Woodside Priory School is a quaint, 375-student college prep institute nestled in Portola Valley, California, about equidistant between San Jose and San Francisco. There, two of the best shooters in the world worked out and shot hundreds and hundreds of shots alongside one another in secrecy for one week in August.
Michael Porter Jr. first met Steph Curry in 2015 when he received an invite to Curry’s exclusive SC30 Select Camp, which brought the best high school guards and wings from around the country together in one gym. Porter attended Curry’s camp twice — in 2015 and 2016 — and was named camp MVP both times. Porter also won the camp’s annual 1-on-1 tournament both years, beating out the likes of Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., and other highly-regarded prospects for the crown.
One other player that Porter got a bucket on during the camp’s 1-on-1 period in 2015: Curry himself. That mid-range fadeaway was just as unstoppable then as it is today.
Circa 2015: MPJ as a junior in high school vs. MVP Steph Curry pic.twitter.com/IE5LbP7YcQ
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) September 16, 2021
It was at those camps when Porter and Curry first forged their relationship. More than six years later, the two are allies, and Porter feels like Curry is someone that he can still go to for advice and guidance.
Learning from the master
Porter and Curry have kept in touch over the last several years after meeting in 2015. If Porter texts Curry for advice or to work out, which they’ve done before, the two-time MVP always responds.
“He’s someone I looked up to growing up,” Porter said last week in San Diego at Nuggets training camp. “Now, to be able to go and compete in workouts and play him at the NBA level, it’s pretty cool.”
The Bay Area minicamp served as a prelude to what Porter hopes is a breakout 2021-22 campaign in Denver. Entering his fourth NBA season — but only the third he’ll be playing in — all eyes are on the 6-foot-10 smooth-shooting forward. Jamal Murray will miss at least the first few months of the season, and who knows what type of impact he’ll be able to make when he eventually returns. But even with that massive question mark, the Nuggets still fashion themselves as championship contenders around reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Porter making another leap like he did last season seems like a near necessity if the Nuggets want to make the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Maybe Curry can help Porter and the Nuggets get there.
For one week, Porter and Curry shot, then shot, and then shot some more. The two went through daily high-intensity shooting workouts early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Every drill was a competition, Porter said. Under the watchful eye of Curry’s personal trainer and shooting coach Brandon Payne, Porter and Curry worked on their off-the-dribble and 1-on-1 moves too.
Porter absorbed a lot of Curry’s wisdom during the week the two spent working out together, but his biggest takeaway didn’t have to do with the three-time NBA Champion’s shooting or shot-making. Porter came away in awe of Curry’s conditioning.
“The thing that people don’t understand is his greatest attribute is how in shape he is,” said Porter. “Just like guys try and get physical with me, they do the same thing to Steph, but he just runs around, tires them out, and gets open shots. That was what impressed me.”
“All he cares about is being in shape so he can outlast players. That’s what I took as something I need to start incorporating. Don’t just wait for the ball to come to me. Constantly be in movement. It doesn’t matter how physical someone is. If you can outlast them, you can get open shots.”
If after reading that quote your mind didn’t immediately jolt back to the Nuggets’ first-round series against the Trail Blazers and the physicality Norman Powell tried to insert into his matchup with Porter over those six games, then you’re lying. It was clearly Powell’s game plan throughout the series. Get into Porter physically, bump him off his line when he’s moving off-ball, and try to rattle his psyche. It worked at times early on in the series, culminating with arguably Porter’s worst showing as a pro in Game 4 when he scored just three points on 1-3 shooting.
But Porter showed loads of resiliency and didn’t let that one game define his series. He bounced back and got the better of Powell and whatever defender the Blazers threw at him in Games 5 and 6.
The physicality Porter experienced throughout that series helped mold his offseason regiment. Porter and Curry had a second set of workouts scheduled together in Los Angeles, but Porter canceled so he could get back to Denver and settle in before training camp opened. When Porter arrived back in town a few weeks ago, Malone’s first impression was that he looked stronger.
“You can tell he really worked his butt off this summer,” Malone said last week.
It was by design. Porter didn’t miss a single game due to injury last season. While time will tell how the Nuggets ultimately load manage and rest their top rotation pieces this year, Porter hopes to be available and healthy for every regular-season game. He wants to be able to play through contact and physicality no matter where he’s working on the court too.
“I just want to be able to do things for 82 games and really be more versatile than I already am,” Porter said. “I think working from that mid-post is going to be important, especially down the stretch of games when it gets tough. I’m a good rebounder. Getting stronger will help me even get more rebounds. You want to evolve year to year. Ever since my first year, I’ve tried to make a pretty big jump every season. This is nothing new. I’m never going to be content with where I was previously.”
