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Michael Porter Jr. was worth the wait

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This is the Michael Porter Jr. we’ve been waiting for.

Michael Porter Jr. celebrates for the Nuggets.
This is the Michael Porter Jr. the Denver Nuggets were waiting for.

There was a time when it felt like the basketball world was meant to orbit around Michael Porter Jr. As a high school player, Porter’s talent was so apparent it caused entire college basketball programs to bend to his whims. Washington once hired his father away from Missouri to secure his commitment on the recruiting trail. After the Huskies’ coaching staff was replaced following a disappointing year with No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Markelle Fultz, Mizzou re-hired Porter Sr., who brought his son with him.

At the time, Porter Jr. felt like a generational prospect. A 6’10 forward with a sweet shooting stroke and the type of boundless athleticism that landed him his first SportsCenter appearance as a high school sophomore, Porter had the pedigree to match his raw talent. He dominated Nike’s EYBL circuit posting huge and efficient scoring numbers while playing alongside Trae Young on Mokan Elite. He was a staple of USA Basketball’s youth program and helped bring back a gold medal at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. There were Kevin Durant comparisons and early hype he could be the No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick (we originally had him at No. 2 behind only Luka Doncic).

Everything fell apart in the first two minutes of Porter’s time at Mizzou. He exited the season opener with a back injury that eventually led to microdiscectomy surgery of his L3-L4 spinal discs. Porter fought his way back on the court to play in the Tigers’ NCAA tournament game, but it was clear he wasn’t the same player. Concerns over the injury didn’t just cost him his entire college career, it also pushed him down the board to No. 14 in the draft.

The Denver Nuggets were in prime position to take a chance on him. After essentially giving Porter a redshirt season following a second back surgery after the draft, Denver is finally starting to see the player it once appeared he was destined to become.

Porter scored a career-high 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting in the Nuggets’ 124-116 road win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night. Healthy for the first time in years, the vision of what Porter was always supposed to be has started to come into focus.

The Nuggets had nothing to lose by taking a draft-day flier on Porter with the last pick in the lottery. He was lucky to land with a winning organization that took a patient approach prioritizing his health. After scoring 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting against the Sacramento Kings last week in his first career start, it appears Porter is all the way back to the player he was hyped to be as a recruit.

This is one of the feel-good stories of the year in the NBA. It’s also a tremendous boost for the Nuggets in both the short- and long-term that should have the rest of the Western Conference terrified at where this relationship could go from here.

Porter is a natural-born scorer

Porter’s game has always been about getting buckets. He grew up modeling his game after Durant and was one of the few young players who actually had the skill set to do it. At 6’10, Porter was raised on the perimeter, honing his jump shot first and his ball handling second during a time when he could have dominated on size alone. The work he put in at a young age was always with an eye on how his game would translate to the highest levels. Now it’s happening.

Just look at how much separation Porter caused on this step-back. He turned a mid-range jumper into a corner three with exactly one step.

Porter’s shooting stroke has always been a focal point in his skill set, but he doesn’t solely rely on it. Rather, his shot is used to keep defenses honest against his ability to attack the rim. He beat the Pacers to the basket time and again Thursday, burning close-outs for acrobatic layups at the rim, finishing off cuts, scoring in transition, and even putting small defenders in the post.

This shot chart is a work of art in the modern NBA:

In his last three games, Porter is shooting 22-of-28 from the field. This has always been a young player with remarkable touch from all three levels. He’s starting to show it now against the best players in the world.

The Nuggets just added another deadly weapon

Just look at how happy Porter’s Denver teammates were after the win over Indiana. They know he’s been waiting for this moment for a long time:

The Nuggets only had the opportunity to draft Porter after losing to Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final day of the 2017-18 season. The Wolves earned the No. 8 seed with the victory and Denver got the last pick in the lottery. With a promising young core led by Nikola Jokic already in place, Denver was in a position to be patient with Porter and not rest the hopes and dreams of the franchise on his injured back. Instead, he could get healthy and contribute at his own pace without worrying about needing to be the organization’s one great hope.

Denver is again near the top of the Western Conference — currently in the No. 2 seed at 24-10 — as Porter begins his journey to becoming a regular contributor. Head coach Mike Malone hasn’t just handed him minutes, he’s had to work for every opportunity this season. Porter hasn’t had consistent playing time this season, but he gets closer to earning it with every flash of brilliance.

There is still plenty to work on. He isn’t much of a playmaker for his teammates yet, with only 11 assists in 257 minutes this year. He also will need to get tougher defensively. He’s only had three steals and eight blocks thus far. While he’s far from a finished product, Porter can already stockpile points as a scorer, and that should have Nuggets fans ecstatic.

It looks like everything worked out perfectly for both the player and the organization, given the situation. The Nuggets were in a rare position to let Porter take all the time he needed to get back to being himself. He never had to worry about being the franchise savior he once felt destined to be and instead can simply be a valuable contributor to a winning team.

At long last, the Porter we were always promised might finally be here. Still only 21 years old, we can’t wait to see where his story takes him from here.