Nuggets Waiting Patiently for Michael Porter Jr.’s Risk to Turn to Reward

    I was in the stands when Michael Porter Jr. took the floor in Missouri’s opening game against Iowa State in 2017. The atmosphere was as electric as any

    October 16, 2018

    I was in the stands when Michael Porter Jr. took the floor in Missouri’s opening game against Iowa State in 2017. The atmosphere was as electric as any Missouri home game. Porter Jr.’s commitment re-energized a program mired in misery. He may not have wanted to be hailed a savior, but many fans felt he was.

    It was a miracle Porter Jr. was in a Missouri uniform to begin with. He had originally committed to Washington to play for his godfather and family friend Lorenzo Romar after watching the Tigers compile 27-68 record in three seasons under Kim Anderson.

    “I had committed to Washington,” Porter Jr. said in a video posted by The Player’s Tribune. “But in the back of my head, I was kind of like, I wish I could’ve revived Mizzou.” When he did make the decision to return to Columbia, the reaction was instant. “It was like the whole city changed,” Porter Jr. said via The Player’s Tribune. “It was crazy.”

    Two minutes into his Missouri career, Porter Jr. walked off the floor with an apparent injury after scoring two points and grabbing one rebound. At the time, it was nothing. The team went on to beat Iowa State handily in one of the biggest games at Missouri in years.

    As Porter Jr. continued to sit out games, it was evident his injury was not “nothing.” As a potential top pick in the NBA Draft, Porter Jr. was likely going to only play one season in Columbia. The team ruled him out for the regular season on November 21, seemingly ending his college career.

    Porter returned to the court for the Tigers in postseason play, but struggled in two games he came off the bench. After toying with coming back to college for a second season, Porter declared for the NBA Draft.

    Initially regarded as a top-five pick ­– potentially the No. 1 overall pick – Porter was plagued by injury concerns, falling to the Nuggets with the 14th pick.

    “I had no expectations,” Porter Jr. told CBS Sports. “But then when you’re sitting there at your table and another pick goes by and another pick goes by and you start seeing all your friends going, you start getting a little anxious.”

    Becoming a championship-caliber team in the NBA is as much about luck and risk as it is about skill and talent. The Bulls were able to take Michael Jordan with the third overall pick. The Lakers traded up to draft an unproven Kobe Bryant and landed Shaquille O’Neal in the same offseason. The Heat landed LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the same summer. The Warriors saw their oft-injured point guard develop into an MVP while playing on a bargain contract. They saw a second-round pick turn into a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Then, they had an opportunity to add Kevin Durant during a one-time mega spike in salary cap space due to a new TV deal. Yeah, maybe the Warriors have gotten too lucky.

    With Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray already in place, the Nuggets had secured a trio to become a consistent playoff contender in the West. But in order to jump into the realm of title contention, this was the right risk to take. Missouri was an NCAA Tournament team without Porter Jr., but it could’ve been much more. The Nuggets saw a chance to take a risk.

    “We were very surprised, and happily so, that Michael continued to fall down the board. At some point it becomes a risk-reward ratio,” Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly told The Durango Herald. “We think he’s an elite talent, a guy with no back issues we wouldn’t have the good fortune of drafting. You have to take a swing at guys like that. You have to get lucky.”

    Sources told Stadium that Porter Jr. is out “for the foreseeable future,” but the franchise doesn’t need him immediately. Making sure he’s fully healthy is the primary goal. “We are going to be extremely patient,” Connelly told The Denver Post. “We’re going to take the long view for everything we do with him.”

    When healthy, it’s easy to see why Porter Jr. was considered one of the top prospects in the draft. He’s a scoring threat from everywhere on the floor and possesses rare athleticism and ball-handling skills for a 6-foot-10 player. On defense, he will need to add muscle to potentially check power forwards in small-ball lineups. His length and athleticism will allow him to affect passing lanes and contest shots well.

    Most importantly, Porter Jr. can create his own shot and is a strong isolation player. He can potentially be a bailout when Denver struggles to create good scoring opportunities. If Porter Jr. reaches his full potential, the Nuggets could have an unstoppable offense.

    The first step for Denver is actually making the playoffs. Head Coach Mike Malone said the Nuggets have to improve on “valuing the basketball” on offense. Denver turned the ball over 14.3 times per game last season, good for eighth-most in the league.

    Malone also stressed the importance of guarding the three-point line. “The NBA has become a three-point centric league, and we have to understand that and take teams off the three-point line,” Malone said.

    Denver finished 23rd in defensive rating last season, in part because of their inability to defend the perimeter. The Nuggets were the worst defense in terms of opponent three-point percentage and 20th in three-point attempts allowed. Porter Jr.’s presence should help Denver guard the perimeter more efficiently.

    Denver missed the playoffs by one game in each of the last two seasons, and showing up to play every day will matter in what is expected to be a tight Western conference race. Malone said maintaining intensity through the entire season will be key.

    “It’s really easy to say we got to play hard for 82 games. The season is long, you go through peaks and valleys sometimes,” Malone said. “If you truly have playoff aspirations, that’ll be dictated by your everyday actions. Hopefully, our guys will learn from the last couple of years.”

    Porter Jr.’s return to the court could also provide that additional fire if the team is coasting through the middle of the season.

    Faith is a big part of Porter Jr.’s life. It’s allowed him to handle tumbling down the draft board and what appears to be a lengthy rehab process. He said via The Player’s Tribune he believes “God has big plans” for him. Even though Missouri fans might not see it the same way, Porter Jr. said he believes his injury in Columbia was meant to be.

    “I wasn’t the person I needed to be to handle everything that’s about to happen now,” Porter Jr. said via The Player’s Tribune.

    “I wouldn’t change getting hurt. I think it happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

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