He worked on his defense too. Porter went back and reviewed his defensive film from last season and did agility training that focused on his 1-on-1 defensive technique. Porter’s also striving to increase his flexibility. He knows he has to take a leap on the defensive end of the floor this season. The Nuggets coaching staff knows. This fan base surely knows it.
His offense is so beyond its years. Porter just turned in the second-most efficient 19+ point per game season in NBA history last year at just 22-years-old. But defensively, he must make significant strides.
Malone applauded Porter during training camp for cleaning up some of the finer points of his game that coaches have been asking him to, like running his lane, getting to the corner on fast breaks so Denver can take more advantage of the 48.4% he shot on corner 3s last season, and taking away opponent corner 3s on defense. We’ll see what defensive improvements he actually made once the lights come on during the regular season.
“That’s what’s going to be the difference-maker for Michael Porter Jr. The talent is there. Anybody can see that,” Malone said. “But his attention to details and his discipline within those details.”
“He wants to be a great player, and one thing you know about Michael is that he’s always in a gym. He’s always working. He’s not a guy that you have to drag there. He is self-motivated, and that’s what you love about him.”
A burning desire to improve and a changed mindset
Malone’s spot on in his assessment of Porter’s work ethic and self-motivation. Porter’s commitment to his craft and desire to raise his game to the levels many thought he’d reach before two back surgeries is evident to his teammates and coaches.
It certainly factored into the equation when the Nuggets were negotiating Porter’s rookie extension this offseason. Porter had already shown so much on the court in only two seasons and through just 116 regular season and 29 playoff games. But his work in the practice gym has been revealing too. It gave Denver even more confidence that he was worthy of the maximum contract extension the Nuggets offered last week.
“With a contract like that, you have more responsibility,” Porter said. “You’re looked at more as a leader. I’ve got a lot of steps to take and a lot to prove this year.”
Porter’s comments in San Diego about his contract extension were pretty telling. He wants to be an inspiration to kids who go through adversity and be an example of someone who can still accomplish their goals in life when things don’t go their way or according to plan. Porter also sounds ready for the moment and the increased responsibility and expectations placed on his shoulders. He wants to be more vocal around his teammates during practices and keep guys in line.
He seems committed to Denver too. Jokic, Muray, and Porter texted and talked with each other after news of his extension leaked and all expressed excitement about being locked in as teammates for the foreseeable future.
“We know we’re going to be nice for years to come,” said Porter. “They didn’t pay us all this money to not win a championship…I’m going to be here for the long haul.”
It doesn’t seem like the money will change him either. While Porter admitted that he’ll splurge on a big purchase once the ink dries on his five-year deal, he’s always been careful with his money. He’s mostly just grateful that the Nuggets believe in him as they do. With upwards of $200 million potentially coming his way over the next five-plus seasons, Porter says he plans to use his new salary to take care of the people in his relatively tight circle who have sacrificed so much to help him get to this point.
“I know a lot of guys are either into cars, jewelry, fashion, one of those. Me, I just hoop,” Porter said. “I’m not huge into those things. I don’t see myself getting into those things. I think [the extension] will just give me and my family more comfort obviously.”
“I think I’m one of those dudes that, even growing up, I didn’t think of it like, ‘Dang, I’m going to be making millions of dollars if I go to the NBA.’ I thought of it as, ‘Dang, I’m going to get to play against LeBron and KD.’ It was never about the money for me.”
Another aspect of Porter’s makeup that seems to be evolving is his mindset. On JJ Redick’s The Old Man and the Three podcast last month, Porter said that his goals for himself have changed throughout his basketball career. Initially, Porter would set his sights on being better than this player or that player. Once he felt like he accomplished that, he’d move on to another one of his peers.
Because of the injuries he’s gone through, Porter’s mindset has changed. He’s simply just trying to be better than he was the day before. He’s learned that he can’t control everything in his life, and the back injuries he’s battled through are evidence of that. Porter says that now he’s still striving to be the best player in the world but is satisfied if he wakes up every day as the best version of himself.
It’s the exact mindset Porter will have to carry through this season if he and the Nuggets want to accomplish their goals.
“No one should ever say, ‘Oh, my career failed because I didn’t reach my goal of being the best ever,'” Porter said. “It should be, ‘No, you might have setbacks, but did you get up and try to be better than you were the day before?’ That’s how I view success now. Every year, am I in the same place as last year? Then that means I failed growing this year. That’s how I look at it. I’m competing with myself.”