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Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokić's burgeoning chemistry is raising the Nuggets' ceiling

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 19, 2020

Michael Porter Jr.’s NBA education is ramping up.

His latest lesson? Learning how to play with the Nuggets’ franchise cornerstone.

Porter and Nikola Jokić logged just 41 minutes together across the Nuggets’ first 30 games of the season, but since Denver’s 112-100 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 25, Porter has largely been a fixture in the Nuggets’ rotation. And with more consistent minutes — Porter is averaging 18.6 minutes per contest over the Nuggets’ last 17 games, up from the 8.5 per game he logged in his first 21 appearances this year — has come more playing time next to Denver’s All-NBA center.

On the season, Porter and Jokić have been on the floor together for 129 minutes, 88 of which have come since Christmas Day. The results are promising. The Nuggets have an elite 130.3 Offensive Rating when Denver’s franchise pillar and protege have shared the court together since Dec. 25.

Their chemistry is burgeoning too. A 6-foot-10 perimeter-oriented player like Porter is a perfect outside pairing for Jokić, and you couldn’t craft an offensive player in an NBA laboratory who’s skill-set would be a better match for the big man. Porter’s trending towards being a lights out three-point shooter (he’s shooting 40.7% from three-point range this season but 48.1% from distance since he became a full-time rotation player), is an expert off-ball mover and cutter already at the ripe age of 21.

He already goes from zero to 60 on his cuts like a seasoned veteran.

Jokic assisted on three of Porter’s six field goals for eight of his 18 points against the Warriors.

“I love playing with Nikola,” Porter said. “He kind of has a calming — just on the court when you’re with him it’s just calm. You know he’s going to make the right play. You don’t have to worry too much.”

Jokić has been in Porter’s ear all season. At training camp, Jokić gave Porter the intro course to the Nuggets’ read-and-react offense, preaching Denver’s offensive creed of ‘Whenever you’re standing, you’re wrong.’ Initially it was adjustment for Porter, someone whose always had the ball in his hands throughout his prep career. But after a few weeks, Porter adapted. He’s currently trying to master the art of playing off of Jokić while spotting up in the corner.

“We’ve made some big steps so far but we have a lot more chemistry to build,” Porter said.
A lot of times he’ll throw it in the corner, but I either drove or cut, and he tells me to stay in the corner, shoot the corner 3. “He’s telling me little things that he wants as that passer, where to space, so I’m going to pick up on that.”

It seems he already is.

Another lesson in Porter’s rookie curriculum that he’s aced?

The art of humility

Porter’s string of strong play has garnered heaps of warranted praise. He’s averaging 20.1 points per 36 minutes, has scored 10-plus points in six of his last 11 games, and he’s shooting 65.4% from the floor and 48.1% from 3 over that span. The Nuggets have outscored their opposition by a whopping 40 points in those 204 minutes too. He even closed the Nuggets’ thrilling comeback win over the Warriors where Porter chipped in 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting and sunk all three of his triples.

The performance, which capped Porter’s string of strong outings and also came on national television, got the full attention of TNT analyst Charles Barkley. After the Nuggets’ win, Barkley said Porter has the potential to be the second-best player on the Nuggets’ by the end of the season.

“That’s high praise,” Porter said about Barkley’s assertion. “But at the end of the day we’ve got a lot of good players on this team. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m second up. We’ve got Jamal, Will, Gary, I’m not even starting. I appreciate the praise but I’ve got a long way to go I think.”

It was another example of the impressive way in which Porter has humbly navigated through his first professional season that’s been full of firsts. His first dose of the NBA spotlight, which has coincided with his first time experiencing weak-side NBA defenses shading further and further his direction when he has the ball, something which Porter said he’s been noticing as of late. In Golden State, Porter got his first taste of what it was like to close a game which was hanging in the balance and battle back from a double-digit deficit.

“He’s starting to learn,” said Malik Beasley. “It’s tough. It ain’t easy just going out there playing full speed in the NBA and he didn’t even play college. People got to respect that and understand he’s going to have rookie mistakes and things like that. He’s still learning the game.”

Porter traveled with the Nuggets last season, but it requires a different mentality to venture on lengthy road trips when you know that that you’re going to be called upon for 20-plus minutes the next night. His defense is way behind his offense, but Porter’s hearing NBA terminology and going through defensive schemes and gameplans for the first time too.

There’s time for him to get up to speed on that end of the floor and with the 19-plus minutes he’s logged in three-straight games, the Nuggets appear that they’re more willing to live with his faults on that side of the ball more than ever as long as he continues to improve. They’d be wise to. When Porter has played 20 minutes or more this season he’s averaging 16.7 points and six rebounds per game.

As defenses have begun to pay more and more attention to him, Porter has shown off the many different facets of his offensive profile. After spending lots of time earlier in the season roaming the three-point line, Porter has looked to attack the basket more over the last two months. He’s finding success once he gets into the paint too and is shooting 89% at the rim, a mark which slots him in the 70th percentile among all wings, per Cleaning The Glass.

Porter packs elite touch around the rim and already has a number of crafty moves in his bag once he gets into the paint.

He’s showing off his passing prowess too, something you don’t immediately associate with Porter but have noticed more as defenses have begun to throw double teams his way with more regularity and close in on him at the rim.

“At this point I just try to take what the defense gives me,” Porter said. “If two come to me I make the easy pass.”

Porter tallied a carer-high five assists against the Warriors. Most rookies don’t make these types of passes.

“I think hes an underrated playmaker,” Michael Malone said.

The final facet of Porter’s game which he’s flashed all season but is still present at the mid-way point of his rookie year is his rebounding. Porter had a clutch fourth-quarter rebound and finish against the Warriors and his 7.6 Offensive Rebounds Percentage ranks third on the Nuggets behind Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap and first among all small forwards.

“He’s proving he’s a very, very effective rebounder,” said Malone. “His defensive discipline has really improved and gets better almost every game.”

Porter has also developed a promising second-unit chemistry with Mason Plumlee, who has spent 235 minutes on the floor with the rookie this season, the most of any of Porter’s teammates.

“I know Mase when he gets into the post a lot of times he’ll go into a move and he’ll  just jump into the air and wait for somebody to cut,” Porter said. “So I always know to cut as soon as he jumps.”

Porter has looked more and more comfortable on the floor as his minutes count continues to rise. Some of that comfort has to do with the fact that Porter has a better idea of around how many minutes he’ll be playing on a night-to-night basis than he did earlier in the season. He knows when he’s going to check in and about when he’ll get subbed out on most nights. Porter admitted that uncertainty around his minutes got to his head at the beginning of the regular season but he thinks his more defined role has contributed to his run of strong play.

More minutes with alongside Jokić helps too. Jokić makes everyone around him better, including Porter, but the fact that the duo has thrived together with only a few months of companionship under their belts feels significant.

Their fit and chemistry at the mid-way point of the season is clear, and Porter’s All-NBA ceiling combined with their ability to thrive alongside one another has been the single-most important revelation of the season. It not only impacts the Nuggets’ present but also their future championship hopes.

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