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Denver's offseason of intrigue centers around the Summer League debut of Michael Porter Jr. whose game packs a "swag" and "sauce" that has the Nuggets buzzing

Harrison Wind Avatar
May 13, 2019

Paul Millsap said the Nuggets’ talented rookie has a lot of “sauce” in his game. Monte Morris called the swingman “special.” Nikola Jokic went as far as to say that Michael Porter Jr. “has a gift.”

It won’t be easy for the Nuggets to move on from their 2018-19 season, which ended in disappointment Sunday at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers, but the highly-touted rookie’s impending debut gives Denver something to look forward to over the coming months. At the team’s exit interviews Monday morning less than 24 hours after their 100-96 Conference Semifinal loss in Game 7, Porter, dressed in a black, red and white Puma tracksuit, said that he’s medically cleared after sitting out the entire season and will suit up for Denver this July in Las Vegas.

“I’m expected to play in Summer League,” Porter said. “I can’t wait for that.”

The Nuggets selected the one-and-done wing 14th overall out of Missouri last summer after a back injury sent his draft stock tumbling downward. Teams sold quickly on Porter, who was at one time the No. 1 rated high school player in his draft class and averaged 36.2 points and 13.6 rebounds for Nathan Hale High School, which won Washington’s 3A State Championship during his senior season.

Porter signed with the University of Missouri but only appeared in three games for the Tigers. He first had surgery in November, a microdiscectomy to treat herniated disks in his back and a second surgery in July that Denver knew could be a possibility when the Nuggets made him their first-round selection.

Since then, Porter has been the Nuggets’ man of mystery. He wasn’t made available to speak with the media this season, and the glimpses you got of Porter on the court were at the tail end of practices where he would show off an enthralling jump shot and play in 3-on-3 games against the end of Denver’s bench and player development coaches. On social media, Porter would occasionally post videos of SportsCenter-worthy windmill dunks from his phone, teasing the rest of the world of what’s potentially looming around the corner.

With Summer League less than two months away, that time is almost here.

“He’s a great player,” said Jarred Vanderbilt, who’s played with and against Porter in many of those 3-on-3 games and will also play alongside Denver’s rookie in the Las Vegas showcase. “He can do a lot of things on the basketball court. He’s a shotmaker, and he’s a winner.”

Porter’s rehab has focused on adding strength to his 210-pound frame and improving his balance in the wake of two back surgeries. The swingman says he’s played in some 5-on-5 games and when his teammates have caught glimpses of his abilities, they’ve come away impressed with not only his skill-set but his approach to the game.

“He’s special for sure,” Monte Morris said. “He can handle it. He can shoot it. He’s 6-11. He can dunk the ball crazy. He’s a freak athlete for sure. The best thing about Mike is he feels like he’s the best player on the court at all times no matter who’s out there. He carries that swagger about himself, and I feel like that will make it easy for him to adjust once he steps into the rotation just because with that swagger, you’re going to go out there and play confident no matter who you’re playing.”

The other aspect of Porter’s game that has the Nuggets’ buzzing? How much Porter talks — and trash talks. They’re excited to see if he can back it up in Las Vegas.

“Mike’s been talking all year, so I’ll definitely be at the Summer Leauge,” Paul Millsap said. “He’s very confident in his game. He should be. I like his mentality and his attitude and his approach to the game of basketball, so I’m excited to see what he’s got.”

“I am (excited to see him play) because he’s talking a lot,” Nikola Jokic said. “But to be honest, he’s good. He’s really talented. He’s really athletic. He’s a really big body. You can see just the way he’s working out and how he’s playing with guys, you can see that he has a gift.”

It’s too early to say for sure what type of role Porter will have with the Nuggets next season. Denver could use help on the wing and at the small and power forward positions where Porter would naturally play, but the Nuggets don’t have a gaping hole in their rotation, and with eight of their top nine players under contract for next year, it’s up in the air where minutes are available. Paul Millsap has a $30 million team option for the 2019-20 season that Denver has to decide on by June 29. The Nuggets’ starting power forward said Monday that he hasn’t had any preliminary discussions with the team about next year. However, many around the team have speculated throughout the season that Millsap will be back with Denver next season one way or another.

A rangy wing defender that can defend multiple positions will be on Denver’s wish list come July, and if the Nuggets strike out on top tier free agents like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Khris Middleton, they will likely look to re-sign Millsap. But behind Millsap the Nuggets are thin with Trey Lyles slated to hit free agency, which could open the door for Porter or Vanderbilt to contribute as soon as next season.

“He’s a confident player. He’s got a lot of swag and a lot sauce to himself for a young guy,” Millsap said of Porter. “That’s good to have that confidence in yourself, so I can’t wait to see him.”

Porter described his rehab as “taxing” but enjoyed getting an up close and personal look at the Nuggets’ playoff run and the opportunity to watch Jokic develop into a superstar. He says he could have returned this season but thought it was wise to wait until Summer League. There are also rumblings that Porter’s debut in July could come against Zion Williamson and whichever team wins Tuesday’s draft lottery and selects the presumptive No. 1 pick.

“I had tough days,” Porter said. “But it was just every day, you have to have positive energy. Go in there, work your hardest. It’s hard day to day. Looking back month to month, it’s so crazy how far I’ve come.”

Throughout the season he’s also taken steps to ensure his long-term health. Porter grew up vegetarian and in October told BSN Denver that he drinks three smoothies a day beginning with an energy smoothie every morning stocked with bananas, mango, spinach, avocados and turmeric.

In the Nuggets’ locker room it’s not out of the ordinary to see Porter double-fisting smoothies on his way from Denver’s player’s lounge to his locker.

“The way I feel now, it’s leaps and bounds beyond where I thought I’d be at this point,” Porter said. “I feel so good. Worked so hard every day with these guys. I feel like I’m a better player than I’ve ever been.”

The mix of veterans and teammates who are just a year or two into their careers has also helped Porter adapt to NBA life. His locker is positioned just a few down from Millsap’s, and the sage advice that the 34-year-old has offered to the Nuggets throughout the season has undoubtedly seeped into Porter’s young basketball brain.

On rides to and from the airport, Torrey Craig has also stressed to Porter to take advantage of every opportunity he’s given, just as Denver’s defensive ace did when he burst onto the scene at Summer League two years ago and soon after emerged a crucial piece to Michael Malone’s rotation.

“He’s an elite scorer,” Craig said. “He’s a big body. Big and physical. He’s a great shooter, so I think he can be an elite scorer in this league he just has to keep his mind on the right things. But I think he’s going to be a really good player for us.”

But the time for talk is all but over. The Nuggets want to see what the kid can do.

“Everybody knows he’s talented. If you watched him play in high school at all, if you’ve watched him work out in the gym, just in his individual work he’s very talented,” Mason Plumlee said. I’m excited for Summer League. I can’t wait to watch him play live.”


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