Right as the Nuggets started to build momentum and garner some buzz as title contenders, Jamal Murray went down with an ACL tear in a loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 12. In the rubble of their smashed title hopes, the Nuggets will now look to Michael Porter Jr. to be their bonafide second star next to the best center in the league, Nikola Jokic. Though he is only 22, Michael Porter Jr.’s time is now. Before we dissect future expectations for Porter Jr. and the Nuggets, let’s look at how we got here and why Porter Jr.’s leap won’t be such a big jump.
A Slow Build
When the Denver Nuggets drafted Michael Porter Jr., he was a tantalizing prospect. Coming out of Nathan Hale high school in Seattle, Porter Jr. was a 5-star recruit. With a 6-10 frame and an already deadly three-point shot, Porter Jr. averaged 36.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists in his senior year. He was unstoppable. After graduation, he was the second-ranked prospect in the country going into his freshman year at Missouri.
Unfortunately, Porter Jr. was only able to suit up for Mizzou for 2 minutes before a back injury ended most of his season and college career. Before the 2018 NBA Draft, with durability concerns looming, Porter Jr.’s top prospect status began to falter. Ultimately, Porter Jr. slid out of the top-10 entirely and was drafted with the 14th pick by the Denver Nuggets. Though the injuries were cause for concern, Porter Jr’s talents were never in question.
Michael Porter Jr’s NBA rookie year was spent stashed away rehabbing his back injury. He played 0 games in the 2018-2019 season. After a redshirt season, the anticipation of his debut had reached national attention. Like so much of Porter Jr’s career to this point, it didn’t go quite as expected.
Porter Jr. Finding Time
Michael Porter Jr’s first year playing in the NBA full of surprises, from start to finish. In the early part of the year, Porter struggled to get minutes due to his lack of defensive awareness. In November of 2019, Porter Jr. averaged only 7.7 minutes a game and was a minus -20.3 in 9 games. Offensively, Porter Jr. struggled to connect, averaging 2.4 points on 38 percent shooting from the field and 14 percent from three.
In December, there were improvements across the board, but Porter Jr’s potential was on full display when he got his first career start against the Sacramento Kings on December 12, 2019. That night, Porter shot 8 of 10 from the field for 19 points. It was his first game in his career Porter Jr. had double-digit shot attempts. MPJ showed off his ability to get to the rim and finish over smaller players in the paint. He also gave a glimpse of his tough shot-making ability.
While he showed what he could do, Porter Jr. had to wait until the NBA restart all the way in August before he entered the starting line-up again. Inconsistent playing time marred Porter Jr. leading up to the COVID-19 induced suspension of the NBA season. He missed some time in February with an ankle injury. When he returned in March, it was still only as a bench player for 13 minutes a night.
However, when the NBA restarted in the bubble, we finally got to see how dangerous a player MPJ could be. Michael Porter Jr’s time was drawing nearer.
Mike Breaking Out
When the Nuggets arrived in Orlando for the restart, the team came without a starting small forward. With Will Barton sidelined due to a knee injury, the stage was set for Michael Porter Jr to break out. In his 7 starts during the seeding games, MPJ averaged 22 points and 8.6 rebounds. Porter Jr. was named to the Kia NBA All-Seeding Games Second Team off the back of those efforts.
While he reverted more to a bench spark plug for Denver’s run to the Western Conference Finals, the playoffs provided valuable experience for Porter Jr. Despite only averaging 23.7 minutes in the playoffs; Porter Jr. was an important part of a historic Denver playoff run that included two 3-1 series comebacks by Denver. Coming into this year, Porter Jr. was ready to take on a heavier load.
“I kind of saw everything last year. We played LeBron [James] in the playoffs, I played against Kawhi [Leonard] and Paul George, all the best players at my position. So I feel like I have some experience now going into this season that I didn’t have last year in my first year playing.”Michael Porter Jr. told ESPN
It’s Michael Porter Jr. Time
Coming into the season, expectations for Michael Porter Jr. to follow up his bubble breakout were high. Sadly, only 4 games after the season started, Porter Jr. was forced to sit out 9 games per league health and safety protocols. Upon his return, Porter Jr. came off the bench for his first 7 games back after his absence.
However, since his return to the starting lineup in February, Michael Porter Jr’s averages have only started to ascend.
The big numbers that jump out to me here are his minutes increasing, his shot attempts going up, and the continued efficiency with that volume. In March, Porter Jr. his an absurd 53 percent of his threes. 53 PERCENT. In March, he was shooting the ball 13.4 times a game, up from 10.7 attempts in February. His scoring averages jumped from 12.5 points per game in February to 20.3 in March.
Though the bump isn’t as extreme, Porter Jr’s shot attempts have increased in April, and he’s maintained efficiency with his touches. This season, Porter Jr. has averaged 17.7 points, 7.7 rebounds on 12.6 field goal attempts. In 9 games without Jamal Murray this season, Porter Jr. has averaged 20.9 and 8.4 rebounds on 15.2 shot attempts.
With Jamal Murray out for the season, it is time for Michael Porter Jr. to have the ball in his hands even more. It’s time to see if he’s ready to take on the role of the second star next to Jokic in Denver. With his talent, measurables, and shot-making ability, Porter Jr. should practically walk into 22 points a night.
In a Nuggets season that won’t ever reach its full potential due to Jamal Murray’s injury, it seems like the new goal should be to get Michael Porter Jr. ready to be a legitimate member of a big three that will include Jokic, Jamal Murray, and MPJ next season.
At the end of the day, Michael Porter Jr.’s time is here sooner than we thought. Here’s hoping for a season that will all have us saying, “YEAH MIKE!”