Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young has been sensational and could potentially start in the All-Star game next month. Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic is dominating every night and having a Kia MVP-caliber season at 20 years old. But while Young and Doncic have been excellent, there’s another gifted player from the 2018 Draft class still capable of and hungry for stardom.
“I want to be an MVP in the league one day,” Michael Porter Jr. told NBA.com, adding that his "opportunity will come." He faced Young on Wednesday and will battle Doncic for the first time tonight (7:30 ET, ESPN).
The Denver Nuggets rookie ended 2019 with his first career start and dropped a team-high 19 points, fueling a 120-115 win over the Sacramento Kings. He started 2020 off with another lights out performance by registering 25 points on 11-for-12 shooting as Denver knocked off the Indiana Pacers 124-116. It was a career night against a formidable opponent on the road, which is why he was doused with a cooler full of ice-cold water afterwards.
Porter's red-carpet smile was gleaming, and he spent most of the night responding to text messages and answering congratulatory calls from his family once he got home. Young, who happens to be one of Porter’s close friends and former AAU teammate, was also among those offering praise. The Hawks’ young star viewed it as a breakout performance.
My Boy MPJ is BAAAACCCCKKK!!!👀👀 #WatchOut— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) January 3, 2020
Two nights later, however, Porter was back on the bench, watching as his team suffered a stunning loss to the injury-depleted Washington Wizards. The rookie forward sat the entire second half excluding garbage time. It was a puzzling situation considering his outburst 48 hours prior, but it was simply a microcosm of the patience Porter has been forced to maintain over the last couple of years.
“It was cool to start, but I knew that wasn’t gonna be a long-term thing at this point,” Porter said. “I just have to be ready with coming off the bench and give our bench a spark. I’m just happy to play. I think my role will continue to grow as long as I work hard and do the right things.”
... I’ve just gotta stay hungry and stay humble."
The 21-year-old Missouri native has undergone two back surgeries, with foot and knee issues slowing down his comeback process as well. The unfortunate back injuries caused him to miss 90% of his lone season at Missouri and his first year in the NBA.
It's the reason he landed in Denver with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2018 draft despite being rated the top recruit in high school. Teams that were once smitten by his skillset became skeptics of his health, and his stock fell. He watched as Young, Doncic and others were selected among the top five, a category Porter was projected to be in just a year prior to Draft night.
Despite the setbacks, Porter’s trajectory continues to trend in the right direction. When given playing time, the physically talented combo forward has at times been able to showcase the offensive arsenal that once made him a McDonald’s All-American MVP. In his career-best outing against Indiana, Porter’s finishes at the rim were dazzling. His ability to score over defenders with his 6-foot-10 frame was mesmerizing, and his long step-backs when wanting separation were lethal.
There’s only been three instances this season in which he's played at least 21 minutes. In those three games, he averaged 19.6 points. And while it’s always dangerous to extrapolate small sample sizes -- his 75% shooting from the field in those games is impressive, yet obviously unsustainable -- his average of 20.2 points per 36 minutes would lead a deep Nuggets team in scoring.
His flashes of late have Denver fans craving more. A healthy and unleashed Porter has the tools to be a 25-ppg scorer this decade, especially once he learns to supplement his numbers at the charity stripe. One of his weaknesses has been his inability to draw fouls (he’s had just one game with multiple trips to the free-throw line). The elite scorers know how to initiate contact instead of eschewing it -- one of a few nuances of the game he wishes he studied more during his redshirt season.
"I wish I had paid attention a little more last year," Porter said. "I wish I could say that I was really paying attention to the NBA game, but really I wasn’t paying attention that much. I should have, but I was just focused on rehab."
Other elements of his game that need improvement are on the defensive end. The Nuggets allow 112.9 points per 100 possessions when Porter is on the floor, the highest mark among players in Denver’s rotation. At his height, he's required to guard multiple positions and should seek that challenge the way Kevin Durant has later in his career. Sharpening his ball-handling and play-making skills should also be near the top of his 2020 vision board (he’s averaging more turnovers than assists).
Ask Porter what parts of his game needs polishing, and he’ll simply say “everything." The Nuggets have exercised prudence in bringing him along this season, and he's integrated himself nicely. His path has been different than the other 13 lottery picks in his class, yet his sky-high ceiling remains.
“I have all the highest aspirations.” Porter Jr. said. "I want to win a championship, I think we have a championship-level team when we play the right way and that’s our goal for this year. Me personally, my opportunity will come. I’ve just gotta stay hungry and stay humble."
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