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The last time Michael Porter Jr. was a part of a starting lineup was November 10, 2017.
The setting was Mizzou Arena. The opponent was Iowa State. Porter played just two minutes in Missouri’s season opener before leaving the game with a hip injury that sidelined him for the next four months.
Seven hundred and eighty days, a redshirt season in Denver, and two back surgeries later, Porter was a part of a starting lineup again. With Gary Harris’ status up in the air in the lead-up to Sunday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings, Porter didn’t know for certain that he’d be taking the short stroll out to the center circle for the game’s opening tip until right before 7 p.m.
“I found out right before the game,” Porter said. “Gary was a game-time decision so coach told me right before the game.”
“I was just happy to be able to start.”
The long two-plus years in between starts was worth the wait. Porter dazzled in his first NBA start, scoring a career-high 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting to go with six rebounds (three offensive), and one assist. He sunk his first five shots from the field and played in every quarter.
“(He’s) who I thought he’d be,” said Will Barton who finished with 19 points, three rebounds, and five assists. “He’s so talented. Like I told him before the game, ‘Just go out there and relax and just play with energy.’ He’s so good everything else will fall into place. ‘You’re going to get shots. You’re going to hit them. You’re prepared for those. Just don’t even think about it.'”
Porter got to his spots within the Nuggets’ half-court attack and Denver looked to set Porter up early for easy scores. On their first possession of the game the Nuggets ran their ‘C Corner’ action — one of their go-to sets — for Porter and it resulted in two free-throws for the rookie, his first two points of the night. A couple of possessions later the Nuggets ran that same action. This time Porter got a layup out of it.
“I just wanted to blend with that starting group and do what I could to on the court to make their job easier and be a positive part of the team,” Porter said.
“I felt less nervous starting because I could go straight from the warmup into the game instead of sitting down, having to watch the game, then going in there. It felt pretty natural and it felt pretty good.”
The Nuggets liked what they saw. Michael Malone called Porter’s first start “phenomenal” and said following Denver’s 120-115 win that the decision to start Porter in place of Harris was an obvious one. Malone thought Porter made sense in the starting lineup across from Kings small forward Harrison Barnes.
He also wanted to take a glimpse into the Nuggets’ potential future.
“What are we waiting for? Michael Porter is a huge part of our future and tonight was a great opportunity to look into that future and get a sneak peak of what’s ahead,” Malone said. “And I’m really happy for him.”
Porter can’t wear the crown after just one start or even after his first 23 games in a Nuggets’ uniform. He has a long way to go, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Porter still makes rookie mistakes on defense and his miscues on that side of the ball reek of a player that has spent the last year away from live action.
But his offense comes natural. Porter knows how to use his size — he stands a legit 6-foot-10 — to his advantage, and is a terror on the offensive glass. Porter is averaging 4.4 offensive rebounds per 100 possession, the second-most among all small forwards. The high-arching shot, which he’s teased at times this season, seems to be coming around too. Porter is 6 of his last 11 from three-point range after sinking 1 of 3 long-range attempts versus the Kings. He’s now shooting 37.1% from three-point range this season.
“I didn’t expect to see those numbers per say,” Malone said about Porter’s 19-point, six-rebounds stat line. “But I knew if Michael was given those minutes and given a chance to play, he’s just too talented and the game comes too easy to him especially offensively. I’ve seen a lot of growth from him recently on the defensive end of the floor. We’ve been struggling rebounding the basketball, but he is so tall and so long that he helps a lot on the glass.
“I appreciate how patient he’s been. I know it’s not been easy, but he got his chance to start tonight. I was excited about that opportunity for him and he went out and played great. So that’s just a glimpse of what’s to come.”
The Nuggets haven’t given Porter too much too soon just as they’ve done in the past with their other first-round draft picks and Malone has brought Porter along slowly and carefully. He hasn’t deviated from the blueprint that Denver put in place for its other rookies before. The Nuggets made No. 7 overall pick Jamal Murray earn his starting spot, just as Denver required fellow first-rounders Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez to carve out their own rotation minutes.
It’s going to pay off in the long run for Porter. He’s in an incredibly unique position in Denver, one where the Nuggets returned every key rotation piece from last season’s 54-win team and added Jerami Grant. The Nuggets making the 21-year-old earn his minutes will not only sit well with a locker room stocked full of talented, rotation-caliber players, but it will also aid Porter throughout the rest of his career.
“I hope one day when Michael is old and gray, which is a long time from now, he will look back and say, ‘You know what? I’m glad it wasn’t easy.’ Sometimes I think early success can retard development. … I love the fact that Michael, who’s been the best player in his class for so many years — humble pie — he hasn’t taken it personally. He hasn’t pouted. He hasn’t felt sorry for himself. He’s grown up. He’s being a man and that’s why he can go out and take advantage of a situation, and that’s why I’m so proud of him.”
Malone’s message is the same one that Porter’s parents, Michael Sr. and Lisa, have stressed to their son. That in the long run the trials and tribulations that Porter went through, the back surgeries, the grueling rehab, watching from the sidelines all of last season, and now having to earn his minutes on a loaded roster, will be something he’s thankful to have gone through in the long run. He’ll be a stronger person because of it, they always told him.
Just like his coach, Porter’s teammates want him to succeed. They see the talent, skill, and recognize that Porter elevates the Nuggets’ ceiling to another level. Torrey Craig, who Porter’s currently playing ahead of on the wing, was more often than not the first player to greet the rookie near half-court during timeouts. He was seen coaching Porter on his way back to the bench based on what he had observed over the last few minutes watching from Denver’s sideline. In the Nuggets’ locker room postgame, Craig gave Porter a Gatorade shower commemorating his first start.
“He showed that he can play,” said Nikola Jokic who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, and four assists and helped the Nuggets stave off a late fourth-quarter Kings’ rally to improve to 23-9 on the season.
Porter won’t stick in the Nuggets’ starting lineup, at least not yet. Once Harris returns from injury the Nuggets’ mainstay at the position will slide back in at Denver’s starting shooting guard while Barton re-takes the reigns at small forward. But Porter’s career night gave legs to the notion that perhaps sooner rather than later the natural scoring wing will become a mainstay for the Nuggets on the wing.
His confidence, like his minutes, is continuing to grow.
“I just looked for my opportunities,” Porter said. “I wasn’t trying to force anything. I was just trying to take what the defense was giving me because I can’t shy away from shooting either because that’s what I do. I was just trying to make sure my shots were in the flow of the game, give my teammates the ball if I could and just play my part.”