SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite being one of the NBA's most successful teams in each of the past two seasons, the general consensus about the Denver Nuggets is that they're one piece away -- one scorer, dynamic playmaker or veteran with championship pedigree can take them from being a very good team to a legitimate title contender. One big trade, the thinking goes, and Denver is truly scary. Well, if you ask the Nuggets, that piece is already on the roster.
His name is Michael Porter Jr.
Through a combination of a scary college back injury, a redshirt year in his first NBA season and sporadic playing time to start the 2019-20 campaign, Porter has fallen off the radar of most casual NBA fans. Rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have stolen the headlines, but once upon a time, Porter was a much bigger prospect than either of them. Before his injury at Missouri, Porter was projected to be the top pick in the 2018 draft -- a 6-10 super-athlete with guard skills, a pure jump shot and a knack for scoring. Health questions caused him to fall to 14th, where the Nuggets gladly swooped him up months after narrowly missing a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season.
Being selected with the final pick of the lottery and sitting out the entirety of what would have been his rookie season surely wasn't the start to a pro career Porter expected, but he remained positive, focused and patient. Joining one of the deepest teams in the league meant that, even when healthy, Porter would have to scratch and claw for playing time.
"I mean yeah it's tough, but you've just gotta stay patient," Porter said. "We've got guys that should be playing ... but everybody, we're for each other. And me personally, I just try to keep getting better, because I know my turn will come."
Porter has put in the work over the last year and a half, and we're finally starting to see his incredible talent on display. Over his last five games, he's averaging 16.8 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 52.3 percent field goals and 50 percent 3-point shooting in just over 27 minutes per game, much to the delight of Nuggets fans who have been clamoring for more run for their potential superstar. It's been the right combination of events for Porter to get more opportunity -- injuries to Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray have opened the door, but Porter's increased awareness on the defensive end has also helped him earn the trust of head coach Mike Malone.
"I think the game is slowing down on both ends, but especially defensively," Malone said before the Nuggets' 134-131 overtime win over the Warriors last week. "Offensively he's gifted, he can score in so many ways, and he's been doing so in such an efficient manner. You know he's gonna rebound for you. But defensively, I think, is the greatest area where he's really focused, committed to and is getting better. You see the improvement, understanding what our game plan is -- what our rules are. It's not perfect, but he's not the only one. Michael's definitely shown tremendous growth on that end of the floor."
The Golden State game was something of a breakout for Porter, who not only put up 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but also gained valuable experience playing at the end of a tight, nationally televised road game. He silenced the Chase Center crowd with a clutch corner 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter, just after the Warriors had pushed their lead back to eight points.
Later, he barreled in from the 3-point line to snatch an offensive rebound for an and-one put-back to give his team the lead with just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter.
"He's a player, man. He does so much more than scoring. He's really fun to play with," Nuggets center Mason Plumlee said after the Warriors game. "He was attacking the basket really strong, and it just caused problems for them. You know he can rise up and knock down shots -- he made some tough ones -- but his defense is getting better game by game, and he's gonna be a big part of what we do."
Part of Porter's appeal is his versatility. He's largely played power forward so far in his career, but he closed the Golden State win as a 6-10 small forward alongside 7-footers Plumlee and Jokic. That's a gigantic frontcourt with skill, scoring, and rebounding to spare. Because Porter can fit into so many roles and play so many positions, Malone says his budding star no longer has to worry where and when the minutes will come -- he's earned every one of them.
"I think earlier in the season, he wasn't sure when he was gonna be playing -- is he gonna be playing? So now, that's out the window," Malone said. "Michael Porter is a huge part of our future. He's gonna play every night. He's our first sub in the game every night. So I think that has allowed him to calm down, take a deep breath and go out there and just play. Every night he goes out there, it seems like he just gets better and better."
Porter will continue to see more playing time as the Nuggets injuries mount -- Plumlee is now expected to miss at least two weeks with a foot injury with Millsap and Murray still "a ways off," according to Malone. Porter himself was forced to miss Wednesday's loss to the Rockets due to back tightness, certainly not what anyone wants to hear. However, the tightness was reportedly in Porter's upper back, not his lower back where he had surgery before entering the NBA, so he's expected to recover quickly.
This is all valuable experience for Porter, who, barring something unforeseen, will make his playoff debut this April for a Nuggets team hoping to make some noise in an open Western Conference. While many pined for Bradley Beal, and later Jrue Holiday, to come in and take the Nuggets over the top, perhaps Porter could be the secret weapon that makes Denver the true title contender they're so close to being.
"My confidence is high. My teammates help me, they give me the ball in the right spots and I know what I'm capable of on the offensive end," Porter said. "Defensively, I'm starting to learn when to be in the right spots, so that's good. After every game, you've just got to get ready for the next one."