursts, Porter has the opportunity to take yet another transcendent leap.
If he can do that, the expected limitations on how far these Denver Nuggets can go in the playoffs may have to be rewritten sooner than later.